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

By S. Daniel Breslauer | Go to book overview

If, by theological self-definition, the Torah of Moses cannot be deemed insufficient to meet commercial needs, then how should the scribe proceed? Clearly, scribes should practice "the rhetoric of inadequacy" and search their sources carefully to discover a solution to their problems from within the tradition itself. That technique engages interpreters in ongoing self-criticism. Measuring the self against the ideals of the past inevitably leads to that continual refinement and critical perspective demanded by postmodernism.

What ethical principles do the laws of usury exemplify? The Mishnah suggests that the principle involved is that of the effect of actions on a human life. The teachings of Abaye emphasize how texts create social responsibility and how obligations of communal identity arise out of loose reading of Torah. The strictures of Rabbi Simeon point to the need for continual self-criticism and reevaluation of texts and sources. Taken together these three form an ethics of postmodernism, a Jewish ethics that arises from a study of the halachic discussion of loans, interest, and business partnerships. This ethics of action leads back to law--to specific choices people make. To understand those choices requires an aesthetics of otherness, which keeps in motion the transition from word to text, from presence to memory, and from reading life to interpreting it, and that motion turns back on itself again and again. This circle of postmodern moral searching brings this study to a close and opens it again into the play of reflection.


NOTES
1.
Zygmund Bauman, Postmodern Ethics ( Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 52; see the entire discussion of responsibility and duty on pages 50-59.
2.
Eugene B. Borowitz, "The Authority of the Ethical Impulse in Halakha," in Norbert M. Samuelson, ed., Studies in Jewish Philosophy: Collected Essays of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy, 1980-1985 ( Lanham: University Press of America, 1987), 500.
3.
Ezra Basri, The Laws of Interest, Eliyahu Touger, tr. ( Jerusalem: Haktav Institute, 1987), 114.
4.
Ibid., 117-51.
5.
See Aaron Levine, Economics and Jewish Law (Hoboken and New York: Ktav and Yeshivah University Press, 1987), 213.
6.
See Basri, Laws of Interest, 151-69.
7.
I owe this expression to Professor Gene Schramm, who noted the pejorative implications of the term "fiction."
8.
J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems 2 ( New York: Ktav and Yeshiva University Press, 1983), 379; see the entire discussion, 376-84.
9.
See Joseph Stern, "Ribis: A Halachic Anthology," in Halacha and Contemporary Society, Alfred S. Cohen, ed. ( New York: Ktav, 1983), 189; the entire article is relevant here, 167-90.
10.
See Basri, Laws of Interest,178-96.
11.
See David Novak, Jewish Social Ethics ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 223.

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