THE SOCIETY OF JEWISH ETHICS (SJE) IS DEDICATED, IN the words of its by-laws, to "promote scholarly work in the field of Jewish ethics ... to encourage and improve the teaching of Jewish ethics ... to promote an understanding of Jewish ethics within the Jewish community and society as a whole, and to provide a community of discourse and debate for those engaged professionally in Jewish ethics." It is also the hope of the founders of SJE to engage in dialogue with ethicists from other traditions. This last consideration has led to the strategic decision to hold our annual meetings in conjunction with those of the Society of Christian Ethics, an organization with a long history, a prestigious membership, and a commitment to pluralism and interreligious discourse.
But SJE also aims to rectify what many of us see as a curious lacuna in the recent renaissance of Jewish studies in North America. Courses in Jewish ethics remain far less common in the typical Judaic studies college curriculum than those in other fields--history, literature, Bible, or rabbinics. The same anomaly can be detected if one examines the program of the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies, or if one looks at catalog listings under "Jewish Studies" among the country's major academic publishers. So the ethics of this tradition, renowned let us remember for its contribution of "ethical monotheism" to western civilization, is curiously underrepresented in academic programs devoted to the study of Judaism.
It matters not for the moment how this curious state of affairs came about. What matters is that the work which is currently being done to describe, interpret, and further develop the ethics of Judaism (and of Jews) finds a proper academic home. And, despite the situation noted above, much important and creative work in this area is ongoing. Some of the leading contributors to the study of Jewish ethics come out of philosophy, others from theology, still others more recently from rabbinics. This diversity of methodologies is a blessing, but it has also complicated the process of creating a field of Jewish ethics, or even finding a forum in which scholars of Jewish ethics can share their questions and their work-in-progress.
The Society of Jewish Ethics has begun to create this forum and, even at this early stage in its development, the results are encouraging. One need only look at the modest programs of its first two gatherings to appreciate the richness and diversity of the scholarly work underway. …