top of page

Moral Knowledge

How do we acquire moral knowledge? How do we know the correct traits to inculcate and which to avoid? How do we know the best path towards ethical refinement?

These are questions at the core of moral philosophy, which overlaps with the field of moral psychology. While the answers to such questions are complex (see Campbell, 2019), for the sake of understanding this Mishna, we will explore two possible approaches that assume that there is an underlying theological and natural moral reality. Morality based in theology assumes that there is Divinely revealed morality which provides the proper path. Moral naturalism assumes that there are objective moral facts that can be discovered through empirical methods (i.e., by observation or experimentation). In an effort to answer questions about the ethical life, moral psychologists conduct systematic observations or controlled experiments to describe various virtues and vices (see Doris & Stitch, 2007).

While morality based in theology would seem to be a foundational assumption of Torah, is there a place to recognize or appreciate any empirically based findings of the moral life?

Explaining the chain of tradition at the start of Pirkei Avot (1:1), Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura notes that Pirkei Avot is unique as it is not concerned with particular halachot or mitzvot but rather “moral maxims and ethical qualities.”

According to Bartenura, Pirkei Avot starts with a chain of tradition rooted in Divine Revelation at Sinai to tell us that the ethical conduct, proper social behavior, and character development embedded with the tractate are not merely human reflections of proper ethics. While Bartenura doesn’t necessarily deny that there could be a naturalistic ethic (see Sagi & Statman, 1993; Shatz, 2009, p. 321), it is clear according to his opinion that this would not be found in Pirkei Avot:

[Since] the wise men of the nations of the world also composed works according to the fancies of their hearts dealing with ethical conduct… therefore the Tanna began this tractate [with the words] “Moses received the Torah from Sinai” indicating that the ethical qualities and moral maxims which are [contained] in this tractate were not the fancies of the Sages of the Mishnah, but that even they were revealed at Sinai (translation from Bleich, 2013, p. 135).

Yet, Bartenura’s approach doesn’t encapsulate the only possible opinion. Without denying the importance of tradition in determining ethical obligations and norms, Avot 2:9 seems to offer a complimentary method. After exploring Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s unique pedagogical approach in his praising of his students, we are given a glimpse into his creative classroom activities. Through a close reading and analysis, we will glean important ethical insights that emerge from empirical investigations.

He [Rabban Yohanan] said unto them: go forth and observe which is the right path to which a man should cleave? Rabbi Eliezer said, a good eye; Rabbi Joshua said, a good companion; Rabbi Yose said, a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said, foresight. Rabbi Elazar said, a good heart. He [Rabban Yohanan] said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach, for in his words your words are included.

And then, the inverse assignment.

He [Rabban Yohanan] said unto them: go forth and observe which is the evil way which a man should shun? Rabbi Eliezer said, an evil eye; Rabbi Joshua said, an evil companion; Rabbi Yose said, an evil neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said, one who borrows and does not repay… Rabbi Elazar said, an evil heart. He [Rabban Yohanan] said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach, for in his words your words are included.

In contrast to other mishnayot which offer ethical and spiritual advice of a sage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai empowers his students to find their own answers to “what is the right path.” In a more traditional classroom, we would have expected Rabban Yochanan to just tell his students what he considers to be the correct answer. In a powerful justification for this technique, Rabbi Moshe Schick argues that ethical information that is self-discovered has more of a transformative impact than if the ideas are presented from an authority.

Additionally, glaringly absent from both Rabban Yochanan’s question and his students’ answers, is any explicit mention of God, Torah, or tradition. Where are the verses, laws, and received traditions? If we were following a mindset that the only basis for ethical teachings is the Torah, we would expect Rabbi Yochanan to instruct his students to comb the depths of the Torah to discover the straight path. Yet, instead he tells them to “go forth and observe.” Where are they going out of in order to discover this message?

Midrash Shmuel assumes that they were in the Beit Midrash, and their assignment for when they left the study hall was to exclusively focus on discovering the good path. While they may have been able to find an answer in the tradition, this particular assignment, writes Maharal, encouraged them to find the answer by observing the broader social world, instead of the Torah. Midrash Shmuel adds a homiletic interpretation with important guidance for this type of “research.” They were to “go forth” from their own self-knowledge and observe how others behave. They needed to transcend the limits of their own perspectives and see what path works for most people, not just scholars like themselves.

The picture that emerges stands in stark contrast to an approach that limits ethical norms to only coming from tradition. This conclusion aligns well with the opinions of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1975) and Rabbi Walter Wurzberger (1994), who hold that ethical obligations can exist independent of halacha (although they do not quote this Mishna as a support for such an opinion). For the purposes of gleaning ethical insights from the psychological literature, we can conclude that systematic study and observation of human behavior is a valid and even promoted method of discovering proper conduct.


bottom of page