Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-First Century: Living in the Image of God

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Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-First Century: Living in the Image of God

In this book, Sherwin wishes (1) to demonstrate that Jewish ethics is irreducibly theological, "defined by the beliefs, practices, and significant literature of Judaism," (2) to acquaint the reader with some of the specific "theological claims upon which the ethics of Judaism rests," (3) to show that Jewish tradition "may be effectively applied to the ethical problems of the present," and (4) to illustrate the application of traditional Jewish texts to selected contemporary ethical problems (p. xviii). The book admirably fulfills all these goals through close readings of a wide array of traditional Jewish sources as they bear on a range of ethical topics -- from health care, euthanasia, and reproductive technologies (including cloning) to social welfare, repentance, and honoring parents. It offers an extremely rich presentation of the classical sources, with special emphasis on those reflecting the mystical and hasidic traditions. Though Sherwin breaks no new ground here in terms of methodology, his clear and well founded analyses of moral issues make an important contribution to the growing literature in the field of contemporary Jewish ethics.

Sherwin's treatments of these wide-ranging topics are united by his view, captured in the subtitle of the volume, that Jewish ethics is fundamentally about "living in the image of God." By this he means not only that Jewish ethics is theocentric, but that its key principle concerns honoring each human being as created in God's image, and striving to emulate God in our relations with one another. Thus, whatever the topic at hand, Sherwin draws our attention to the ways in which this key principle expresses itself in Judaism's moral teachings. As a result, he implicitly demonstrates that there is a profound coherence in this system of ethics, that what classical Jewish texts teach about how to treat parents, how to help the poor, and how to care for a dying patient are all of a piece.

Yet, highlighting the theological nature of Jewish ethics, as Sherwin does so effectively, may tend to obscure the distinctly non-theological dimensions of this ethical tradition. The distinctive ways in which each rabbi or exegete within the tradition interprets all that has come before, and adds to the collective legacy, reflects the particular social, historical, and economic circumstances of the time. But sensitive as Sherwin is to the theological tensions within the tradition, he offers us no guidance in discerning the diverse historical contexts that are surely reflected in these divergent theological streams. Moreover, the theological debates within the tradition themselves could be explicated more fully. There are perennial issues that underlie the entire moral tradition in Judaism -- for example, between particularist and universalist ways of understanding morality, between more hierarchical and more mutual models of the covenant between God and Israel. …