The Sin Of Moral Subjectivism

The Sin Of Moral Subjectivism

By Rabbi David Algaze

“The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire on them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from G-d and consumed them and they died before G-d.”

(Vayikra 10:1-2)


On this most glorious day, as Aaron and his sons were assuming their positions as priests of the L-rd in the Holy Tabernacle, a tragedy of enormous dimensions struck. The sons of Aaron, pious, holy, and wise people, destined to inherit the position of the High Priest in Israel, were suddenly cremated in the most horrific manner before the eyes of their loving father and uncle. Why did this happen; what was their sin? Even more puzzling is the explanation offered by Moses to Aaron saying, “This is what G-d said, ‘I will be sanctified through those that are nearest to Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people” (ibid 3). If indeed they were “nearest to G-d” how could they have sinned so grievously and why were they so severely punished?

The Midrash offers several explanations for their sin, including the fact that they acted without consulting Moses or each other, that they served while naked, that they arrogated for themselves the authority to decide on matters of law, and many others. However, as the Divrei David (Rabbi David Shmuel Halevy) notes in his commentary on Rashi, the answer is given explicitly in the Torah: They offered an alien fire. Rashbam explains simply that they brought a fire made by them for the burning of the incense on the golden altar instead of waiting for a fire from Heaven. Although on all future occasions the fire would be brought from the main altar, this time G-d wanted to sanctify His Name by providing a Divine Fire. The “alien” aspect of the fire is that it was not commanded but rather that they acted on their own and following their own interpretation.

Their sin prevented the spectacle of a Divine revelation that would have enhanced G-d’s glory on Earth when the fire would arrive miraculously from heaven. A similar event happened with the prophet Elijah when he invited the Baal priests to Mount Carmel to offer sacrifices to their respective deities but he asked them not to apply any fire. Then too, as the fire of the L-rd came down, the people acknowledged G-d as their G-d (I Kings 18). What motivated them to act in this fashion is the subject of many a commentary, some viewing it as stemming from an excessive love and enthusiasm while others see their actions as negative and immature.

By respecting the will of the Supreme Other,
we learn a lesson in humility and respect
that serves us well in all aspects of our lives

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch analyzes the phrase, “[a fire] which He had not commanded them” as the main explanation of their act. They acted spontaneously, of their own initiative, unbidden by Moses and consulting with no one. Even if their offering would have been technically correct, the fact that they were not commanded to perform it makes them guilty. In the Temple structure and indeed in the service of G-d there is no room for subjective discretion. What is correct is to act according to the specific details commanded by G-d. Even the free-willed sacrifices were to be offered according to very specific regulations.

Here is where Judaism departs dramatically from paganism and is diametrically opposed to other religions. Paganism attempts to change the will of the gods to correspond to Man’s wishes. The pagan presents gifts, sacrifices, and rituals with the expressed intention of appeasing the gods and to curry favor with them so they will do what the supplicant wishes. The whole purpose of the pagan mind is to force the deity to acquiesce to its desires; the ritual “endeavors to secure their services for human ends” (Hirsch). Not so in Judaism. On the contrary, the offering of the Jew is to bring the suppliant closer to G-d and His will. The ritual is merely a means by which Man can fulfill the Divine will and thus they are accomplished strictly according to the formulations of G-d down to the minutest detail. Hence, any offerings or services devised by Man alone, however well-intentioned and technically correct, detract from the main purpose of the service. Instead of placing G-d at the center, Man occupies that position. As Rabbi Hirsch puts it, “they would prepare a seat of glory for arbitrary subjectivism, in place of a throne erected for obedience and discipline.” The death of Nadab and Abihu then, at the very beginning of the Sanctuary’s service, serves as a severe warning to all future generations of priests, and indeed to all who want to serve G-d, that subjectivism and arbitrariness do not have a place in the Jewish conception of serving Him. The highest service of G-d is to do His will, humbly and respectfully. Innovations and new ideas stemming from Man’s own understanding and opinion detract from this lofty goal of “serving” the Creator.

Our age is an age of moral subjectivism and relativism where our subjective views are deemed to be the only facts of reality. The very difficulty that we experience in executing certain commandments or the struggle to accept or comprehend them are subtle symptoms of the malady of subjectivism that creeps into our minds surreptitiously and unawares. This has also implications and lessons for our personal lives. We suffer from a kind of solipsism that makes us always the center of everything. Descartes in his “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) presented the model of subjectivism in philosophy, but our society, as it turns towards a more pagan view, pushes us towards an ego-centeredness that is very harmful. We tend to put the self too often in the center where there should be room for other people’s feelings and views. Seeing things from our perspective alone without allowing “the other” and its predicament is a sin that costs us dearly. Just as in G-d’s service subjectivism is a sin, in our lives too, we should beware of over-emphasis on the “Me” and making room for the other as well. By respecting the will of the Supreme Other, we learn a lesson in humility and respect that serves us well in all aspects of our lives.

Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.