Maimonides on the morality of our choices and our behavior


By Rabbi Dr Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Dr Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, Calif .– Maimonides’ understanding of the Book of Exodus should be of great relevance to those who study the weekly portion of Torah. Although he has not written an exposition of this Torah book, he does discuss it extensively in his Mishneh Torah and his Guide for the perplexed; the same can be said of his other voluminous writings.

The Book of Exodus begins with the first Biblical example of peaceful civil disobedience against an oppressive empire. Two particular stories stand out: (1) Two Hebrew midwives refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s orders to kill the baby males of the enslaved Hebrew minority community (Exodus 1: 8-22). Even Pharaoh’s own daughter disobeyed her own father’s decrees (Exodus 2: 1-10) and she was instrumental in saving baby Moses.

The second ethical problem concerns the limits of truth; what is the antecedent for allowing the truth to be bent to save a human life? Shifra and Puah lied to protect the Hebrew male babies; the biblical narrator congratulates him on it! Questions about the truth abound in many Bible accounts. The third ethical problem concerns the use of violence to defend the oppressed. After seeing an Egyptian foreman beating a helpless slave, Moses secretly kills an Egyptian supervisor beating a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2: 11-15). Maimonides will discuss many of the ethical and moral issues posed by this familiar story as we read. Although Maimonides did not refer to this particular scripture passage, his other writings may shed light on how he might have approached these ethical questions.

The question comes up in the rabbinical tradition: if someone orders you to kill someone and they threaten to kill you, if you do not carry out their orders, what should a legal person do? Ancient history is familiar in the Bible. You can never be a proxy to commit murder; one cannot pretend that “I was only carrying out orders”, a familiar response we heard at the Nuremberg trials from the Nazis who were on trial.

Maimonides ruled that murder is murder. After defining what constitutes homicide, he explains. “If somebody hires a murderer to kill a coworker, sends his servants and kills him, or binds a coworker and leaves him in front of a lion or whatever, the beast kills him.” The sin of murder is in their hands. They are punishable by death, but only at the hands of God. They cannot be subject to execution by a land court. [1]

It follows that Shifra and Puah acted with great courage; they risked their lives to save innocent people rather than committing or indirectly participating in murder. Based on Maimonides’ exposition of Noahide’s murder ban, midwives could not act as agents to commit murder because God holds every human being morally responsible for the preservation of life. of his fellows. Moreover, violating this ethical imperative would make them as responsible as Pharaoh, who ordered them to kill.

The subject of proxy murder has an antecedent in the Tanakh, concerning the instructions that King David sent Joab a letter directing him to leave Uriah at the front and abandon him there to face the enemy soldiers (2 Sam. 11: 14-15). Although he did not physically kill Uriah, his orders did lead to his death. The prophet Nathan did not mince his words, בָּזִיתָ אֶת־דְּבַר יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת הָרַע (בְּעֵינָו) [בְּעֵינַי] אוּרִיָּה הַחִתִּי הִכִּיתָ בַחֶרֶב וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ לָקַחְתָּ לְּךָ לְאִשָּׁה וְאֹתוֹ הָרַגְתָּ בְּחֶרֶב בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן “Why have you despised the Lord and done evil in his sight? You slaughtered Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you took his wife as your own, and slain her with the sword of the Ammonites ”(2 Sam. 12: 9). God held David accountable for his crimes and for the unlawful death of a good man.

The Talmud will sometimes say counterintuitive things. In BT Shabbat 56a, R. Shmuel ben Nachmani quoted R. Jonathan: Anyone who says that David sinned is wrong. David behaved wisely in all his ways, and the Lord was with him.

But the Talmud hesitates: is it possible that sin had come to it while the Divine Presence was with it? How can I interpret: Why did you despise the Lord and do what is evil in his sight? You slaughtered Uriah the Hittite with the sword; Thou hast taken his wife for thine own, and hast slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. (2 Sam. 12: 9) (2 Sam. 12: 9)?… The Talmud further states that, technically, Bathsheba was not a “married woman” when David put her to bed. After all, R. Jonathan said, “Everyone who went to fight the Davidic wars drew up a divorce certificate for his wife. In addition, Uriah had the audacity to designate Joab as “my lord” instead of King David.

How convenient!

Didn’t King David say to Uriah on his way back to his wife, “Didn’t you come back from a trip?” Why then did you not go down to your house? (2 Sam. 11:10), that is, go have sex with your wife. Something didn’t seem to be hiding in this conversation.

Something inside Uriah felt enraged. He couldn’t deny his feelings; he suspected the worst. He replied angrily, “The ark, Israel, and Judah remain in tents, and my lord Joab and my lord’s servants encamp in the open field. Can I go home to eat, drink and sleep with my wife? As the LORD lives and as you live, I will do no such thing! (2 Sam 11: 10-11)

Almost immediately afterwards, “David sent an order:” The next morning David wrote a letter to Joab, which Uriah sent. Here is what he wrote in the letter: “Place Uriah in the front, where the fighting is fierce. Then step back and let it be shot. (2 Sam. 11: 14-15)

The moral of the story is that we should never deny the voice or conscience that prompts us to do what is right. Shifra and Puah honored their conscience in the Torah and challenged the mighty Pharaoh. But David’s passions won out; ultimately, he compounded the sin of adultery with the sin of homicide.


[1] YOUR Hilkhot rotzeach 2: 1-3. Cf. Maimonides Commentary on the Mishnah: Terumot 6: 3. According to Maimonides, the state reserves the right to execute its criminals, even if the evidence is circumstantial.


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