How a 19th-Century Russian Rabbi Used the Philosophy of Immanuel Kant to Understand Two of the Talmud’s Great Ethical Debates

February 9, 2021 | Francis Nataf
About the author:

According to one ancient rabbinic compendium, Rabbi Akiva considered the verse “You shall love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:8) as “the great general principle of Torah.” But the same text also cites the opposing view of Akiva’s contemporary Ben Azzai, who, less intuitively, held “This is the book of the generations of man” (Genesis 5:1) to be an even greater principle. In his commentary to this passage, the Russian exegete Rabbi Meir Leybush ben Yeḥiel Mikhl (1809-1879)—better known as the Malbim—explains this debate with an implicit, but unmistakable, reference to the moral teachings of Immanuel Kant. Akiva simply articulated the golden rule, according to Malbim, while Ben Azzai, following Kant, saw it as unnecessarily subjective, instead seeking a universal maxim—thus his reference to the “generations of man,” i.e., all of humankind.

Francis Nataf notes that the Malbim ties this debate to a different opinion of Akiva:

[In] a classic discussion of Jewish lifeboat ethics, [concerning two people in danger of dying of thirst], Rabbi Akiva takes the position that if one has enough water to save only one person, he is fully justified in taking all of the water for himself. . . . The Kantian argument against Rabbi Akiva here would be that there is a categorical imperative of preventing the death of others, whenever one has that possibility. . . . Akiva’s position, however, it that the far more likely result of this scenario is that they will both die. Moreover―and this seems to be what the Malbim wishes to emphasize here―the determination of which life should be saved is subjective.

It must be noted that Jewish tradition has unanimously accepted the ruling of Rabbi Akiva with regard to taking the water for oneself. [Thus, the Malbim] shows why we should not automatically assume that the apparently more sophisticated- and sublime-sounding position of Ben Azzai is worthy of our sympathies. In making this association at the end of his discussion, Malbim is potentially shifting from a wholesale endorsement of Kantian ethics to a highly nuanced critique of it.

Read more on Lehrhaus:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now