Orthodox Judaism is Kantian Whereas Progressive Judaism is Relative, Discuss

Authors Avatar

“Orthodox Judaism is Kantian Whereas Progressive Judaism is Relative.” Discuss

     This statement is a vast simplification. Kantian ethics, cannot be considered as a category of ethics, - it is an ethical theory in its own right. Orthodox Judaism includes an ethical theory that overlaps with Kant’s theory but which is by no means identical. Progressive Judaism on the other hand is practically speaking relativist but base their relative code of behaviour on certain principles, which “affirms the central tenets of Judaism.

     The theory of Immanuel Kant is deontological in nature. An action is good because it conforms to certain independently valid principles. These principles are not valid because they promote a good situation but rather because they are intrinsically good. So far, the Orthodox Jewish ethical approach lives up to the status of a deontological approach. A good action is one that fulfills G-ds will, as defined in a guide of principles and laws, the Torah, independent of the human reality.

     Unlike Orthodox Judaism, Kant did not have divinely revealed principles. Kant had to find principles that were intrinsically good. He did this through the mode of rationality. Reason is universal, and so morality can be logically deduced. Orthodox Judaism places a tremendous emphasis on logic. However natural human logic is not a sophisticated enough tool for discerning moral reality. Maimonides responded to a man who queried why Adam and Eve were rewarded with knowledge after the eating from the tree of knowledge: “there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong.” To clarify: before they ate from the tree they had possessed an intellect “created in the image of G-d,” similar to G-d being able to perceive truth and falsity. After the sin, morality became subjective. Torah is divine logic so to speak, and so for Orthodox Jews the absolute truth. So whilst Orthodox Judaism sees the Torah as the ultimate moral agent, whereas Kant sees reason as the ultimate moral reason, it could be argued that it is by virtue of the Torahs status as the will and reason of G-d, which makes it the ultimate moral agent for Orthodox Jews.

      Kant writes "It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will." For Kant, being a good man entailed having a good will. This excludes the possibility that goodness can be derived from the results of an action. For the good of an action to be of unconditional value, in cannot be valued based on how instrumental it is in establishing a situation. Having the right intention makes an action good for Kant, and the only right intention is acting out of a sense of duty. Kant says a grocer who doesn’t overcharge customers but rather is honest with them may well not be acting morally as it is in his self interest to keep customers retuning. Like Kant, Orthodox Judaism considers the selfless intention of an action of utmost importance. Rabbi Shmuely Boteach writes concerning the giving of tzedakah: “In Judaism one gives from the pocket. What’s important is that one gives, not that one feels for the poor person standing in front of him.” Orthodox Jews believe they have a duty to serve G-d and any other motivation is an ulterior motive, which detracts from the quality of the performance. A Chasidic gentleman once complained to the 3rd Rebbe of Lubavitch the Tzemach Tzedek, that he has no natural motivation to learn Torah, it doesn’t interest him. The Tzemach Tzedek replied that he was jealous. As a tzadik the Rebbe naturally wants to do what is right, what G-d wants he wants; the Rebbe would never have such an opportunity to act out of such pure duty and obedience as this man who would have to transcend his nature so as to learn Torah.

Join now!


Rabbi Desler in “strive for truth” explains that commandments fulfilled out of duty for G-ds sake enable the reception of the reward in the world to come described by the Gemmorah as “the righteous sitting…and enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence.” However someone who served G-d in a humanistic way, with an ulterior motive must receive their reward in a similar vein.

     Similarly the Alter Rebbe in chapter 39 of Tanya explains how “…when one engages [in divine service] explicitly not lishmah (for its own sake) but for an ulterior motive of self-glorification, ...

This is a preview of the whole essay