Toward a Jewish (M)orality: Speaking of a Postmodern Jewish Ethics

By S. Daniel Breslauer | Go to book overview

FACING UP TO GOD

While imitation of the divine forms one presupposition of this book, opposition to God stands as its equally presumed counterpart. Another Jewish story tells of how human beings can overcome divine intention. Perhaps one of the most famous rabbinic stories tells how a quorum of rabbis outvoted God's own view of the meaning of a Torah law (Baba Metzia 59b). According to the tale, several rabbis argue about whether a certain oven is susceptible to impurity. The majority of rabbis interpret the biblical text to imply that impurity does indeed apply to that oven. One solitary rabbi disagrees. To prove his point he performs several miracles, all of which are invalidated by the other rabbis. Finally he asks God to intervene; a divine voice does indeed break out from the heavens justifying that rabbi. The other rabbis reject even this voice. The Torah, God's revelation, they claim, has been entrusted to human beings. God's voice must now recede. Human voices must take precedence. The tale ends by describing God's reaction to this audacity: God laughed and declared, "My children have defeated me!"

This story moves from a focus on the face of the other to a heeding of the voices of other human beings. A Jewish morality that faces up to recent Jewish history must also be attentive to the words in which people express themselves. This book presupposes not only an ethics of caring but also a morality of speech, a (m)orality in which what is said responds to what is seen and articulates an ethics that may go beyond what tradition has associated with the divine.


NOTES
1.
John D. Caputo generates the type of postmodern moral thinking necessary for contemporary Jews. His Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), looks to postmodernism for suggestive ways to live morally given the new social and political realities of the late twentieth century. His response, a poetics of obligation, may not satisfy Jewish thinkers, but it offers an example of how one might proceed. A recent Jewish example is Michael Oppenheim, Speaking/Writing of God: Jewish Philosophical Reflections on the Life with Others ( Albany: SUNY Press, 1997). Oppenheim focuses his attention on the thought of Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas and then explores issues such as inclusive language, Jewish feminism, and religious pluralism. His subjective "midrash" on these subjects lacks the vibrant postmodern spirit of Caputo's writing, but has a clarity and passion of its own.
2.
Edith Wyschogrod, "Does Continental Ethics Have a Future?" in Ethics and Danger: Essays on Heidegger and Continental Thought, Arleen B. Dallery and Charles E. Scott with P. Holley Roberts, eds. ( Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 231.
3.
See Steven Harvey, "Love," in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Belief, Arthur Allen Cohen and Paul Mendes Flohr , eds. ( New York: Scribner, 1987), 557-63.

-xi-

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