55 Questions on Judaism
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
The following is a student’s questions posed to Mesora. We felt it valuable to post our response so you may read them as well.
1. What does it mean to be a good person?
Being good does not mean following one’s feelings or ac ting to please others. It means following God’s code of morality as displayed by the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets, and as outlined in Torah laws. Morality is not subjectively determined by our whims, but God alone—based on His role as the Creator of life and justice, in His great wisdom—determined what is good. The prophet says, “God has told you, O man, what is good…” (Micah 6:8). Rashi adds, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has told you what is good for you to do.” This means that God alone defines goodness.
2. Why be good?
Being good refers primarily to how we deal with others. And God wants man to be good—to live harmoniously with all others—in order to serve as the backdrop for all people to follow a Torah lifestyle. Morality is both the prerequisite for a proper society, and it is the barometer of one’s perfection. Corrupt societies inhibit Torah from flourishing.
Being good also refers to how we treat ourselves. We should want to benefit ourselves by following what is best: what is good.
3. Is it possible to be a good person and not be a member of your religion?
One cannot be “good” without following God’s Torah (Bible), or Noahide laws if one is a Gentile. Otherwise, using one’s own mind and feelings, one rarely arrives at what is the true good. Only very rare personalities like Abraham could arrive at God’s system. Torah was unnecessary for mankind’s first 2448 years since Adam, as wise men like Adam and Abraham could teach others. But as time progressed from Adam onward, man regressed into idolatry, superstition and moral decay, so Torah became necessary.
4. Is it possible to be a good person and no longer believe in Judaism, i.e., can an apostate be a good person?
If one opposes Torah fundamentals, it is not possible to be good. One must follow God’s objective “good” defined by the Torah. This demands knowledge of God, rejection of idolatry, and knowledge of God’s morality which He requires man to follow. Judaism teaches that ignorance is evil (Rabbi Israel Chait). One who is ignorant of Torah fundamentals must live an evil life. But don’t be fooled by “evil”: this does not refer to murderers, rapists or thieves alone. Evil also refers to harming oneself or others by limiting one from perfecting their morals and ideas through Torah study and practice. To live with the wrong ideas is the worst evil, as one forfeits the happiest life here and one may also forfeit his afterlife.
5. Is there a difference between religious requirements and morality?
Both originate in Torah. Religious requirements refer to all laws. Morality refers to a subset dealing with human relationships.
6. What is the source of ethics?
God can be the only source of ethics. As He alone created human life, He alone determines how that life should operate, and how members of the species must act towards each other. Thus, man cannot answer if abortion is permitted. Man did not create life and principles guiding the decisions of aborting life or saving it. Only God determines these truths.
7. Can someone be a good person and be an atheist?
This is an impossibility as “good” refers to partaking of God's will.
8. How do you decide what is right and what is wrong?
“Good” is defined as God’s biblically stated morality. Without an authoritative system, there is no way to define what is good.
9. Why do bad things happen to good people?
This is a complicated subject and requires much study and thought, but see our articles by searching “Why the Good Suffer” at Mesora.org/search.html
But in principle, without citing individual cases, one who follows God must have a better life than one who does not follow Him. This is because God designed happiness to be attained by following His will. Just as God designed air, water and food to perfectly satisfy man’s bodily needs, wisdom was designed to satisfy man’s psychological and mental needs at the highest level. But even a wise person makes errors, and this is when bad things happen. But without error, God will intervene and protect a righteous person from others seeking to harm him, from disease and other problems, as King David discusses in Psalms. Additionally, a person cannot assess another person as “good” or righteous. Ego is powerful; we see only what others wish us to see. Many people operate to gain approval, and not because they are truly righteous. This mitigates the strength of your question.
10. Is there a difference between a religious offense and a moral/secular offense?
Both violate God’s Torah, but punishments differ. They also have their source in different parts of man’s psyche: religious offenders usually seek security improperly (idol worshipping to secure rain, health, etc.), while moral offenders seek to satisfy desires (viz., sexual impropriety, robbery, evil speech). Religious offenses—those opposing God in some measure—tread on the loss of the afterlife, as errors regarding God are more severe than errors regarding property, for example. While moral offenses are met with monetary or physical punishments. But severe moral sins can forfeit the afterlife as well.
11. Who enforces the moral rules of your religion?
If one cannot enforce them upon himself, then it is enforced by the courts and the police.
12. Should the moral rules of your religion apply to everyone?
All mankind are equal, so all mankind would equally benefit from following Torah, the only religion offering proof of divine origin. However, unless one converts to Judaism, one is bound to follow only the moral code of the 7 Noahide laws.
13. What role should religion play in secular society?
Judaism does not recognize “secular society”—there is only “society.” Society was taken into consideration when God designed the Torah. Torah guides all aspects of mankind, be he alone or among others, at work or in temple.
14. Is killing ever justified?
Yes: for human benefit (executed humanely for food, clothing, etc.), self-defense and destruction of evil.
15. Is war ever justified?
Yes, for defense and destruction of evil. God authorized many wars for the sake of preserving mankind.
16. Is violence against innocent people justifiable?
17. Can someone be a conscientious objector?
No. War is guided by Torah, as are all areas of life. One must follow Torah’s rules and he cannot avoid them, including battle.
18. Is force justifiable against children?
For a child’s safety and proper upbringing, force is necessary at times. But it need not be physical or painful. Verbal force such as rebuke without anger is appropriate and can be used according to the level of a child’s understanding and with the child’s best interest in mind. This is not so easy and a parent must be aware of his/her own motives of rebuke. If physical force is warranted, then it should be employed. King Solomon taught, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early” (Proverbs 13:24). Refraining from punitive measures will spoil children. It is for this very reason that in one passage, Adonyahu—King David’s son—was described to have rebelled and taken over the kingdom, he was also described as handsome, and that David never rebuked him. I believe the joining of all 3 topics teach that due to his beauty, David pitied his son and never rebuked him, and this resulted in a child who knew nothing of disappointment. Adonyahu therefore rebelled without fear of punishment.
19. Is force justifiable against a spouse?
Physical force used against a spouse or another is not justifiable. Moses called a man “wicked” for even the mere lifting his hand against his fellow (Exod. 2:13). However, verbal force such as rebuke, if done with the spouse’s best interest in mind, is justifiable. Again, a spouse must be aware of his/her own motives regarding rebuke.
20. Is suicide ever justifiable?
No. Only the Giver of life may take it away.
21. To what extent is martyrdom acceptable?
One is required to die rather than worship idols, commit murder or engage in inappropriate sexual behavior, regardless of the motives of the person forcing him to choose. The only time the intent of the coercer factors in is when the Jew is commanded to violate one of the other 610 commands for the sake of opposing God/Torah. In such a case, ten Jews must also be present for self-sacrifice to be required.
22. Is it right to kill an innocent person in order to save the life of another?
A fetus may be killed to spare the mother. But once its head exits the mother, you cannot kill it. It is a full human. If coerced to kill a person or suffer death, one must suffer death and not kill to save oneself. Maimonides writes, “If idolaters will say to a group of men, ‘Give us one of you and we will kill him, if not we will kill you all,’ let all of them be killed rather than surrender to them one soul in Israel. If, however, they single out the one, saying, ‘Give us that man, if not we will kill you all,’ if he be guilty of a capital crime, as, for example, Sheba son of Bichri, they may surrender him to them, but it is not commendable to advise them to do so. If he be not guilty of a capital crime, they all must submit rather than surrender them one soul in Israel” (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 5:5).
23. Is capital punishment acceptable; if so, for what offenses?
Many offenses require capital punishment as a means of deterring others and ridding society of evil influences. God annihilated evil people on a number of occasions, including the Flood, Egypt’s army, and others. God also commands us to kill certain sinners.
Science and Medicine
24. Under what circumstances, if any, is abortion allowable?
Abortion may be performed for the mother’s safety, but only prior to the infant’s head existing, at which point, one can no longer abort. As now the infant is an independent life on par with the mother and all other people.
25. Are autopsies allowable; if so, under what circumstances?
They are not. We demonstrate thereby that even our bodies are God’s, and not ours to mutilate. But an autopsy can be permitted if it can save others.
26. Are there rules about body modification e.g. tattoos, cosmetic surgery or amputations?
Health needs allow all operations. Tattoos are prohibited as they seek to increase the worth of our temporary bodies. Cosmetic surgery may be allowed if it eases a distraught state of mind.
27. Are transfusions allowed?
28. Should extraordinary means be used to prolong life?
Yes, in general.
29. Should family and/or patients have the right to end suffering?
One may pray to God to end one’s misery as the Rabbis had done on one such occasion. Euthanasia is prohibited, but Rav Feinstein makes it clear that resuscitation may be forbidden for certain patients, and halacha demands that no aggressive, invasive contact be made with such patients.
30. Does anyone have the right to hasten death?
Only the courts may execute punitive measures outlined by God’s Torah. Individuals in defense of one’s life may kill another if that is what is needed. We try all measures to prolong lives of the ill.
31. In the case of conjoined twins when both will die if nothing is done to separate them but only one will live (and the other die) if the operation takes place, is the killing of one acceptable in order to save the life of the other?
Baby A and Baby B were joined from the shoulder to the pelvic area, sharing one liver and one six-chambered heart. The wall between the four essentially normal chambers belonging to Baby B and the stunted two-chamber heart belonging to Baby A was too thin to be divided; the twins, therefore, could not each be given a heart. Even if it were possible, a two-chambered heart could not have supported Baby A for long.
In addition, Baby A had a circulatory defect that would eventually kill her. The doctors could only help Baby B, by giving her the entire six-chambered heart. This procedure would end the life of Baby A.
On October 6, 1977, Rav Moshe Feinstein asked his son-in-law Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler to call the surgeon in charge of the case, Dr. C. Everett Koop, and instruct him to proceed with the surgery — in other words, to end the life of Baby A in a procedure that might save the life of Baby B. Read more here: http://bit.ly/Cojoined
32. Is genetic engineering permissible?
This must be researched fully. But Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of medical ethics, talmudic law and biology at Yeshiva University in New York, sees other potential good use for human cloning. In theory, the Orthodox scholar might permit cloned children when a husband cannot produce sperm. But he believes that the danger of abusing the science is too great to allow its use. See more: http://bit.ly/torahcloning
33. Is the theory of evolution compatible with your religion?
Man was created with a soul: eternal life. There is nothing eternal in animal. Therefore, evolution—a biological phenomenon—of the human soul from animal (a soulless creature) is not possible according to Judaism (Hirsch), as a soul cannot “evolve” from flesh. The oldest known evidence for anatomically modern humans (as of 2017) are fossils found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, dated about 300,000 years old. Science recently discovered a sudden leap in human development about the same time of Adam’s arrival 5700 years ago. Judaism is never in conflict with science, as God created both Torah and nature. Both areas reflect His singular wisdom and plan. Man’s “physical” nature could have evolved from animal and then God could have implanted a soul in the new evolution of man 5700 years ago. This does not conflict with Torah.
34. Are environmental concerns part of your religious ethic?
Yes. We are not allowed to kill for sport, or destroy produce trees with no cause (Deut. 20:19).
35. Do animals have any moral standing?
Killing for pleasure (hunting) and paining animals are not allowed. But animals do not have rights, so we can slaughter them for food or their skins.
36. Does your religion predict an end of time? If so, when will that be and what will the world be like for humans?
We do not predict an end to time.
37. Is sex outside marriage permissible?
38. Is sex only for procreation?
No. After menopause sex is still obligated (to satisfy oneself and one’s partner) as is so when the woman is pregnant. Thus, sex for a healthy physical lifestyle is recommended.
39. Is masturbation allowed?
Not for men. Spilling seed is prohibited.
40. Is genital sex the only morally permissible type?
No, anal sex may be performed, but not as a regular practice.
41. Are there moral codes regarding dress and hairstyles?
Yes, we do not copy idolaters’ styles. Many of our laws exist to distance us from idolatrous peoples and practices, with the goal of preserving monotheism. We also follow modesty in all areas.
42. Is transvestism immoral?
Yes. If we understand the basic idea that, “Male and female He created them,” transvestism is inappropriate. It distorts the boundaries of the genders and also leads to sexual promiscuity. Torah prohibits this.
43. Is homosexuality immoral?
Homosexuality distorts the purpose of sex, it caters to lust alone, and avoids procreation. In addition, the spilling of seed is prohibited, which is defined as seminal emission not during sex with a woman.
44. Should all people have equal rights under the law even if they engage in immoral behavior?
Yes. One violation is limited to its own sphere, and such violation does not affect how others must treat their fellow. But some violations require death, so equal rights would not exist in such a case.
45. Should gay marriages be recognized by the state?
No. The Jewish state should not recognize same sex marriage as it is prohibited, and contrary to the ideal that the union of man and woman is how marriage is defined. The Jewish state should defend all that is Jewish. Israel was given primarily for Torah observance.
46. Is it immoral to have more than one spouse at time?
Patriarch’s who took on additional wives did so at their wives’ request; it was not their choice. In the pre-Torah marriage framework there was no violation. Today’s law is monogamy. But a woman never had more than one husband. This prohibition ensures no confusion of patrilineal tribal lineage.
47. Is divorce acceptable?
Yes, and needed many times.
48. Are the roles played by men and women a moral issue?
Yes, and also philosophical, by God’s design of our 2 distinct natures.
49. Are men and women separate but equal?
50. Is the use of drugs and/or alcohol allowable?
Drugs and alcohol may not be prohibited in many cases but they do incapacitate one’s thinking. Alcohol is not only permitted in acceptable quantities, but is even required for gladness on the holidays. But drunkenness is prohibited since the use of mind in Torah is paramount.
51. Should prayers be allowed in public schools?
Recognition of reality should be in all schools, and this must start with knowledge of the Creator. Otherwise, all knowledge loses its purpose which must culminate with the appreciation of the Creator. I would suggest prayers be part of all education, but this is not a religious issue.
52. Should the state subsidize religious schools or programs?
Not a Judaic issue.
53. Is the food a person eats a religious and/or moral concern?
Laws of Kosher exist to temper one’s drive; the same applies to sexual laws. Such tempering restrains our emotions, allowing our minds to be free for Torah study. Kosher also bars man from identifying with disgusting creatures through eating them. Maintaining a level of disgust in the area of food, man also benefits from not indulging in other disgusting acts. Restraint in one area has far-reaching effects.
54. Is gambling allowed?
Yes. No philosophical or moral violations exist. However, we learn that a regular gambler cannot act as a witness. Perhaps this lifestyle demonstrates an inflated ego and greater entitlement over others. One gambles as one believes he will win. This subjectivity is contrary to the requirements of testimony: to be an objective witness.
55. Is smoking allowed?
Yes. A single cigarette does no measurable bodily damage, and therefore each act of smoking a single cigarette cannot be prohibited.