This chapter explores the medieval genre of sifrut ha-musar (ethical literature), which has largely been ignored in the recent burgeoning of the field of Jewish ethics. This neglect is attributed to the fact that the genre does not call halakhah into question, as does Jewish ethics generally, particularly through the notion of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din (supererogation), that one must act beyond the letter of the law. But this does not mean that musar is non-ethical; rather, its purpose was to “harmonize the spirituality of God with the values guiding his worship.” This spiritualization of Jewish ritual and culture generated creativity for nearly a thousand years around the Jewish world, first in Islamic contexts and then climaxing in Christian milieus.
Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert
This chapter first sets out the difficulties in studying the sources for Jewish ethics in classical rabbinic literature. Not only do rabbinic texts lack the very notion of ethics, they also emerge from different terrains and times and perforce bespeak different moral conclusions if not presumptions on how to reach those positions. However, one exception is texts classified as rabbinic “ethical” literature, which include 'Avot or Pirkei 'Avot and its companion text(s), Avot de-Rabbi Natan. The discussion then turns to the relationship between law and ethics in rabbinic literature; ethical limits to halakhah in rabbinic literature; and issues of universality and particularity in rabbinic literature.
This chapter analyzes the ethical theories of Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph B. Soloeitchik, two luminaries in of twentieth-century Orthodoxy in Israel and the United States, respectively. Despite Kook's lean toward the mystical and Soloveitchik's tendency toward the rational, they nonetheless share in the perspective that ethics is central to proper Jewish living and theology. Whereas Kook views the moral impulse as already embedded in Jewish existence, Soloveitchik understands imitatio Dei as the central mechanism through which Jewish ethical behaviour comes into being.
This chapter examines the thoughts of the most significant and influential theologians in American Jewish religious life, Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Emerging from the pragmatism and naturalism of the early decades of the century, Kaplan fostered a fascination with humanity that led him to eschew traditional Judaism's theocentric views of morality. For him, it would be better to understand Judaism as a civilization—no better and no worse than others—and jettison mitzvoth (commandments) in favour of “folkways” so as to inspire social behaviour, for it is through the folk themselves that morality comes into being. Heschel, by contrast, favours a more mystical and theocentric approach. For him the prophets best articulated the apocalyptic dangers of even the smallest immorality and the need to rise above human communities to root morality in God's will for us.