Jewish ethical reflection today grows out of a confrontation with three traumatic realities. The Nazi Holocaust, in which six million Jews were slaughtered, inspired many Jewish thinkers to reevaluate their understanding of evil, their expectations of divine support for the good and the right, and their sense of human obligation. The realities of modern nationalism forced these thinkers to face up to the problems inherent in earlier ethical theories. Earlier Jewish moral systems had emphasized universal values, the beneficent effect of good deeds, and the ultimate triumph of divine justice. These ideas now seemed naïve in the light of the radical power for absolute evil that nations such as Nazi Germany were able to exert.
Jewish thinkers also face an equally powerful challenge to traditional views from an apparently opposite fact: the creation of the modern State of Israel. For many Jews the recreation of a Jewish national homeland testifies to radically new possibilities in moral choosing. The positive effect of having this new homeland balances the negative effect of experiencing the Holocaust. This homeland, however, comes as the result of human action, as a prize won by violence and armed conflict, by military rather than devotional tactics. Earlier Jewish moral systems drew on traditional teachings and inculcated a reliance on the divine. The success of the secular State of Israel challenges these principles. That success suggests that moral theory should be tested by pragmatic results.
A contemporary Jewish ethics must face up to the twin realities of the twentieth century. It must enable Jews to make sense of the failure of ethics and morality in the case of the Nazis and of the success of secular pragmatism in the case of the creation of the State of Israel. This book looks to the insights