Sunday 17 July 2022

391) Does morality come from religion or does religion adopt morality?


This is the position taken by advocates of the Strong Dependence Theory. This article argues that Judaism adopts the Weak Dependence Theory.


This article, drawn extensively on the research by Professors Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman,[1]  explores the nature and provenance of Jewish morality and ethics. I found this particularly interesting because, like most rabbis, I had always thought (and taught) that morality springs from G-d. This seemed obvious. However, Sagi and Statman show that foundational rabbinic sources point to an autonomous and independent existence of morality very much defined by humans, which is then adopted by G-d as the model for Judaism.

Note: The notion that morality originates with G-d, is referred to as the Strong Dependence Theory, as morality depends strongly on G-d; and the idea that morality is autonomous and defined in human terms thereby relying less on G-d is referred to as the Weak Dependence Theory.

Strong Dependence Theory

Sagi and Statman point to the surprising anomaly that while Christianity (Idziak 1979, 1989)[2] and Islam (Frank 1983)[3] both subscribe to the “religious appeal” of the Strong Dependence Theory, where morality is said to originate solely with G-d, the same may not be said of Judaism which, based on Jewish texts, has:

“hardly any echoes of support for this thesis” (Sagi and Statman 1995:39).

The observation that Judaism does not subscribe to the Strong Dependence Theory is surprising because the religious argument used commonly across the board by all religions seems often to be that “without G-d, everything is allowed,” and that intrinsically, morality is contingent upon a divine source.

Weak Dependence Theory

The second category is the Weak Dependence Theory, where - as opposed to the Strong Dependence Theory where morality originates solely with G-d - morality is defined by humans but they depend on religion to implement it and give it authority. In other words, even if G-d is not the source of the morality, the human needs G-d and religion to implement it (Sagi and Statman 1995, chaps. 4-5). On this view, mortals, because of their imperfection, cannot behave morally unless assisted by G-d through religion.

“In other words, theories of strong dependence claim that no act can be listed as a moral obligation unless it is commanded by G-d. In weak dependence theories, an act can be considered a moral obligation even if not ordained by G-d - although, without religion, actualizing it may not be possible” (Sagi and Statman 1995:41).

Strong Dependence Theses are extremely rare in Judaism which has opted, rather, for approaches closer to Weak Dependence Theses. A good example of this is the thought of Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) who suggests that the category of Jewish rational commandments (as opposed to the commandments that are beyond understanding), do not require origins in revelation at Sinai. Yet, revelation is still necessary for humans to grasp the concrete significance of such commandments (see Saadia 1948, 3:3).[4]

If I understand this concept of Weak Dependence Theory correctly, Judaism does not claim absolute provenance of all its morality in the supernatural space of G-dly revelation, but the revelation, in general, is still necessary for the basic thrust and authorisation of all its moral intentions.

Without G-d, everything is allowed

As mentioned, the common religious perception seems to be that without G-d everything is permitted and that morality requires religion to sustain itself. Socrates suggests that piety should be defined as 

"What is dear to the gods is holy, and what is not dear to them is not holy" (Euthyphro 7a).

The question then becomes what if the gods command murder, does murder then become holy? Socrates inquires:

"Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?" (9-10).

Bringing this debate into the arena of G-d and religion, the Strong Dependence Theory implies that whatever G-d commands is good and holy. Accordingly, morality depends entirely on G-d to define its parameters. Adherents to the Strong Dependence Theory claim that without G-d everything is permitted as morality cannot exist ‘outside’ of G-d.

The Weak Dependence Theory claims that G-d loves that which is good and right; and morality, therefore, exists ‘independently’, as it were.

Contemporary scholarship

The argument that Judaism has rejected the Strong Dependence Theory approach in favour of the Weak Dependence Theory, however, is disputed by most contemporary Jewish scholars. The scholarly consensus maintains that G-d is considered to be the source of all morality.

R. Isadore Twersky exemplifies this view as follows:

"Autonomous morality…is a human creation…This view has no parallel in Judaism. Judaism admits only a heteronomous-theonomic approach, which views the Creator as the source of morality" (Twersky 1991: 238 n. 237).[5]

A text that appears to promote the Strong Dependence Theory

We will now examine a typical text that appears to promote the Strong Dependence Theory approach and show how it could just as easily be furthering the Weak Dependence Theory.

The first Mishna of the ethical treatise of Avot begins with the statement:

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai”[6]

The commentary by R. Ovadia Bertinoro (c.1450-c.1516) questions why an ethical treatise begins with a declaration that the Torah originates from Sinai, something perhaps more suitable for a legal work where Jewish law (Halacha) is shown to have divine provenance? He answers that:

“since the [Gentile] sages of the world have also written books where they invented rules to guide human beings in their behavior toward their fellows, the tanna [Mishanaic sage] began this treatise by saying ‘Moses received [the Torah] from Sinai,’ to tell you that the ethical principles in this treatise were not a fabrication of the Mishnaic sages, but they too come from Sinai.”

This Mishnaic text seems to strongly support the Strong Dependence Theory that all morality and ethics originate with G-d and come from “Sinai” and are not “inventions” of later sages. Sagi and Statman, however, suggest that when Bertinoro referred to “from Sinai,” he could just as easily have meant that these ethical and moral principles were not necessarily determined for the first time by G-d, but merely revealed to humans at Sinai. In other words, the authority of religion, or “Sinai” was used as an impetus to enhance the importance of (human) morality and that:

“revelation is necessary for the attainment of ethical truth” (Sagi and Statman 1995:46).

This way, Bertinoro can also be understood as possibly promoting the Weak Dependence Theory.

The only source unequivocally endorsing the Strong Dependence Theory

Sagi and Statman bring other examples of texts that similarly appear to subscribe to the Strong Dependence Theory model but can also be interpreted as leaning toward the Weak Dependence Theory. Significantly, however, they maintain that there is only one source that exclusively and conclusively promotes the Strong Dependence Theory model (Sagi and Statman 1995:50). This is to be found in the relatively recent writings of the Chassidic leader R. Klonymus Shapira produced in Warsaw during the Holocaust:

“The nations of the world, even the best of them, think that the truth is a thing in itself, and that G-d commanded truth because the truth is intrinsically true. They therefore accept the rational commandments, since they believe that G-d ordained them because they are true in themselves, such as that we should not steal, rob, and so forth…Not so Israel, who say ‘You G-d are truth.’ He…is truth, and we have no truth beside Him, and all the truth found in the world is there only because G-d wished it and commanded it, and since He…is truth, this is also true. Stealing is forbidden because the G-d of truth has commanded it, and because the true G-d has commanded it, this is an act of truth. And when G-d commanded the opposite, that hefker beit-din hefker [the court has the power of expropriation] then this becomes true and a person's wealth can be confiscated. When G-d ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, it was true to sacrifice him and, had G-d not said later ‘neither do anything to him,’ it would have been true to slaughter him” (Shapira 1960, 68; see also 172).[7]

This source leaves no room for autonomy of morality simply being reinforced by revelation as the Weak Dependence Theory suggests, but is the singular example of the more radical Strong Dependence Theory approach.

Of particular interest is Shapira’s interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac where Søren Kierkegaard[8], as well as Yeshayahu Leibowitz[9], understand the narrative as a prime example of the conflict between religion and morality, known as theodicy. For Shapira and his Strong Dependence Theory approach, there is no longer a conflict. Whatever G-d decrees is moral, and truth and justice have no independent existence.

Yet, as if to emphasise the uniqueness of this source, in Shapira’s other writings, he seems to go back to the usual Jewish approach of the Weak Dependence Theory where morality has an independent existence and he acknowledges that G-d follows moral norms and does not just formulate morality by whim or decree. This complicated picture of Shapira underscores even further the exceptionality of the Strong Dependence Theory within Jewish thought.

Yet the Strong Dependence Theory somehow still became the dominant theological position within contemporary Jewish scholarship. The sources, however, belie such a notion.

Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942)

Rav Saadia was a great promoter of the Weak Dependence Theory and he writes that he would not even be prepared to engage in conversation with one who subscribed to the Strong Dependence Theory and who:

“was therefore compelled to take refuge in the theory that the disapproval of lying and the approval of truth were not prompted by reason but were the result of commandments and prohibitions of Scripture, and the same was true for the rejection of murder, adultery and stealing. When he had come to that, however, I felt that I needed no longer concern myself with him and that I had my fill of discussion with him” (Saadia 1948: 3:8).

Yehuda haLevi (1075 – 1141)

Yehuda haLevi similarly rejects the Strong Dependence Theory as he argues that morality must have clearly preceded Sinai "in character and time," as human society cannot function without some form of ethics and that "even a gang of robbers could not but accept the rule of justice among themselves" (Halevi 1964: 2:48).[10]

Maimonides (1135-1204)

Maimonides also rejects the Strong Dependence Theory and writes that even were certain acts not to be forbidden by the Torah, a person would be considered unworthy if he or she participated in such behaviour and they would be regarded as immoral people; as opposed to other commandments where "were it not for the Torah, would not be wicked at all" (Maimonides 1966: ch. 6).[11]

“Divine commandments, then, are only necessary in the ritual sphere, whereas in the moral realm Maimonides adopts a thesis of autonomy” (Sagi and Statman 1995:53).

These important rabbinic sources prompt Sagi and Statman (1995:54) to conclude that:

“the prevalent view in the world of the sages is that morality is autonomous.”

Halacha is also based on the Weak Dependence Theory

In light of all this, again, it is surprising that so much contemporary scholarship persists in presenting the Strong Dependence Theory as the dominant theological model within Judaism. This is particularly so, considering the unanimous acceptance that Halacha (Jewish ritual and civil law) is determined largely through a Weak Dependence Theory approach, in the day-to-day technical process of determining the Halacha. Anyone, even vaguely familiar with the Halachic process would know the degree of autonomy the Posek or Halachic decisor has when determining the final outcome of the law. There is no magic, no ritual, and no prayer involved in the process whatsoever. The rabbinic decisor has absolute autonomy (obviously within the framework of precedents and texts of the law) to rule one way or the other. Human discretion is applied and rabbinic legal sources are cited as opposed to appealing to verses from the Torah. The Halachic process is guided by human reason and is autonomous. The Talmud, basing itself on Deuteronomy 30:12 declares that the Halachic process “is not in heaven” but squarely within the domain of humans on earth.[12]

The question begs: Why is it perfectly reasonable to accept the autonomy of the Halachic process yet reject the autonomy of the moral process?

R. David ben Zimra (1479-1573)

R. David ben Zimra, known as the Radbaz, had fled the persecutions of Spain and argued in a response to a cruel question as to whether ‘a’ should yield to authorities who threatened to kill ‘b’ unless ‘a’ agrees to have one of his limbs severed. He writes:

"Moreover, it is written, 'her ways are ways of pleasantness,' [Proverbs 3:17] and the rules of our Torah must be acceptable to reason and logic. How could we possibly imagine that anyone would allow his eye to be blinded, or his arm and leg to be cut off, so as to prevent someone else's killing?" (Responsa of R. David ben Abi Zimra, 1052).

In Radbaz’s view, it was too much to expect one human to agree to lose a limb in such circumstances and he maintained that under Jewish law “reason and logic” had to prevail.

R. Yehuda Loew (1520-1609)

R. Yehuda Loew, known as the Maharal, writes about a Jewish judge in Halachic matters:

“Even if his insight and wisdom mislead him, he is still beloved by the Lord…when he rules as demanded by his reason. The judge has nothing but what his eyes see, and he is better than one when ruling, follows a text without understanding its reasons, who walks like the blind” (Loew 1971, 1:69).[13]

R. Shlomo Hirsh Schick (b.1844)

R. Shlomo Hirsh Schick (Ha-Rashban) felt compelled to integrate Halacha and morality into his rulings. In response to a question about whether it was permitted for a Gentile woman who was civilly married to a Jewish man and had children together, to be converted despite the Talmudic (Yevamot 24b) disapproval of conversions for marriage. He writes:

"If the prophet Hosea did not want to expel his harlot wife and his children by her and the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed to his wishes, as the rabbis have told us ... how can we ask a shoemaker from Althofen [a place near Budapest] to do penitence by expelling his sons and their mother? Do we not pray ‘Pity us as a father pities his children?' " (Schick 1912, 37).[14]

In this case, human morality was expected by R. Schick to inform (and possibly even re-shape) Halacha.


These rabbinic views indicate a dramatic departure from the Strong Dependence Theory, where G-d alone defines law and morality. These views show an almost unanimous adherence to the Weak Dependence Theory in both areas of morality and Halacha.

This observation may answer the question as to why Judaism chose the rather unappealing option of the Weak Dependence Theory over the more expected and common ‘religious’ option of the Strong Dependence Theory. Sagi and Statman suggest that because Halacha is so fundamental to defining Judaism, and because the Halachic decision-making process is by its very nature profoundly autonomous – this autonomy may have influenced its view on morality, and account for the almost unanimous deviation from the Strong Dependence Theory in rabbinic texts as has been demonstrated.


This is a picture of the wall in my shul. It's a quote from R. Nachman of Breslov which reads in translation:

"The following is an important principle: From the Most High comes neither good nor bad. Only a simple [as yet undefined] light. However, according to the vessel [or person] that receives the light, so is that [undefined] light shaped [and formed] in it [or him or her]."

The irony remains that most contemporary scholarship, as well as popular perceptions, persist in assuming that Judaism subscribes to the Strong Dependence Theory, where G-d dictates morality. The texts, however, carry a different narrative leaning predominantly toward the Weak Dependence Theory where human autonomy and human definitions of morality are intensely persuasive factors. 

[1] Sagi, A. & Statman, D., 1995, ‘Divine Command Morality and Jewish Tradition’, The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 23, no. 1, Blackwell Publishing Ltd on behalf of Journal of Religious Ethics, 39-67.

[2] Idziak, J. M., 1989, "In Search for 'Good Positive Reasons' for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments", Faith and Philosophy 6:47-64. Idziak, J. M., ed., 1979, Divine Commands and Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings,Edwin Mellen, New York.

[3] Frank, R., 1983, "Moral Obligation in Classical Muslim Theology", Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 11, no.2, 204-23. This is the view of the Al-Ash'ari school.

[4] Saadia, R., 1948, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, c. 930, Translated by S. Rosenblatt, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

[5] Twersky, I., 1991, Introduction to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Hebrew), Magnes Press, Jerusalem.

[6] Mishna Avot 1:1.

[7] Shapira, K., 1960, Esh Kodesh, Va'ad Hasidei Piaseczno, Jerusalem.

[8] Kierkegaard, S., 1983, Fear and Trembling, 1843, Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

[9] Leibowitz, Y.,1992, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, ch.1. 

[10] Halevi, Y., 1964, The Kuzari. 1130-1140, Translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld, Schocken Books, New York.

[11] Maimonides, M., 1966, Eight Chapters, Translated by J. Garfinkel, Arms Press, New York.

[12] b. Bava Metzia 59b.

[13] Loew, Y., 1971, Netivot Olam, Jerusalem.

[14] Schick, S. H.,1912, Even Ha-Ezer, Hungary


  1. I think Ramban says somewhere that there must be morality before Sinai and without revelation. It would have been unjust for God to punish the generation of the flood and the cities of the plain for their sins without warning them prophetically, unless there is a pre-existing human sense of right and wrong that allowed them to know that what they were doing was wrong..

  2. Could you find that source? So interesting.

    1. See Ramban on Bereishis perek 6 pasuk 13, also chizkuni there perek 7 pasuk 21, Rav Nissim Gaon's introduction to Brachos says that anything dependent on the heart's understanding was already commanded from the day God created man, Radak on Yechezkel perek 14 pasuk 17. Also Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has an essay related to this topic in leaves of faith volume 2 entitled "does Judaism recognize an ethic independent of halacha".

    2. I would like to add that my understanding of these sources would be to say that they are saying that there could be a morality that man is expected to realize even independent of Torah, but I don't think they were considering the possibility of morality independent of God. It's the fact that we were created by God that we are expected to realize that He would have expectations of us even without Torah, Rav Lichtenstein touches on this a little bit in the beginning of "Part 3: Goodness Devoid of Frumkeit" in Chapter 6 of "By His Light", entitled "Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality" (incidentally, another highly recommended piece).

    3. To clarify my point, I'm suggesting something along the lines of "God created morality and logic and gave us the ability to try to use that in the best way to serve Him, if we choose to use it properly", we know that halachically we are not allowed to violate the Torah based on our sechel in general, so it could be that the Torah is just telling us what that objective morality is and this could be an interpretation of the idea that God looked into the Torah and created the world, that He used the morality of the Torah as the objective morality when creating it and humans are able to realize at least some of it on their own to an extent. Those rishonim are saying that the reason people were expected to do these things was because of their sechel, which they were expected to use, but which was also created by God.

    4. I think the idea of intuitive morality can also be seen in rabenu bechaye's perush on the Torah on devarim 4,6, that the nations see that we keep the mitzvos sichli'os and realize that the chukim must also have something to them (also the whole concept of mitzvos sichli'os shows that those who use the term think that man could come to them himself, and taamei hamitzvos in general tell us that there's a certain morality that the mitzvos are supposed to help us realize, and the gemara in yoma 67b, that certain mitzvos, even had they not been written, it would've made sense to write them, noteworthy that avoda zara is included there, as I said, I think the assumption is that it would all be in the context of serving God, and there's also eruvin 100b, that even without the Torah, we would learn certain morals elsewhere) obviously there is much to say on this topic and it would be very difficult to compile an exhaustive list of sources from all of Torah literature, I should pause here.

    5. Thanks for all that input.

  3. One good source might be the gemara in Bava Kama 92a which presents the assumption that non-Jews - even before Matan Torah - could be held responsible for immoral choices because "they should have learned, but didn't." This was in the context of Avimelech (Gen. 20). Here's the text:
    אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר ר' יונתן השב אשת האיש מכל מקום ודקא אמרת (בראשית כ) הגוי גם צדיק תהרוג הלא הוא אמר לי אחותי היא והיא גם היא אמרה אחי הוא נביא הוא וכבר לימד אכסנאי שבא לעיר על עסקי אכילה ושתיה שואלין אותו או על עסקי אשתו שואלין אותו אשתך היא אחותך היא מכאן לבן נח שנהרג שהיה לו ללמוד ולא למד

    1. But if one looks in the same gemara in the context in which it is brought in makos 9a-b, it seems to be more a comment on the fact that he would have violated one of the 7 mitzvos bnei noach and even though he's "omer mutar" we consider that to be close enough to "meizid" by bnei noach to punish him, and if one says that non jews are only obligated to follow the 7 mitzvos because the Torah commanded the it might not be a support for morality outside the Torah.

    2. @Moshe Averick, that's a good point. Although, from a practical perspective, how would the entire world's population have been expected to learn about the 7 mitzvos? I'm not even 100% clear about their precise sources (or content), and I've got access to Chumash and Gemara Sanhedrin. My guess is that they were somehow communicated as a tradition or even casually as a kind of universal natural law. Which more or less amounts to the same thing as a base moral understanding.

    3. That's certainly possible, but then the idea wouldn't necessarily be from the gemara we're discussing, rather just the concepts of the 7 mitzvos in general, but also just a theory and not an explicit source in chazal seemingly. Additionally, going back to what I said above in my other comments, I think chazal would at least be saying that this morality came from God, seeing as they express it as an actual command. Also, Rambam in hilchos melachim perek 8 halacha 11 sounds like he's saying that a non jew only gets a chelek in olam haba if he does these mitzvos because of the divine command (I'm aware that some read it differently, but I think this is the simplest explanation).

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. My apologies, Inquire. I see that I pressed the delete instead of publish button. Please send again.

  5. Thank you for writing on this fascinating and very important topic!

    I would argue that the halachic process is different, since its autonomy is based on explicit delegation by Hashem in Devarim 17:8-12. G-d creates halacha by commanding us to do commandments, and one of the commandments is to listen to the BDH's instructions concerning those commandments. That is fundamentally different from saying that morality somehow originates with us and then Hashem endorses it.

    A process of the latter kind is mentioned with regard to some specific things in B. Makkoth 23b (שלשה דברים עשו ב"ד של מטה והסכימו ב"ד של מעלה על ידם), presumably that means this does not apply to all human-created halacha.

  6. Thank you for that interesting source from Makkos. I agree that that source appears to limit the extent of human autonomy in the process of defining morality (yet it also seems to advocate for it, at least in principle).