This is an edited transcript of a lecture on a tape that
was provided courtesy of the Aish Hatorah Audio
This question -- if it is enough to be a "good person"
without keeping Torah and mitzvos -- has to be broken down
into two components. There are two separate issues involved.
One: Is it enough to be a good person? Two: Is there such a
If one is going to consider if you can be a good person
without halacha, we would have to explore that
possibility and I think we will discover that there will
never, under any circumstances, be a person that we can
agree is called "good" without halacha.
Let us explore the second question first. What is the
definition of a good person?
How about: A good person is one who will not harm anyone
else. I think that everybody today in our age agrees that a
fundamental criterion is that you can do anything you want,
as long as you do not hurt somebody else.
Many people think that this is enough to be called "good,"
but we soon see that this is not enough because, for
instance, nobody will say you are a good person if you do
not stop to help the victim of an accident. If somebody gets
hit in the street and you don't stop to help them, then you
are not a good person.
Or say you were driving a car and you hit somebody. You
shouldn't have and you wish you hadn't, but you did. But now
you are not harming him any further and you drive off. Are
you harming him now? You didn't intend to harm him so you
can't be called bad, and now that it is over, you are not
harming him any more. You are just letting him lie there and
This is obviously not enough. We cannot say that you are
good just because you do not harm anyone.
So there must be something a bit more than not harming a
person. Someone will only be called good if he accepts some
degree of responsibility for others. What degree of
responsibility is this?
Let us say that you are willing to do without a swimming
pool so someone else can have a car. A car is much more
important to him than a swimming pool is to you. You have
the resources to build yourself a swimming pool but instead
you give him your money so that he can have a car.
I think most people would say this is not necessary. It is
your money and your swimming pool. Why should you give it to
someone else for a car?
So why do you have to go out of your way to take him to the
hospital if he was hit by a car?
Let us take another example. We all agree that a good man
will not harm someone else. You are a good doctor --
compassionate, feeling, the best. You have seven patients
lined up for today in your clinic.
You are going to kill seven unborn children.
Are you harming someone else? Well, that depends on your
definition. Is an unborn child "someone else?" If an unborn
child is someone else then that doctor is harming someone
else. If an unborn child isn't someone else, then he is not
harming somebody else. It's certainly a lot more convenient
for him to define an unborn child as "not someone else." So
he will go ahead and kill seven unborn children today.
How about a Jew? Is a Jew "someone else?"
It depends whom you ask. If you ask a Nazi Aryan, then Jews
are not someone else. Jews are subhuman. If you harm a Jew,
that is not harming someone else. It is perfectly alright.
We, of course, disagree.
How about a black? Is it ok to harm a black? Some people
will tell you that they are primitive. How about that? You
don't agree. Well suppose I am an old-time segregationist; I
But now, why do you feel that you have the right to tell me
whether this black is "someone else" or not, but I can't
tell you whether that unborn child is "someone else?"
Now they say it is because it is a horrible thing to
discriminate on the basis of race.
Who says? On what basis? Because you feel that way?
Even when your feelings are right, you are never going to be
a good man based on them alone. The question is how you are
going to feel when the chips are down. How will you feel
when a real question comes up? You will do what you feel
then and not what is right!
Ghandi might have been a good man. But he was willing to
sacrifice the entire white race for the sake of his
What do you sacrifice for which? What are the extents of
responsibility? What is meaningful responsibility? Is it
more important to be sure that your child has a good
education or is it more important that Ethiopian children
have bread to eat? What does a good man do?
They all make sure their own children have an education, but
did they really consider the alternative? To what extent
would I hurt myself if I donate money to Ethiopian children?
One percent, two percent, a tenth of a percent? How much?
A lot of money is raised by selling items made by famous
people, or by giving gifts as an incentive to give. Once,
you gave money for a good cause; now you need a record or a
book to make you feel how good it was.
* * *
Americans "used to be" people who didn't understand what are
now thought to be the basic requirements of humanity. They
were bigots, they were racists, they were sexists, they
discriminated against blacks, they oppressed women.
Today, thank G-d, the modern generation is so much more
enlightened. They are more compassionate and sensitive and
full of the feeling that they are not guilty of all these
Is that reasonable? Is it really true that the people of the
1960s were more compassionate and had so much more
sensitivity and devotion to peace and justice and morality
than the people of the 30s? What took place that enabled
this moral growth to suddenly flower? Isn't there something
that needs an explanation?
The American Civil War as an Example
About 140 years ago the United States of America fought a
Civil War. It was the most intense war that mankind fought
until the First World War. There was no war in the history
of mankind where more people were killed, there was more
destruction, more loss of wealth and more blood spilled than
in the American Civil War. If not for the moral issue of
slavery, that war would not have been fought.
What was the issue? The issue was that we had the noble,
compassionate, feeling, people of the North who were not
about to sit by and see the rank injustice, the horror and
the brutality of the South.
The people in the South did not share this noble vision and
were prepared to do battle until death to preserve the
institution of slavery.
Doesn't it strike anybody as peculiar that the dividing line
was the Mason- Dixon line? If you lived North of it,
suddenly your moral sense was developed, and if you lived
South of it suddenly you were a moral monster. Is that
reasonable? Must we not look for some explanation by which
to understand why the people in the North were so
magnificent in their nobility and the people in the South
were such moral monsters?
If we discover that in the North slavery wasn't efficient
and it wasn't economically viable to maintain slaves,
whereas in the South, with its cotton plantations, slavery
was really an economic necessity -- is it reasonable to say
that this had something to do with the moral positions of
the North and the South? I think it is very reasonable.
The "good" men of the North were people who could afford it;
the "evil" men of the South, who thought of themselves as
good and right, happened to have other economic
The reason the children of the 60s marched for civil rights
was because they were rich enough to afford it. The reason
their parents in the 30s were obtuse morally was because
they couldn't afford it. Looking for a job was some
undertaking. You didn't want blacks around competing with
you for the few available jobs.
Are there Good People?
When there was a surplus of soldiers the highest and most
noble people were those who would fight to the death in the
name of honor. When kings discovered they were losing too
many competent soldiers they prohibited the fighting and
duels and proclaimed it to be murder and today it is
accepted to be murder.
Are there good people?
Are you a good man when you are killed to defend your honor?
Or are you a good man when you refuse to enter a duel and
face the contempt of all your contemporaries over your
cowardice and your lack of honor? Who is the good man? And
why do you say so?
If you say "A" was the good man, on what basis is that? If
you say "B" was the good man, on what basis is that? Where
are these good men? How long did it take to train the moral,
sophisticated, solidly ethical burghers of Germany to accept
as being right and proper to murder and destroy in the name
of their superiority? It only took three years to get a
whole nation to accept that a good person is the one who
will kill any non-Aryan.
Are there good people?
Which good people? Are the good people the Communists who,
for the sake of right and justice, literally starved to
death ten million peasants in order to assure the
collectivization of agriculture? Were they good people or
bad people, these people who had the determination and guts
to stand for the death of ten million others, not themselves
of course, but ten million peasants for the sake of the
principle of collective agriculture? Who were the good
people, the ones who died or the ones who made them die?
They meant good; they did it for the sake of the principle
of collectivization. For the good of the nation and the
state we are going to let these ten million people starve.
We will suffer terribly but we will do it -- and they did
it. Who are the good people?
Was Lenin a good man? How many millions of people thought
that Lenin was a good man? How many people still think that
Lenin is a good man? In the hundreds of millions. In China
and Russia there are those who proclaim that Lenin was a
good man. How many in the West agree that Lenin was a good
There are still hundreds of millions who say Stalin was a
good man. How many in the West are prepared to maintain that
Stalin was a good man?
On what basis are you talking about good men?
But Why do We Need All the Laws?
Let's go a step further. Let us grant that we do need some
criteria by which to measure the difference between a good
man and a bad man. We are going to use the Torah as the
criteria. There is really no other way that we can judge who
is a bad man and who is a good man. We are going to accept
the Torah to guide us in social and financial matters. The
Torah tells us what is right and wrong in the relationships
between one human being and another. And we will apply the
teachings of the Torah meticulously.
When is it stealing? Look in the Torah. When is it
justified? Look in the halacha. When is it murder?
Look in the halacha.
We will agree to accept that to be a good man we need the
Torah. When we want to decide what the proper behavior is in
human relationships, we will refer to that halacha.
Choshen Mishpat will be on the shelf and we won't
move without it.
But what do we need Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah
for? Why do we need kashrus? Why do we need
tefillin? Why do we need Shabbos?
The important thing is to be a good man. Who needs to know
whether the milk fell on the pot or the pot was put on the
milk; whether it was so much or that much; whether the
shechitoh came from this side or that?
We are prepared to say that we will submit to G-d's
judgments and teachings in those things that "matter" and
those things that are "relevant." But in what we eat and
whether we push a switch on Shabbos -- is that going to make
a difference whether I am a good man?
If you point out that never, ever, in the history of
mankind, has there been a people who kept the morals and the
ethics of the Torah who didn't also keep the laws of
kashrus and Shabbos -- they will answer that it is a
historical accident. Maybe those who knew about Shabbos did
not know about proper ethics, but we do.
Even though there never was a group of people who maintained
morality and ethics of the Torah without simultaneously
maintaining the other laws as well, perhaps from now on
there will be such a group.
Let us say that you are a business man living just by the
Torah laws of business but not the rest. You can make a lot
of profit if you round off some corners. Will you really
give up a profit for some technical good, or will you find a
rationale that doing so is not really bad, even after you
have already accepted the halacha. Will you really
consent to lose a twenty million dollar job for not saying
something that is technically a lie? You won't do it.
What about for ten million? What about for five thousand?
For one thousand? Where will you draw the line?
Even if you start with ten million, if there is persistent
pressure, how long will it take you to go down to two cents?
And if you start out with a little lie, how long will it
take you to go up to outright fraud? Judging by the
experience of the human race, not very long.
It is not only the big things, it is little things as well.
Let me just give you some of the excuses that everyone uses.
"The phone company has cheated millions, there can't be
anything wrong with cheating the phone company. I am just
getting a little bit of my own back." "I am not doing him
any harm. He is insured anyway, he will get it back." "These
big department stores, they rob you right and left -- so
what if you shoplift? You take a little bit back out of
How do you resist the temptation of something that will make
a meaningful long term difference in your life, and all you
have to do is lie or cheat a little, rob a little, take a
Will it harm him that much? He has millions; I will take
only a hundred thousand. To me it makes such a difference,
for him it is a drop in the bucket.
If you know that there is a Ribono Shel Olom Who is
watching you, maybe you can resist the temptation. Even if
you know there is a Ribono Shel Olam it may not be
enough to keep you honest because you are going to have the
best answer of all: I am going to make a lot of money! When
I make a lot of money I am going to give so much to
tzedokoh and maintain so much Torah. You think, I
will buy off the Ribono Shel Olam; in the end it will
be ok. How much good will come out of it. It's worth it, for
So this approach will not be strong enough to hold a
How about if I know this: that no matter what business I
have or profession I have, my parnossoh comes from
the Ribono Shel Olam. There is no way I can get more,
there is no way I will have less whether by stealing or by
refraining from stealing. It can in no way affect my
parnossoh. If you are supposed to make a million, you
will make a million being totally straightforward.
Now there is a chance. If that conviction is deep you have a
good chance. We all know what is involved in doing good.
There are enormous difficulties, there are enormous
temptations because we are so flexible. We have all kinds of
excuses by which we point out that what we are doing is
really not so bad. As the gemora says, this is only
the first and second time. After that you don't have to
point it out: you live with it, you enjoy bad.
The ones who maintain their principles are only those who
submit to the Ribono Shel Olam completely, across the
full range of His halacha. Yoreh Deah is as
solid as Orach Chaim which is as solid as Choshen
Mishpat. Only those who accept the whole system might
keep Choshen Mishpat. You don't have the good men
outside of those who keep all of the halacha. You
just don't have them.
Back to the First Proposition
But suppose you did. Let's go back to the first proposition,
that theoretically it is possible to have a good man who
doesn't keep the full range of halacha. "Good man"
now is in terms of his relationship with other human
Isn't there a dimension to being a good man that requires
you to relate properly kevayochol to the Ribono
Shel Olam as well as to your fellow man?
Can you be a good man if you only relate properly to your
wife but not to your neighbors? Is that a good man? Doesn't
a good man have to relate properly to all human beings as
How about a good man who relates properly to all fellow
citizens but not to members of any other nation? Is that a
How about a man who relates properly to human beings but not
to his Creator? Is that a good man?
So it is not enough to define "good" in terms of not harming
another person. Good means that there is an essence, a real
difference, between one mode of behavior and another. It is
not just that one is more comfortable; it is not just more
profitable for society -- that can't be the definition of
The definition of good we have been considering is one who
doesn't hurt others. Is that good or is that just not evil?
Is there such a thing as being good in a positive sense?
If the only proposition is don't hurt somebody else, there
is no positive good. You can't define good solely in terms
of not harming somebody else. You have to include some
positive element as well. There must be some way to know
that there is a reality called good -- something actual
What is that? Where can I find that in my relationship to
other people? How can there be good within human beings
alone? There has to be something outside of humanity that
justifies humanity's worth and makes it meaningful to say
that someone is good in the way he or she treats other
people. It must come from outside and what is outside unless
it is the Creator?
What else can give a human being a dignity if not that he is
G-d's creature? How can you be a good person without
relating to G-d? How can you relate to G-d if He doesn't
tell you how? And if He does tell you how, then how can you
be a good person if you ignore this?
Therefore, even if somebody could maintain a basic humanity
without halacha, he can't be a really good person
without it. But as we showed you can't even maintain a basic
humanity without halacha.
The Civilizing Effect of Torah
I will make a statement and I ask you to research it at your
leisure. This statement has been in print for almost as long
as printing has existed and has been in writing for close to
700 years. (The statement was implicit long before that of
course.) The statement goes as follows: Wherever you come to
a place where Jews did not function and teach and live
Torah, you come to a place inhabited by people who are
barbaric, cruel, and without any concept of good. If there
is a pretense on the part of the nations of the world, to
goodness, justice, compassion -- it came solely from being
exposed to the teaching and practice of the Jewish Torah. In
those areas of the world in which there was no such
exposure, there is not even a pretense of a criterion or of
a practice of good. In places like that you can be subject
to the most heinous tortures without a second thought.
Research that statement. Look into China, Africa. Look into
those portions of the globe where the Jew did not penetrate,
where he did not teach and live Judaism, to see the
standards of the men found there. It is through the Torah of
the Jew that the concept of a good man came into existence
and it wasn't an easy job.
Do you know what the goy calls those whose conduct he
admires? Even in the noblest Greek philosophy, from the
educated to the ignorant, men, women, children -- everybody
knows that the hero is a warrior.
Even if in the past few decades, humanity has reached the
point that there are tens of millions who will say that is
no longer true, in their hearts it is still the truth. They
admire the ace who shot down the most enemy planes. They
admire that great and bold warrior, an adventurer who took
his machine gun and shot hundreds of foes.
They admire him even more if he has a smile on his lips
while he is committing his mayhem. They will admire him even
more if he tips off his hat to his opponent as he drives in
the sword. Elegance in killing, graciousness in
That is the true ideal of all except those who have been
affected by halacha -- those who kept Shabbos and
kashrus, and taharas hamishpochoh and all the
dinim of our Torah. They are the only ones who refuse
to accept that the ideal and noblest and finest expression
of human possibility is the one who can kill most
The one who is kind, the one who is learned and wise -- he
is the hero to those who keep halacha.
Little by little over the centuries, the other nations of
the earth have slowly come to appreciate that there is truth
in this view. But they do not like it. They have come more
and more to accept it but they still do not live it.
Today perhaps there are those who have really accepted that
the wise is better than the strong, that the good is more
meaningful than the strong. Who no longer preach that the
pen is mightier than the sword but who have started
teaching that the pen is better than the sword. It is
not mightier, it is better. It is better to use the pen, to
use teaching, than the sword.
Century by century they have come to realize that this is
the truth, but only those who have been exposed to the
Jewish Torah. You will not find this anywhere else. Not by
the Buddhists, not by the Shintoites, and certainly not by
the Christians, not by the Muslims, and not by the
You will find it only by those who have been exposed to
Torah. They are the only ones who will recognize that it is
not the great warrior who is the true hero. Even a secular
Jew has it baked deep into his bones, and he will give more
honor to the professor of physics than the general with
The rest of the world will run to greet the hero and not the
mathematician. They will run to give honor and respect to
the conqueror of humans [or the modern substitute, the
sports hero - Ed.] and not the conqueror of mystery. That is
where you will see the truly good man.