- Question: [Monday 18th Adar 2, 5782]
Is there any truth to the statement that one’s conscience can mystically determine right from wrong and direct a person who is facing a fork in the road, as to whether he should choose one way or the other? I have heard stated that if your conscience feels bad about something then that is a sign that it is bad and that you should not do it. Is there any truth to this in Judaism and should or may one follow this?
There is some truth and sources behind this statement, when taken in its proper context, although it can easily be abused and perverted from its initial intent. See explanation below
Explanation: Certainly, any matter that is already discussed and determined in Jewish law becomes the guideline for us of right versus wrong, irrelevant to how our conscience may feel. One’s conscience, and feeling bad versus good regarding a certain decision or action, cannot override Jewish law. Thus, for example, even if one’s conscience feels terrible about him eating on Yom Kippur, he must do so upon his doctor’s orders, in order to save his life, and in such a case following one’s conscience is against God’s will. Thus, whenever one faces a challenge, one must first determine whether or not Jewish law and philosophy has a ruling on the subject, and if it does then he must follow that ruling irrelevant of the feelings of his conscience.
When, however, is the above statement correct, that one should follow his conscience? This is when the matter cannot be determined according to Jewish law such as if it is a matter that is dependent on one’s intent, and whether he is doing it for altruistic purposes, for the sake of God, or to fulfill his own lusts. Regarding this, it is recorded in Sifrei Mussar, which the Rebbe mentioned on numerous occasions during his public talks throughout the years, that whenever one is unsure if a certain matter is being done for the right reasons, or is being done to fulfill his lusts, then he can use his conscious and feelings to determine right from wrong. A person has a natural and instinctive feeling of regret for bad actions that he performs, after he performs them, and desires not to repeat them again. In contrast, when a person does a good deed, he has a natural and instinctive feeling of pride and self-assurance and desires to do it again. In the words of the Shevet Hamussar “I am handing you the following guideline for a person who does not have someone to guide him and is embarrassed to ask a sage, or simply there is no sage available in his area: You should know, that every action that you perform, even if it has a loss of money, which causes joy to enter your heart, and whenever you remember it you rejoice about it, then this is a sign that this is a good action and is in accordance to God’s will and you shall continue doing it, as a mitzvah has a special Segulah to enter joy into one’s heart. If, however, you did an action which may have given you profit, but afterwards you feel bad in your heart about it, and whenever you remember this action, you feel saddened and pained that you did so, then this is a sign that it is a transgression and is not the will of God”
The Rebbe mentioned this philosophy many times, as we mentioned above, and added the following points: 1) This rule applies even to Gentiles, as they too have an instinctive conscience of right from wrong, and if they feel bad about something they did, then it is a sign that they did so to fulfill their own lusts and that it is against God’s will. 2) This rule applies even by a Rasha Gamur whose “good” is only in him in an encompassing way. 3) Whenever something is done simply out of a lust of the heart, such as to eat a tasty nonkosher food, and not due to a true intellectual decision and ideology, then as soon as one fulfills the lust, one no longer feels a lust for it, and even despises it. The reason for this is because he never really intellectually desired to do it and it is just that his inclination and lust took him over. However, as soon as he fulfills his lust and satiates his inclination, it enters his lust into a dormant state, and he returns to his senses of truly hating and despising the evil. However, when one performs a good deed and a mitzvah, then one still desires to do it again even after doing it once before and does not regret its performance.
Sources: Shevet Hamussar chapter 25:5, 8; Toras Menachem Vol. 74 p. 162; Vol. 63 p. 20; Vol. Vol. 57 p. 170; Vol. 55 p. 30; Vol. 41 p. 131; Vol. 22 p. 44; Vol. 8 p. 147