Over at the HuffPo religion section, the rabbis continue to embarrass me. The latest embarrassment was penned by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In his column, “For moral guidance, look to religion—not neuroscience,” he “reminds us why religion is the best and indispensable guide to moral behavior.”‘
Yoffie takes out after neuroscientists like Sam Harris who claim that moral “truths” can be found through science, but especially excoriates Patricia Churchland, a neuroscientist from San Diego who, he claims, is a complete moral relativist. I haven’t read Churchland’s writings on morality, but clearly Sam Harris and Jon Haidt are not relativists. Sam, in fact, is always attacking moral relativists.
So if we don’t get our morality from science (and, I would add, from evolution), where does the good Rabbi get his? One guess.
As a rabbi, I welcome research into neuroscience but believe that as much as we are the products of biology, we also transcend it. I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history of men and women struggling with God’s message and with each other as they attempt to define what is moral and what is not. I also draw strength and inspiration from a religious community that cares about values and deepens its search for the good through the practice of ancient rituals and traditions.
I don’t believe in easy answers to moral questions. As a liberal person of faith, I reject simplistic moral codes, and I am aware that different religious traditions arrive at different conclusions about good and evil. Nonetheless, the process of moral decision-making that my tradition offers has left me convinced that, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, there is a moral structure to the universe, and despite our differences, the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are. And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.
Now Rabbi Yoffie is a Jew, so he doesn’t accept the New Testament. So what kind of morality can he get from the Old Testament? Well, here are a few of the things that Yahweh approves or sanctions in that book:
- genocide, including women and children
- the killing of adulterers
- the killing of homosexuals
- the stoning to death of nonvirgin bride
That stuff was okay by God. Is it not okay by Rabbi Yoffie? If not, why not? Was it okay back then, but not now? Or if it was never okay, then why doesn’t the Rabbi approve of this stuff? Could it be that Yoffie picks and chooses his Biblical morality based on secular considerations? Maybe he should read Plato’s Euthyphro.