A Personal Struggle with Jewish Ethics

Article excerpt

During my time working in Jewish education I have had numerous conversations with congregants who have had a variety of ideas about the aims and content of our education programmes. One exchange in particular has stayed with me since early in my career. 'I don't care if my son is a good Jew', this congregant said, dismissing all of the synagogue's work in the areas of ritual, liturgy and Hebrew, 'What I want is for him to be a good person'. On one level, I understood exactly what she meant. I have always seen making ethical people, or at least making people ethical, as an essential part of the task of Jewish education and synagogue life. I have often quoted Leo Baeck who, when he sought to define the essence of Judaism, wrote about ethics. He wrote:

   From the very beginning of the real, the prophetic, religion of
   Israel, its cardinal factor was the moral law. Judaism is not
   merely ethical but ethics constitutes its principle, its essence.
   (1)

But it is not quite so simple. Is being a good person enough to make you a good Jew, as this congregant ultimately believed? If so, are our institutions and, indeed, Judaism itself, necessary for this to happen? We do not, either in Judaism or in the religious sphere in general, have a monopoly on morality. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong is one that is shared by people from different faiths, and none. Modern research suggests that many of our moral intuitions about what is right and wrong are universally shared irrespective of cultural background, religious affiliation or belief. (2) Moreover, there is a modern trend in popular philosophy to try to push religion out of ethical discourse, influenced in part by the evidence around us of the ability of religion to lead people to do the most horrific of things. I'll give one, relatively extreme example, that of A.C. Grayling. He writes of religion that: it 'is the wrong resource for morality because it is irrelevant to the practical questions of contemporary life'; that 'Religious ... morality is not only irrelevant but inimical to modern interpersonal relations'; and that 'Religion is not only antimoral, it is often immoral'. (3)

Against this background, what can we find that is special about Jewish ethics which means that it has something to say about how we should behave in the world'? What is distinct and important in Jewish values that we should allow them to influence how we live our lives?

The first observation to make is that this is a very modern question. It is not one that most of our ancestors would have understood, and it reflects the fact that we find ourselves at a particular point in the development of society and religion. Before the Enlightenment, (4) it is questionable whether one could accurately talk about such a thing as Jewish ethics. This is not to say that Judaism did not make demands about how people lived in the social sphere. Clearly this is not true. But the principal mode of Jewish life was not one based in individual moral choices but on obedience to divine will in the form of mitzvot and halachah. These demands included what we might describe as ethical injunctions, but they were not explicitly intended as such, nor were they found within the context of any conceptual ethical framework. Moreover, the all encompassing nature of normative Jewish law ensured that there was little space within Jewish life for any supra-halachic ethical considerations. I am caricaturing, of course, but this basic assertion about the nature of Jewish decision-making is probably accurate. Ethics only emerged as a central part of Jewish life and identity when Jews were able to step out of this halachic framework, with the emancipation of European Jewry. At this point, Jews ceased to operate in a closed system in which they were subject to an 'outside' law, halachah, but had become autonomous moral actors. (5) They were suddenly confronted with new ways of thinking about how to behave, and in particular the idea that Reason could and would provide the answer to moral questions. …