A Personal Struggle with Jewish Ethics
Levy, Joshua B., European Judaism
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. It was no longer enough to act only in response to divine command.
For both intellectual and pragmatic reasons, from this point on ethics came to be, for many Jews, the essential element of Judaism. What did this mean in practice? On the positive side, it provided a justification for the continuation of Jewish life, providing a core set of values while allowing for the sorts of changes in worship practice that the progressive movements introduced. (6) It also led to the involvement of many Jews in social action, which has been, and should be a source of great pride for us. But this innovation also brought new problems with which we still need to struggle. One feature of the new emphasis on Jewish ethics was the identification of Jewish values with what are understood to be universal moral values. That is, the attempt to find within Jewish sources those ideas and texts which correspond best to general morality, and to promote those as core. It is a phenomenon with which we are all familiar. An example: As an heir to the Western philosophical tradition I know that human rights are important--John Stuart Mill among others have taught me so; as an heir to a Jewish textual tradition, I set out to find Jewish sources to show that human rights have always been important to my people. This is a slightly unfair presentation of the exercise, but it is not too far from the truth. But this identification of Jewish ethics with universal ethics hides a deeply difficult question: what extra value does Judaism bring? Is there actually something worthwhile about Jewish ethics which is worth retaining? And if ethics are the essential element of Jewish life, and we can just as easily talk about universal values, is there actually anything indispensable about Judaism beyond a set of ethnic folk rituals? This is a version of the question that Eugene Borowitz asks in his book 'Renewing the Covenant', when he asks whether the difficulty many of us have with the idea that our grandchildren might not be Jewish is merely emotional discomfort, or if this discomfort carries a genuine normative weight. (7)
The evolution of Judaism from strict normative framework for everyday life has brought with it another problem too. If we accept the Enlightenment idea that choices, particularly moral ones, are the prerogative of the individual, that morality is an area for self-determination - and as Reform Jews we absolutely do - how can we justify applying a limit to our autonomy by placing ourselves back into the external framework which our texts and tradition represent?
These are questions too big to address directly in a short paper, and I'm not sure I could confidently provide convincing answers anyway. So in response, rather than presenting an ethical framework, I want to make three related observations which I think are true and of which I hope one or two at least might resonate with readers:
1. Judaism expresses the encounter of one particular people with God and is therefore inherently distinctive even where Jewish ethics can be identified with universal values
Judaism does not seek to present systematic philosophy. When we treat it as if it does, we are in danger of looking in it for things that simply are not there. This is not to say that philosophy and religion don't overlap. The work of Maimonides proves the opposite. But it is to say that the main goal of Judaism is not philosophical. Rather Judaism expresses the human search for meaning and the encounter, both historical and current, between human beings and God. In as much as Judaism presents ethical ideas, these can be understood as the values that come out of this encounter. The major source of distinctiveness in Jewish ethics is therefore that they spring from a different point of origin to other ethics, and this makes them distinctive even where they reflect similar values to other, universal ethics. Our ethics are unique in nature even where the moral outcomes which they produce might be the same as those produced by other models.
A great example of this is the so-called Golden Rule, the idea that you should treat people how you would wish to be treated. In our tradition it is found in Leviticus 19: 18, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself', and in the Talmud, where Hillel is reported as explaining to a non-Jew that the whole Torah can be summed up as 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour' (8) Something similar is found in most religious traditions, even those which do not have a Judeo-Christian origin. (9) It is found in the Hindu tradition in the Mahabharata, and in Jainism and Confucianism. We can account for this as world religions independently expressing a universal ethical truth reached by reason, (10) but even if this is the case, the universality of the truth does not invalidate the fact that each particular group expresses it in its own way, through its own texts. In our case, it is found within Talmudic dialectic, attributed to Hillel (explicitly not to Shammai), in relation to the Torah, and in the interaction with a potential convert. These details are not trivial, because they reflect the fact that this is not merely an ethical principle, but one that is owned by us as a distinctive group, from out of our experience, and which continues to shape our culture and world-view.
It is a mistake, I think, to try to separate Jewish values from the encounter with God in the way that secular Jews might seek to do. This is not to say that it is impossible to do so, or that we must have a theistic world view in order to engage with Jewish tradition. If only as metaphor, though, it is important to acknowledge the understanding in Judaism that our ethical behaviour has an effect upon our relationship with the Divine Presence. (11) Duties bein adam le-havero, between us and our fellow human beings, are no less duties to God in the Jewish framework than those explicitly bein adam la 'makom. The two categories are inseparable in our formative texts. (12) Very rarely in the Bible are ritual laws and how we should live in the social sphere treated as separate things. (13) More often, they are found all mixed up together, for example, in the great compilations of laws in Torah, in Mishpatim and in Kedoshim. We may be tempted sometimes to focus on those prophetic texts which emphasise the ethical at the expense of the ritual, but even these demanded that both aspects be fulfilled. This demand must continue for us. To quote Eugene Borowitz again:
Ethics may be our highest priority, but the ethical is not all one needs to do as a Jew. Today, if one asks, 'Rabbi, if I do the right thing but don't come to the synagogue, I'm a good Jew, isn't that so?' my answer must be, 'No'. (14)
2. At the heart of Jewish 'ethics 'is the concept of obligation. This can be, though is not necessarily, a good thing.
It is not true that the essence of Judaism is ethics as we now understand it. In the traditional model of Judaism, God gives free will to humanity, but the choices an individual faces concern his or her willingness to follow divine command not how to apply ethical principles or reason. Some of the commandments may be ethical in nature, but they are presented as obligations for us to accept upon ourselves or not. The view that the mitzvot are inherently ethical and intended as such, as found in Maimonidean thought, is important, and is fundamental to the reconciliation between halachah and ethics made by modern Conservative thinkers. (15) However, it can not change the essential nature of halachah as primarily concerned with obedience to divine will. There is a principle found in the Babylonian Talmud which may seem counterintuitive to us, but which emphasises this point, that it is better to do something because one is so commanded than when one is not commanded. (16)
So halachah is by nature of a different category to ethical principles. Jews do not act within a framework of moral intuition, but of practical requirement, expressed in the language of commandment. We are commanded, or if we struggle with the idea of a commander, as many of us do, we are compelled. The Jewish responsibility to the vulnerable in society, for example, represented in the Bible by the stranger, the orphan and the widow, comes about not because of some intuitive moral sense, or rational thought process, or even because of the warm feeling we might get inside, but it comes to us as mitzvah, as commandment, as compulsion.
This is a very difficult idea for those of us who believe that we can and do act autonomously, that is, literally by our own law. It conflicts with the idea that we can work things out as individuals through our own use of logic, without reference to external laws. I would like to believe that irrespective of whether a mitzvah existed giving me responsibility for the vulnerable this is a social demand to which I would still respond. If I am honest, though, I can not be sure. The model of obligation has one hugely important advantage. It makes people do things. The biggest challenge of morality is not our knowledge of right and wrong, but its expression in our lives. It may well be that we all have similar moral intuitions, or that reason can provide the answers to moral questions, but the evidence of the world around us is that these do not produce moral action. Kant's belief that human beings, as essentially rational moral actors, would necessarily self impose universal ethical laws has not proven correct. Reason is not binding. General ethics provides us only with guidance.
By contrast, Judaism's essential concern is with action out of obligation. We may not accept all the details of halachah or the mitzvot, but the fundamental truth of Torah and our later formative texts, is that Judaism requires us to act.
In Parashat Mishpatim, when the Israelites accept their side of the covenantal deal, they say Naaseh v Nishmah, we will do and we will hear. Such unhesitant acceptance says an enormous amount about the nature of Jewish moral obligation. We are not defined by our faith or beliefs, but by what we do. The emphasis in Judaism is on the action.
I don't entirely agree with, but I like the imagery of the twentieth Century Jewish philosopher Will Herberg's comparison of moral values without religion to cut flowers: they smell nice, but don't last very long. 'Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung' he wrote, 'they possess neither meaning nor vitality. Morality ungrounded in God is a house built upon sand, unable to stand up against the vagaries of impulse and the brutal pressures of power and self-interest'. (17) The question is a legitimate one: Without the structure of a framework of obligation, how can we ensure that our moral values find expression in moral action?
3. There is a middle way between autonomy--, total personal freedom in decision making and complete heteronomy--subjugation to an external law, in our case as Jews, halachah
I want to be very clear that I am not advocating the subjugation of human moral reason to faith and obedience as the way to an ethical life. This is, and again I apologise for the simplification, the approach taken by Soloveitchik in his work 'Halachic Man'. To Soloveitchik, there is a merging of obligation with the self-consciousness of the idealised Halachic man which means that there is no conflict between moral values and traditional Jewish obligation. (18) I am not capable of that level of subjugation. Nor, as I have indicated, do I believe that all of the laws that come out of Torah or rabbinic literature are necessarily ethically correct. It is an inevitable consequence of the revelation of Torah in time and the evolution of society that there will be conflict between traditional obligation and our rational moral faculties.
I appreciate that there is an element of wanting to have the cake and eat it; of wanting an ethical framework which consists of responding to obligation because this will mean that moral action takes place, while at the same time wanting to be able to reject obligation where it doesn't fit with Western ethical values. This can better be understood as responding to two sets of obligations. The concept of mitzvah may be fundamental, but it is not sufficient for those of us who are additionally compelled by our modern identity to apply reasoning to our ethical behaviour. As post-emancipation, post-enlightenment, Jews we hold both those obligations that come from our tradition and have an additional responsibility to apply reason to those obligations. Our ethical framework includes the demand that we not only follow our traditional obligations. Equally, to steal a phrase, (19) we need to 'learn to be led' by our tradition. This feels like a classic progressive religious dilemma. (20) How do you live wholly in two traditions? How do we find the right balance between the particular demands of our Jewishness and the general principles of our Western modern identities? On a theoretical level, can we create a theological framework which has the ability to validate our autonomy and reason while remaining within the distinct Jewish ethical framework of obligation? In this respect, I find the theological model of covenantal relationship put forward by Eugene Borowitz very helpful in validating these two apparently contradictory demands. Borowitz manages to hold a balance between being commanded as a Jew in relation to God, and the privileged position that we must give as modern progressive Jews to the autonomy of individuals. He wrote in 'Renewing the Covenant':
Jews living as part of a community bound ... in a true relationship with God will find their individual responsibilities arising from being commanded as part of our personal-yet-folk intimacy with God. God's quality exalts the relationship, making its entailments compelling. At the same time we, the humans who must live out the Covenant as given selves in a specific time and place, determine how our tradition must be continued, modified, or newly expressed to reflect our continuing faithfulness. (21)
This feels to me like an authentic Jewish response to the tension between the obligation of Jewish ethics and the autonomy of Western ethics. It is important not to forget that Jewish tradition has always allowed a level of flexibility in ethical thinking. In very few places does it insist on absolute imperatives. The change in modernity has been that the prerogative to determine how our tradition must be continued, particularly in the sphere of ethics, has merely been handed to the individual.
I hope I have managed to pull together some answers to how and why Jewish ethics are important. The conceptual framework to Jewish ethics that I have presented sees an interaction between three things: the origin from which our values come--the encounter with God; the (initial) form they take--obligation; and the autonomy and reason of the actor--that's me and you. Of course, the practical questions remain. We need to identify the content of our traditional obligations, starting in the formative texts through which our ancestors expressed their encounter with God, and then we need to think hard about how we respond to them. The reality is that in many cases, as autonomous moral actors, we will reject these obligations. Sometimes we will look in them for the underlying values, from which we can create new obligations that speak to us.
And sometimes we will find that our traditional obligations resonate for us in such a way that we are truly compelled through both obligation and reason to act upon them. We may also see that the distinctiveness of Jewish ethics lies not just in their origin and nature but also in the content of our moral obligations.
And after all that, we need to remember that this is only partly an intellectual exercise. It is through the expression of moral values in action, not in theory that we approach God. If we are in any doubt as to what is expected of us, let us return to Leo Baeck's Essence of Judaism, where he notes that the person:
who has not become sure of God through good deeds, will never experience lastingly the being of God through any inner experience. It is in the deed that God reveals himself in life; the deed is the determining factor for man. (22)
Baeck, Leo. 1936. The Essence of Judaism (English edition), Macmillan and Co, London.
Borowitz, Eugene B. 1990. Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility, Wayne State University Press, Detroit.
--. 1991. Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.
--. 1994. Reform Jewish Ethics and the Halakhah, Behrman Hous, New Jersey.
Dorff, Elliot N. and Newman, Louis E. 1995. Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, Oxford University Press.
Grayling, A.C. 2003. What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.
Hartman, David. 1985. A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism, The Free Press, New York.
Novak, David. 1992. Jewish Social Ethics, Oxford University Press.
Singer, Peter. 1979. Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press.
--. 1993. How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, Oxford University Press.
Kellner, Menachem Marc (ed.). 1978. Contemporary, Jewish Ethics, Sanhedrin Press, New York.
Singer, Peter and Hauser, Marc. 2006. Godless Morality, at http://www.projectsyndicate.org/commentary/hausersinger1
Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph B. 1983. Halakhic Man (English version), Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia.
(1.) Bacck, 1936: p. 52.
(2.) When presented with test case ethical dilemmas atheists and believers give the same answers. See article by Singer and Hauser, 2006, Godless Morality. The Moral Sense Test can be found at http://moral.wjh.harvard.edu/
This research presents an important empirical challenge to anyone who suggests that ethics is impossible without a religious basis. As a piece of scientific research, discussed in an article by a philosopher and a neuroscientist, it also reflects an interesting development in moral philosophy. The idea that reason can provide a universal moral consciousness has now been replaced by the idea that evolution has already done so.
(3.) Grayling, 2003: pp. 69-71. Most of Grayling's ire is directed towards Christian morality, though his basic thesis is that religion should be removed from the public domain and that choices about how to live are best made in reference to what he identifies as humanistic values. Grayling is particularly extreme, but the idea that religion has no place in ethical philosophy is widespread, see also Singer, 1979: p. 3, 'I shall treat ethics as entirely independent of religion'. There are valid philosophical reasons to support this view. However, the prime motivation behind attempts to remove religion from moral discourse is not philosophical per se but is scepticism about transcendence in the universe, and a view of religion as inherently destructive.
(4.) I am very conscious that in drawing a line at the Enlightenment l am not giving a full account of the relationship between commandment and ethics in Jewish texts and thought before this period. In particular, I am aware that there is a strand in Talmudic thought, and in medieval Jewish philosophy, which seeks to present adherence to the commandments as distinct from simple adherence to divine will. In this view, the commandments represent rational ethical laws, almost irrespective of their divine origin. See, for example, Louis Jacobs, The Relationship between Religion and Ethics in Jewish Thought in Kellner, 1978: pp. 41-57. In his Critique of Louis Jacobs in the same publication (pp. 58-60), Leiman emphasises the alternative position in traditional rabbinic thought.
(5.) Autonomy is here understood in its general meaning rather than its specific use by Kant that human beings, as rational agents are bound to self-given ethical laws.
(6.) The process by which ethics became central in Jewish life is well described by Borowitz in the article "Jewish?' 'Ethics?" 'Jewish Ethics?'--The New Problems' in Borowitz 1990: pp. 26-36.
(7.) Borowitz, 1991: p. 183.
(8.) Shabbat 31a.
(9.) This is particularly interesting to philosophers as it is an example in which a principle has emerged in separate cultures, rather than where Western values have emerged out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The possible Jewish origin of many of the 'universal values' of Western society is something that some Jews point to as distinctive: 'These are things we have given to the world'. However, the fact that Jewish values may have been first does not in itself make them indispensable if they have been subsumed into a broader set of universal values.
(10.) This is the approach taken by secular philosophy. See for example, Singer, 1993: p. 273.
(11.) I am very open to the idea of Judaism being accessible, and a rational choice, for those who do not believe in God. However, the use of God language can not be expunged from Jewish tradition without changing the fundamental nature of the material we work with.
(12.) Harold Schulweis in 'Judaism: From Either/Or to Both/And' in Dorff and Newman, 1995: pp. 25-37 notes the apologetic nature of attempts to separate the two parts of Jewish life, and to classify ritual as primitive, while ethics is 'emergent'.
(13.) One rare example is found in Kiddushin 40a which includes a discussion of the 'righteous man who is not good'--i.e. who is good to Heaven, but not to man. Even here there is an expectation that both aspects will be fulfilled.
(14.) Borowitz, 1990: p. 370. The implication of this article is that American Reform Judaism might well have answered in the affirmative once. The identification of being a good Jew with being an ethical human being is not one which can provide compelling reasons for ongoing Jewish existence.
(15.) Such as David Hartman, for example in the chapter 'Ethics and Halakhah' in Hartman, 1985: pp. 89-108 in which he compares his approach to the conflict between halachah and morality, based on a Maimonidean approach with that of Soloveitchik.
(16.) Avodah Zarah 3a, Kiddushin 31a.
(17.) Herberg, 1959: pp. 91-92.
(18.) Soloveitchik, 1983: p. 65. This model does not suggest that when there is a conflict between halachah and modern morality, halachah takes precedence, but rather that the complete subjugation of the consciousness to halachah, complete heteronomy, means that such conflicts do not arise.
(19.) From Newman in Borowitz, 1994: pp. xiii-xxi.
(20.) It is apparent to me that the search for a middle way in religious ethics is not solely a Jewish exercise. Neither of the two extremes of autonomy and heteronomy has given us a satisfactory response to modern ethical problems. A summary of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the two extremes can be found in Novak's discussion of Tillich's theonomous ethics, a Christian response to this problem, in Novak, 1992: pp. 46-48.
(21.) Borowitz, 1991: p. 215.
(22.) Baeck, 1936: p. 50.
* Joshua B. Levy is a graduate of Leo Baeck College and Assistant Rabbi of Education at the West London Synagogue.…
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Publication information: Article title: A Personal Struggle with Jewish Ethics. Contributors: Levy, Joshua B. - Author. Journal title: European Judaism. Volume: 40. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn 2007. Page number: 161+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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