American Orthodoxy

Malbim’s Paean to (Ben Azzai’s) Kantian Ethics

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Francis Nataf


Among several great traditionalists of the nineteenth century, Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-79) embodied a road rarely pursued today. And, for many of us, it is a road sorely lacking. He was highly learned and loyal to the Jewish tradition on the one hand, but in sophisticated conversation with the general Western culture of his times on the other. This has already been discussed by others.[1]

Here I will seek to evaluate an oft-mentioned but frequently misunderstood example of Malbim’s engagement with Western culture: his discussion of Kant’s categorical imperative in connection with the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18).[2] In doing so, I will try to tease out Malbim’s understanding of the relationship between Jewish and Kantian ethics. Along the way, Malbim’s treatment of the topic will serve to demonstrate a model for constructive engagement with general culture and scholarship.


As a commentator on the Sifra, Malbim’s discussion of Leviticus 19:18 is really a discussion of the corresponding section of Sifra:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”―[to this] Rabbi Akiva says, “This is the great principle (klal gadol) of the Torah.” Ben Azzai says, “’This is the book of the generations of man’ (Genesis 5:1)―that is a greater principle than it.”[3]

After giving a fairly traditional understanding of Rabbi Akiva’s position[4] and tying it to Hillel’s maxim (Shabbat 31a) of “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” Malbim moves on to how this relates to moral philosophy more generally:

And the philosophers have already explained that the primary axiom which is the root of moral philosophy is that one should will that everything he does be a universal axiom (hok kollel). This means, if he should want that evil occur to his fellow so that he will benefit, he must evaluate it to see if he would want it to be a universal axiom, such that this axiom would be that everyone may cause damage to their fellows when it brings benefit to themselves. And this will certainly not be acceptable to him, that damage should be caused to him in order that benefit come to his fellows. And through this, he too will desist from doing it to his fellow. And likewise, if he is able to benefit his fellow and he desists from it, he must evaluate it to see if he would want this to be a universal axiom such that all people would desist from benefitting him. And this is [the meaning of] that which Rabbi Akiva said, that it is the great principle (klal gadol) of the Torah. However, the critical philosophers questioned [Rabbi Akiva’s] maxim, since this axiom is still not universal. For, according to this, everyone would act on the basis of the benefit to themselves, whereas it is fitting that all of their actions be on account of axioms of sublime universal reason without any admixture of personal benefit. And for this reason, Ben Azzai elevated the axiom to a more sublime matter when he based [it] on “This is the book of the generations of man,” for all men are bound together like one body. All of them were created in the image of God to complete the highest image and form which contains the souls of all mankind. All of them are like one single person and like one body which is composed of different members.

While we have translated hok kollel more literally here as a universal axiom, others have understood it as a Hebraization of Kant’s categorical imperative.[5] Whether this is correct or not, there is no questioning their broader claim that the ensuing discussion follows Kant’s arguments about moral philosophy.

This is not the place for a lengthy technical discussion of Kant.[6] Suffice it to say that much of Kant’s work was about creating objective universal standards for philosophy; and to this, ethics was no exception. In the case of ethics, true universalization meant that any version of the Golden Rule,[7] for example, could only be valid if it was completely independent of the desires and/or opinions of the individual “rational actors” involved.[8] Quite clearly, this is also the standard with which Malbim evaluates the positions of Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai.


Primarily because the scholars who note Malbim’s deference to Kant here only do so in passing, they overlook the fact that Malbim tells us that Rabbi Akiva’s position misses the mark and that it is only Ben Azzai that falls in with Kant’s requirements for a categorical imperative.[9] That such is the case is really quite clear from a simple reading of Malbim. In his comments, he speaks about an attempt to hold up Rabbi Akiva’s rendition of the Golden Rule as a categorical imperative. But he then continues to point out its being brought into question by “the critical philosophers,” who note the deficiency of such a position given its dependency upon the subjective criteria of the individual (“benefit to themselves”). They (meaning Kant) therefore reject it and seek something completely rooted in “sublime universal reason.” [10][11]

Though Kant does not address Hillel’s classically Jewish variant of the Golden Rule,[12] per se, Malbim would seem to be correct in pointing out its failure to conform to Kant’s standard. If anything, the Jewish variant is a ‘sitting duck’ for Kant’s attacks. For while the Torah’s formulation of loving neighbor as self (and Rabbi Akiva’s endorsement of it) may be conceived as one based on a totally abstracted self―thereby setting us a type of universal standard―Hillel’s explanation of it to a specific individual with whom he was in conversation locates it back on the plane of an actual self. Specifically, Hillel is asking his interlocutor to reflect on what he does not like in order for him to understand what he should not do.

Hence, by making this association of Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, Malbim goes out of his way to suggest that―from a Kantian perspective―Rabbi Akiva’s position is no better than Hillel’s.


If Malbim had no more to say on this topic, our discussion of his view could end here. However, his final words on the topic add important nuance, as well as revealing Malbim’s awareness of the contemporary debate surrounding Katanitan ethics:

According to this theory, the words of Rabbi Akiva follow his own understanding (leshitato), since he expounds (Sifra Behar 5:43, Bava Metzia 62a), “Your life comes before that of your fellow.”

The reference is to a classical discussion of Jewish lifeboat ethics, wherein Rabbi Akiva takes the position that if one owns enough water to save only one person, he is fully justified in taking all of the water for himself. While both sides of this debate can conceivably be argued from a Kantian perspective, that itself is quite significant in this context.

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. Bear in mind that even though sharing the water will likely not save the other person, it will prolong their life. In addition to the infinite value that can be placed on this in and of itself, that prolongation allows for the unforeseeable―but almost always theoretically possible―scenario where they will both be rescued at the last minute. On the other side of the scales (Rabbi Akiva’s position), however, it is clear that the far more likely result of this scenario is that they will both die. Moreover―and this seems to be what is emphasized by Malbim here―the determinant of which life should be saved is subjective. For Malbim, this is an extension of the rationale expressed in Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule.

This is more than a theoretical point: The fact that saving a life does not automatically outweigh a categorical principle provides an excellent example of what many critics have seen to be a weakness in Kant’s ethics. According to Kant, categorical imperatives are not dependent on their results. To give another example, if telling the truth―which is a categorical imperative―kills someone, it must still be done. [13]

It must be noted that Jewish tradition has unanimously accepted the ruling of Rabbi Akiva with regard to taking the water for oneself. It is perhaps no coincidence that Malbim reports a normative ruling in which Rabbi Akiva comes to the defense of what Kant calls practical reason, essentially saying that saving a life is more important than a consistent ethic. By doing so, he 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.


Regardless of where Malbim placed his sympathies, it should by now be evident that he unequivocally rejected the possibility of reconciling Kant with Rabbi Akiva. The flip side of this is that Malbim does identify Ben Azzai’s position with Kant’s. To what extent he was right and whether Malbim was not just engaging in an anachronism[14] need not concern us now. Our focus here is not how correct his understandings of Kant and the Jewish tradition were but rather the implications of these understandings for our own conception of Jewish ethics.

How we are to understand Malbim’s positioning of Rabbi Akiva’s dominant voice in normative Jewish thought[15] as being in opposition to Kant while understanding his opponent (which Malbim explicitly also associates with Ben Petora, Rabbi Akiva’s opponent in the discussion of lifeboat ethics)―i.e. the dissenting voice―as being aligned with Kant?

The previous section allows for two possible conclusions about Malbim’s thinking:

  • The Jewish tradition was aware of Kant’s position (embodied by Ben Azzai/Ben Petora) and rejected it in favor of a more subjective ethics ultimately rooted in self-interest.

  • Not only was Jewish tradition aware of Kantian ethics; it viewed it as an ideal. Yet since it was more difficult to convey and put into practice, it was displaced by an inferior but more practical ethics.[16]

I am not aware of much evidence in either direction. Yet were we only to look at the comments on Leviticus 19:18, the second position seems more likely. Not only does Malbim explicitly present the argument against Rabbi Akiva’s position without rebuttal; he also seems to build up the nobility of Ben Azzai’s position as one in which we should remind ourselves that:

All men are bound together like one body. All of them were created in the image of God to complete the highest image and form which contains the souls of all mankind. All of them are like one single person and like one body which is composed of different members.

If this sounds a little messianic, perhaps that is the point. It is set up as an ideal unattainable until man reaches a higher level of consciousness in which he is able to rise completely above self-interest. In other words, Malbim declares the truth of the Kantian moral system while finding a plausible reason for why it should not be accepted as normative.

In the final analysis, however, even if we are tempted to conclude that Malbim sympathized with Kant’s approach to ethics, this did not cause him to lose sight of the fact that the Jewish ethical tradition was too practical to accept it―at least for now. In other words, the Jewish tradition chooses an imperfect system that brings important tangible benefits (i.e. saving lives) over a more consistent truth that comes at the cost of sacrifices on the highest order. It is, as per the Midrash’s rendering of the words of Daniel, God flinging truth to the ground.[17]


Earlier, we mentioned that we were not concerned with the correctness of Malbim’s understanding of Kant.[18] If he did err in some details, he would not have been the first sophisticated reader to have misconstrued some of Kant’s difficult ideas. Regardless, the general contours of his understanding certainly brought him into the orbit of the likes of Hermann Cohen, who sought to understand the relationship between the most influential of all modern philosophers on the one hand and Jewish tradition on the other. That Malbim could do this with tremendously broad and deep knowledge of all facets of the Jewish tradition made his engagement all the more valuable.

While its importance may be less evident than it was in the intellectual ferment of nineteenth-century Europe, Orthodox Judaism’s lack of serious engagement with contemporary culture comes at a price. Understanding Jewish tradition in complete isolation from other thinkers is not only artificial; it is detrimental to the respect we should have for all those who try to advance the human condition. Moreover, it can―and frequently does―backfire into a situation where Jews critical of their own heritage lose the respect they should have for a tradition that has dealt profoundly with many of the same issues discussed by the great philosophers and thinkers of the outside world.

It is true that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently tried to do exactly this by being in conversation with the best of contemporary thought. However, as I argued elsewhere,[19] his efforts often fell short of what is required. If Malbim’s understanding of Kantian ethics did not make him an expert in that field, his thorough understanding of the Jewish tradition combined with his inspired creativity to provide for deeper points of contact, as we hope that we have illustrated here. For that reason alone, Malbim represents an important model to ponder more seriously.

[1] See David Berger, “Malbim’s Secular Knowledge and His Relationship to the Spirit of the Haskalah” in Cultures in Collision and Conversation: Essays in the Intellectual History of the Jews (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 167-189; and N. H. Rosenbloom, Ha-Malbim: Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, Parshanut, Filosofia, Madda u-Mistorin be-Kitvei ha-Rav Meir Leibush Malbim (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1989).

[2] See, for example, Shubert Spero, Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1982), 205; and Shalom Rosenberg, “You Shall Walk in His Ways,” Edah Journal 2:2, Tammuz 5662, at the beginning.

[3] All translations are the author’s.

[4] In this section, Malbim explains that a more exact reading of the verse would be “Give love to your neighbor” and is only commanding charitable action. It is not meant to convey actually loving others in the same way that we love ourselves, which Malbim―echoing earlier commentators―tells us is not in our control.

[5] Again, see Spero and Rosenberg. Malbim’s formulation here certainly echoes Kant’s own words, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 30.

[6] The interested reader is directed to the helpful yet very brief summary of Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative found in David Horwitz, “The Fundamental Principle of the Torah,” YU Torah, Sivan 5769, 29-30.

[7] Variations of the Golden Rule are found in early Greek philosophy, starting with Thales, and in many later philosophers, as well as in other cultural and religious traditions besides Judaism.

[8] For a quick summary of the difference between the two, see  Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) 124-125. I thank Dr. William Jacobs for pointing me to this source as well as his assistance with this article more generally.

[9] As a result, Spero (205) is misled into facilely claiming, “This is not, of course, what [Kant] had in mind.” (Associating it with Rabbi Akiva and Hillel, the principle becomes relegated to self-interest. But Malbim basically says as much, which is why he notes that it is rejected by the critical philosophers (Kant) in favor of Ben Azzai’s categorical imperative.)

[10] For a discussion of Kant’s critique of the Golden Rule, see James A. Gould, “Kant’s Critique of the Golden Rule,” The New Scholasticism 57, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 115-122, and “The Golden Rule,” American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 4, no. 2 (May 1983): 73-79.

[11] Though he surprisingly fails to mention Malbim, David Horwitz follows this very same line of thinking in explaining the argument between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai, “The Fundamental Principle,” 29-31.

[12] Shabbat 31a. Granted, Ahad Ha’am (Kol Kitvei Ahad Ha’am [Jerusalem: 1965], 370-377) and Spero (209-211) attempt to transform it into something more in line with abstract Kantian ethics, but there is no getting away from the very subjective nature of the proposition as it is presented in the Talmud.

[13] See Robert J. Benton, “Political Expediency and Lying: Kant vs Benjamin Constant,” Journal of the History of Ideas

 43, no.1 (January-March, 1982): 135-144, which discusses the first classical argument against Kantian ethics. While Benton proposes a contextual defense for Kant, he is working off of the assumption that Kantian ethics are untenable in such a situation. Also, see Sandel who (presumably unknowingly) chooses a case right out of Yoreh Deah (337), wherein most people will intuit the moral correctness of the halakhah’s mandate to withhold information that may endanger the life of someone in fragile health, an action that would arguably violate the categorical imperative to tell the truth.

[14] While scholars will no doubt balk at Malbim’s association, there is no reason to categorically dismiss the possibility that Ben Azzai anticipated Kant but did so within his own frame of reference and cultural context.

[15] In areas of pure theory, Jewish authorities rarely decide who “we follow,” it being understood that there is no practical need to make such a decision. That being said, Rabbi Akiva generally carries far greater weight than Ben Azzai. Moreover, if we―as Malbim actually does―connect this with the discussion of lifeboat ethics, which revolves around a practical issue, we see that Rabbi Akiva’s position is preferred.

[16] Kant himself acknowledges the advantages of approaches rooted in practical reason, even as he argues for the need of the categorical imperative.

[17] Bereshit Rabbah 8:5 on Daniel 8:12.

[18] Nor is it critical whether he came to the ideas by reading them in the German, in translation, or only through secondary sources. All three possibilities were open to him; there does not appear to be reliable information pointing to one avenue more than the others.

[19] Francis Nataf, “One Man’s Dialogue – Review of Radical Responsibility Anthology in Honor of Jonathan Sacks,” Jerusalem Report (Nov. 7, 2013): 45.