In the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explains that the Book of Genesis is also known as the Book of the Righteous (see, e.g., Joshua 10:13) since the patriarchs were righteous and their stories fill the content of the Book of Genesis. Righteousness, he argues, was lacking at the time when the Second Temple was destroyed. While the Jews of that era were punctilious in their observance of the commandments, their treatment of each other was sub par. As a result, the Temple was reduced to rubble, many lives were lost, and Jews were scattered over the world.
The NeTzIV, the acronym by which Rabbi Berlin was known, provocatively suggests that ethical behavior is better than religious observance. Religious observance was not enough to save the Temple from destruction. But proper conduct, he implies, would have saved the Temple and prevented the tens of thousands of Jewish lives lost.
Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk would disagree: not about the destruction of the Temple but about the relative ranking of ethics and observance. In describing the pledge made by the two and a half tribes to fight for the conquest of the land of Israel before returning to their homes on the east side of the Jordan River, Moses assures them that if they keep their word they will be “clear before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22). The order is crucial, Rabbi Meir Simhah explains. When a person clears himself before God, he ineluctably clears himself before people. That is because the commandments regarding the proper treatment of one’s fellows are also subsumed under the heading of fulfilling one’s obligations to God. The reverse is not true. Those who act only to satisfy their fellows in order to please the latter are frauds. What emerges from this explanation is that the observance of the commandments is the higher practice.
Of course, both are right. Ritual observance without ethical conduct is empty and ethical conduct without being grounded in practice is aimless. The ideal Jew must include both.