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date: 26 February 2021

Introduction: Why Study Jewish Ethics?

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins by explaining the rationale behind the study of Jewish ethics and how it differs from “regular” ethics. It then presents an overview of the two parts of this Handbook, the first of which traces the development of Jewish thinking from the Bible to modern times. The chapter demonstrates that throughout history, Jews have been embedded in a larger Western context and influenced by the ethical thought of non-Jews. The second part treats various moral issues, indicating the range of approaches, where available, within the Jewish tradition and community. Finally, the chapter discusses the relationships of Jewish ethics to secular ethical theories and practice, and outlines classical sources for Jewish ethics.

Keywords: Judaism, Jews, history, ethical theories, ethical practice

Many people use the terms “ethical” and “moral” synonymously, and sometimes even to reinforce each other, as when one says, “He is a very moral and ethical person.” Philosophers generally distinguish the terms, with “morals” referring to judgments about specific issues (for example, is it moral to abort a fetus at any time?), while “ethics” refers to theories of morality. Still others distinguish these terms in other ways, as readers of this book will see.

However one uses these terms, ethics speaks to our judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, in our relationships with each other. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a moral human being, and thus is central to our character and identity. It is no wonder, then, that people around the world might be interested in ethics. Some are interested in the theoretical part of ethics (“metaethics”), which discusses what we mean by moral terms in the first place, who is bound by moral judgments, the grounds of authority of moral judgments, and the relationships between ethics and religion, law, custom, economics, and even art. Everyone, though, has a stake in practical ethics (“normative ethics” or “morality”), which discusses what is right or wrong, good or bad, in specific situations, for we all confront such questions throughout our lives.

Why, though, a book on Jewish ethics? And how is that different from “regular” ethics?

The answer lies in the fact that none of us is omniscient; nobody knows everything. As a result, even though some thinkers maintain that moral norms are absolute, applying to everyone in every time and place, we human beings cannot know (p. 2) for certain what those norms are. We may be very committed to our views of right and wrong, good and bad, and even to specific applications (e.g., that discriminating against others on the basis of race, gender, or religion is wrong, or, for some, that abortion is always wrong). Indeed, we may even be willing to die for some of our ethical convictions. In the end, though, all human beings perceive moral values from their own vantage point. That may be their own individual vantage point, or it may be that of the community to which they belong. Though our vantage points may be particular, the norms we endorse may still be universal and absolute—that is, binding on everyone in every time and place. Nevertheless, no matter how certain we may think we are, we cannot know for sure what those universal and eternal norms are.

Some philosophers maintain that the norms are not absolute, that they vary by society or even by individual. There is, indeed, a range from nihilists (who claim that there are no moral norms whatsoever) to subjectivists (who claim that what is right for me is not necessarily right for anyone else), to relativists (who claim that judgments of right and wrong are determined by, and vary by, groups or nations) to absolutists (who claim that moral norms apply to everyone at every time and place). The point, though, is that even absolutists, if they are being honest and appropriately humble about what they can know, must admit that, because they are human beings, their knowledge is inherently limited and that they inevitably perceive what is right and wrong from their own perspective. (In many ways, this idea parallels Einstein’s Relativity Theory, which makes the same claim about our knowledge of objects and forces, applying it to our moral knowledge.)

What we presume is “secular” morality—or even “objective” morality—then, is actually moral norms from the vantage point of our own society. In Western societies, shaped as they were by the Western liberalism that emerged from Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, what we usually mean by “secular” morality is a system of morals based on the notion of individual rights. Thomas Jefferson, in writing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, embraced this view as he quoted Locke in asserting this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The fact of the matter, though, is that even though individual rights as the bedrock of morality was “self-evident” to Enlightenment thinkers and the Founders of the United States, other cultures and nations see things very differently. Judaism, for example, perceives us as members of a community with duties, rather than individuals with rights. That is a bit too stark a comparison, for Americans and other Westerners also cherish family and community, and they certainly assert some duties that we have to our family and community. Conversely, Judaism maintains that every human being is created in God’s image, and consequently each person is to be honored and respected. Still, the focus in American ethics is on individual autonomy, whereas the focus of Jewish ethics is on familial and communal responsibility. Even though rights and duties are sometimes reciprocal, getting up in the (p. 3) morning with a sense that “I am an individual with rights and therefore people and the government owe me at least the protection of my rights” is very different from getting up in the morning with a sense that “I am a member of a community with duties.” Thus one might be interested in Jewish ethics because it is rooted in a perspective distinct from Western liberalism, and because it understands who we are as individuals and what our relationships are to our family and community differently from Western liberalism broadly construed.

The difference in this theoretical foundation between Judaism and Western liberalism sometimes, but not always, leads to practical differences too. As readers will see, Jewish views of abortion, for example, are different, on the one end, from secular American law and, on the other, from that articulated by Catholic authorities. So one might be interested in studying Jewish ethics for the light it brings to specific issues, especially where it challenges what readers always thought was obviously right or wrong. Judaism is, after all, a tradition that has existed for 3,700 years, and although that span does not guarantee wisdom or moral knowledge, it does indicate a long history of grappling with moral issues and with meta-ethics, a history from which anyone can learn something.

Jews, of course, may have yet another reason to read this book, for it presents an important part of their heritage. Between its covers Jews may discover reasons for some positions they have held for a long time, but they may also find that Judaism supports a different stance on specific issues than the one they had presumed and that Jewish thinkers have thought about morality in far more diverse ways than they ever imagined.

How This Book Describes Jewish Ethics

The first part of the book takes the reader more or less chronologically through the development of Jewish ethical thinking from the Bible to modern times. The essays in this section describe the wide variety of Jewish ethical approaches that have developed over time—so wide that one may wonder whether there is anything like a cohesive Jewish ethical view. Readers who are used to other traditions may expect Judaism to be well defined within authoritative bounds, as, say, the Catholic tradition is. In fact, however, Judaism is a very feisty tradition, one that loves argument and counterargument. The fact that there are multiple approaches to ethics within Judaism is thus only one manifestation of the great tolerance Judaism has for questions and multiple answers.

Given that, on any specific issue one cannot accurately speak of what Judaism says about it; one can only describe how a particular Jew or community of Jews interprets and applies the tradition to the specific area of concern. The interpreter then has the burden of providing arguments to show that his or her interpretation is a plausible (but never an exclusive) reading of the tradition.1

(p. 4) In the second part of the book, then, which treats a variety of important moral issues, the chapters’ authors have done their best to indicate the range of approaches within the Jewish tradition and community to a particular issue. As the reader will discover, despite the wide variety of ethical theories discussed in the first part of this book, on many—but certainly not all—issues most Jews tend to come to similar conclusions, and sometimes those positions vary significantly from those taken by other groups in Western societies, let alone Arab and Asian groups. Some authors then identify their specific convictions about Judaism and indicate how these affect their particular reading and application of the tradition to the moral issues in question. Most, though, limit themselves to describing the predominant Jewish view while also indicating where Jews differ significantly among themselves or with others.

Precisely because no Jew can speak authoritatively for the entire Jewish tradition or community, and because every author will inevitably bring his or her specific lens to the material at hand, and because the Jewish tradition loves diversity and discussion, we include among the authors people who have varying forms of Jewish commitment and expression. Thus people who variously identify themselves as Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and secular are counted among this book’s authors.

What This Book Does Not Contain

This book is intended for those who would like to get an overview of the field within the covers of one volume. Inevitably, such a book cannot claim or even aim for completeness.

There are several subjects that we consciously excluded. These include the ethical aspects of Jewish liturgy, ritual, fiction, and the arts—not for lack of their significance but simply for reasons of space. Furthermore, this book does not address the relationship between religion and ethics, even though Jews have invested considerable thought on whether they intersect and, if so, how, both negatively and positively.2

The relationship between Jewish law and morality is a critically important issue for Judaism, for it traditionally has put so much store in defining moral norms in legal terms. This book does not treat that subject as an independent topic, and so it is important to warn readers to be alert to how the various theories described in Part I address that issue, especially among the modern Jewish movements, and how the essays in Part II draw on Jewish law and interpret and apply it—or specifically decide to base themselves on other sources of Jewish authority and identity.

Not surprisingly, contemporary Jewish thinkers span a spectrum with regard to this topic. On one end are those, primarily connected to Orthodoxy, who deny that morality has any authority over Jewish law.3 On the other are those who think that moral norms should invalidate laws when they conflict, and this group (p. 5) includes not only Reform authors such as Eugene Borowitz, who does not see the law as binding in the first place, but also some who do, including Conservative authors, such as Seymour Siegel and Robert Gordis, and even a small number of Orthodox writers, such as David Hartman.4 In between is a host of writers in all the modern movements of Judaism who assert the integration of Jewish law with morality, with each affecting the other, but they justify and nuance this integration in a variety of ways.5

The omission of this last topic is representative of a larger set of omissions, for this book is a description of the field, not a set of polemical pieces arguing for one stance or another. As is stated above, some authors do argue for a particular stance after describing the lay of the land, but most do not.6

Despite efforts to make this volume expansive, it cannot be exhaustive. Here are some of the other theoretical and practical issues set aside for future deliberation: the ethics of Jewish historiography and the ethical sensibilities of particular Jewish communities throughout diasporic existence. More contemporary issues include the internet with its democratization of data, disintegration of privacy, and digitizing of personhood. Social media, the transformation of mass media, and the so-called demise of print media also merit ethical investigation on personal identity, civic engagement, and Jewish teaching and learning. Bioetechnologies, synthetic biology, neuroenhancers, brain imaging, cloning, genomics, and the whole realm of neuroethics both fascinate and challenge contemporary Jewish bioethicists, but with the exception of Laurie Zoloth’s chapter on genetics, we were not able to address this set of issues. Corporate responsibility, safety, honesty, fiscal responsibility, environmental concerns, and more, not to mention governmental finances and systemic failures—all warrant urgent ethical attention, and the chapters in this volume on business ethics, environmental ethics, and the ethics of the treatment of animals only begin to address the many issues that arise in these areas of life. Education ethics too needs attention, especially as all education systems struggle with intellectual integrity, the tension between teaching for breadth and for depth, and the inculcation of virtues. This incomplete list of issues not fully addressed in this volume should serve only as an indication that more work in this field needs to be done, not the impoverishment of the volume. Rather, this volume may serve as a foundation and goad for those projects.

What Makes a Theory or Moral Stance Jewish?

In Part I readers will see that throughout history Jews have been embedded in a larger Western context and influenced by the ethical thought of non-Jews, and in Part II this influence will be evident in the authors’ treatment of specific areas of practice. Sometimes Jews have consciously rejected what other cultures thought (p. 6) and did, as, for example, in the Bible’s rejection of Canaanite sexual practices in Leviticus 18 and 20. To take a more contemporary example, Elliot Dorff’s rabbinic ruling on violent and defamatory video games, adopted unanimously by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, limits the value of free speech in a way that the U.S. Supreme Court specifically does not.7 Similarly, Jewish views on sexual relations are not as liberal as American law allows, for Jewish law forbids adultery, for example, while most Amerian states have dropped that prohibition altogether, and in some it is still on the books but is not enforced. On the other hand, Jewish law allows the use of artificial means of contraception, in contrast to Catholic doctrine.

At other times Jews have done the exact opposite, embracing what the outside world is doing and thinking deliberately and even legally, as, for example, when Jews living in northern Europe accepted Rabbenu Gershom’s prohibition of polygamy, thereby adopting the Christian community’s norm of monogamy. In more recent times, Jews have learned from Catholics the importance of premarital counseling and hospice care, and Jews have learned from Western liberal thought the importance of individual rights and of many norms in business ethics in the totally new contexts of corporations and modern technology.

In most times and places, though, Jews have done something in between, accepting influences from the outside only in part and in a particularly Jewish way. That response is true, for example, in how the Rabbis of the Mishnah adapted Roman family and business law when formulating Jewish laws on those topics, and it is also true for many contemporary decisions in medical ethics.

Readers will see these varying ways of responding to the surrounding culture in some essays, where authors cite non-Jewish authors or practices and respond to them in varying ways. More subtly, in other chapters authors are not as explicit about, or possibly even aware of, these influences, but readers may see their influence nevertheless.

These ways of responding to other cultures are good illustrations of what makes a particular ethical theory or moral stance recognizably Jewish. In some cases the answer will be obvious because the theory or stance extensively draws on Jewish law and thought and maintains them as they have been for centuries. In other cases, especially where the theory or moral position borrows significantly from non-Jewish perspectives or sources, the Jewish identity of the resulting theory or position will be less clear. At the same time, if the Jewish tradition will be able to thrive in ever-new circumstances, it must adapt to new conditions or sensitivities. So the fact that a theory or moral stance is new does not automatically disqualify it from being Jewish. The Jewish tradition is, after all, just that—an ongoing, evolving tradition. As a result, the religion of the Rabbis is a particular interpretation and application of the Torah (different in important ways from Christian interpretations and adaptations of the same Hebrew Bible), and the various expressions of Judaism today are all—including Orthodox ones—different in important ways from the forms of Judaism in the past. Otherwise Judaism would have fossilized and died generations ago. What makes a position that differs from the past still (p. 7) Jewish, then, is that the theorist or moralist intentionally provides a pathway back to the tradition, rooting the theory or moral stance in the Jewish sources and practices of the past even if the new theory or stance is somewhat different.

Relationships of Jewish Ethics to Secular Ethical Theories and Practice

Because the Jewish tradition is evolving and because Jews themselves are as much embedded in the larger world as is Judaism itself, it should not be surprising that Jewish ethical discourse—both at the theoretical and practical levels—reflects influences from the world beyond Judaism. From as early as the Torah itself, the Jewish textual tradition incorporates words, ideas, rituals, holidays—and values—from surrounding civilizations and religions. It is not a hermetically sealed tradition. On the other hand, this is not to say that Jewish ethical deliberation incorporates what non-Jews have thought and done in a wholesale manner, or that everything non-Jews value has been brought into Judaism without some kind of vetting or reformulating. Rather, there has been a long-standing critical dialogue between Jews and non-Jews, and contemporary Jewish ethics continues this tradition.

Examples of this interreligious or religious-secular conversation abound. The Rabbis of the Talmuds wrestled vociferously with Greco-Roman and Christian worldviews, philosophies, values, and practices. Maimonides incorporated Aristotelianism in his legal and philosophical tracts, and many other medieval scholars responded to their Muslim and Christian hosts and neighbors. Arching forward into the modern period, most contemporary Jewish ethics expresses a response in some degree to the thought of Immanuel Kant. Emancipation further quickened the pace of Jewish encounters with other religious and secular systems of ethical thought, and their wake engendered various schools of Jewish thought and practice.

The more Jews became exposed to the larger world, the more they considered intellectually. This process can be seen in the last two hundred years as Jewish ethical deliberation branched out beyond the virtues, as had been championed by Maimonides and the mussar movement. Now, especially since Emancipation, Jews were considering with greater urgency such issues as the ethics of citizenship and the ethics of power; they found meaningful interlocutors in utilitarian, transcendental, pragmatic, and liberal philosophical schools—Mill, Thoreau, Dewey, and Rawls, to name just a few. And with the rise of technological prowess in the last century in both industry and medicine, Jews attended to the ethics of business and health alongside secular and Christian ethicists. Though they found some common ground with non-Jewish counterparts on what to do on many thorny issues, Jewish ethicists often came to these conclusions from dramatically different ways of reasoning.

(p. 8) Navigating this diversity of ethical thought has become a critical issue in the postmodern setting. It challenges both Jewish and other religious ethicists to justify why their religiously inspired ethics matter in religiously complex civilizations. In short, Jewish ethics has been, is, and will continue to be a dynamic conversation that both responds to and influences ethical deliberation in the larger, non-Jewish world.

Classical Literary Sources for Jewish Ethics

Readers of this volume will learn that contemporary Jews and those in recent centuries have added tremendously to the body of Jewish thinking on both ethical theory and practice. As was indicated above, though, what makes each of their theories recognizably Jewish is that they engage classical Jewish sources, sometimes confirming the views of those sources, sometimes rejecting them, and sometimes modifying their meaning or application. Readers, then, need to know what those sources are. The literary sources of Jewish ethics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. 1. The Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). This has three parts: the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. The Torah is the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Nevi’im (Prophets) consists of the historical books of Former Prophets—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings—and the literary books of Latter Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel (the “Major Prophets” because their books are long) and the Twelve Minor Prophets (because their books are much shorter—e.g., Amos, Micah, Zekhariah [the longest of the twelve] and Obadaia [the shortest of the twelve]). Ketuvim (Writings) includes Psalms, Proverbs, and a variety of other books, including the historical books of 1 and 2 Chronicles.

  2. 2. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish oral traditions, some undoubtedly from before the revelation at Mount Sinai and continuing to the time of the editing of the Mishnah c. 200 c.e. It is ordered by topic and was edited by Rabbi Judah Ha-nasi (president of the Sanhedrin). It is divided into six major parts (called sedarim, Orders), and those in turn are divided into books (“tractates,” massekhtot), of which there are sixty-three in total.

  3. 3. The Midrash Halakhah, which consists of rabbinic commentaries on the legal sections of the Torah, edited c. 200 c.e.—namely, Mekhilta on Exodus, Sifra on Leviticus, and Sifre on Numbers and Deuteronomy.

  4. 4. The Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud, a record of the discussions and expansions of the Mishnah that took place in Palestine, edited c. 400 c.e. (p. 9)

  5. 5. The Babylonian Talmud, a record of the discussions and expansions of the Mishnah that took place in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), edited c. 500 c.e. When Jews talk about “the Talmud” without an adjective, they mean the Babylonian Talmud, because it was disseminated much more widely than the Jerusalem Talmud was in the centuries after their editing.

  6. 6. Midrash Aggadah—or simply “Midrash”—which consists of books of rabbinic commentaries on the nonlegal sections of the Torah, appearing in a variety of volumes edited between 425 c.e. and the twelfth century.

  7. 7. Legal codes, including especially Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (1177 c.e.) and Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Arukh (1563), with glosses by Moses Isserles to indicate where the customs of Ashkenazic (northern European) Jews differed from those of Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews, the latter being what Karo recorded.

  8. 8. Responsa (plural; responsum is singular)—in Hebrew, she’elot u’teshuvot (questions and answers) or simply teshuvot—which are rabbinic legal rulings, from the early Middle Ages to our own time.

  9. 9. Philosophical, literary, and liturgical works, as well as music and some art.

The Variety of Methodologies of Jewish Ethics

In addition to these literary sources, readers should be aware that the tradition offers Jews and others a wide variety of resources that influence Jewish moral thought and action through different methodologies. Elliot Dorff describes them in detail in the Appendix of his book Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics.8 What follows is an abridged version of that material. Some of the methods that Judaism uses to know and motivate the good are as follows.

Stories. For example, the core Jewish story—the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the trek to the Promised Land—loudly proclaims that we can and must work together with God to redeem ourselves and others from slavery of all sorts. It also says that we must live our lives in accordance with revealed norms, and that we must continue to hope and work for the Promised Land of the Messianic age. (Note that the State of Israel’s anthem is Hatikvah, “The Hope.”) One way, in fact, to grasp the differences between Judaism and Christianity in moral vision is to compare the messages of their central stories, the Passion-Resurrection for Christianity and Exodus-Sinai for Judaism.9 That same kind of comparative analysis can yield equally illuminating results when juxtaposing the central stories of other religions and secular philosophies on each other and to Judaism.10

Stories not only announce the norms and ideals of a religion or culture; they also give those norms and ideals a sense of reality and make them easier to apply to (p. 10) one’s life. Moreover, because stories are concrete, they are easier to remember than rules or maxims, and, because they portray moral norms in real-life situations, stories are an effective way to educate people about moral norms (including what happens when they are broken) and to motivate people to be moral.

Because of their realia, stories also raise challenges in regard to discerning and disseminating norms. For example, insofar as contemporary Jewish norms derive in large part from precedents (see the section on law below), the details of some stories make it difficult to say with full confidence that they apply in whole or even in part to the peculiaraties of contemporary life. And there is also the problem of ambiguity: some stories are rather vague. This allows the modern reader ample room to see in them a wide range of norms. It is not uncommon, then, for a single story to inspire dramatically diverging, if not mutually exclusive, positions.11

History. No nation that has gone through the exile and persecution endured by Jews can possibly have an idealistic picture of human beings; the evil that people have foisted on each other must be part of the Jewish perception of reality. This is, of course, all the more true since the Holocaust, which, among other things, makes Jews wary of medical research on human subjects.

Family and Community. We first learn what is acceptable behavior and what is not from our parents. They thus make us aware of the whole realm of moral norms. They also provide the first motivation to act morally as we try to please them. Parents and, after them, siblings and other relatives are critical for the moral development of any human being. In fact, children who lack continual moral guidance from parents or some other caring adults from infancy are in serious danger of never understanding the moral dimension of life or acting morally. Judaism therefore takes care to buttress family life with very specific requirements embedded in the Torah’s commands to honor and respect parents and, conversely, to require parents to teach their children the Torah and what it expects of them. Beyond these legal boundaries, Jewish family rituals are rich and pervasive, thus strengthening the family further. This emphasis on the family has been translated into Jewish consciousness through such media as popular literature and even Jewish jokes about family relationships.

As children mature, they come into contact with the larger community. While tightly knit communities can have the negative effects of squelching independent moral analysis and action, such communities can also have morally salutary effects. We learn that we cannot steal Johnnie’s marbles on the playground from his and other children’s reactions to such behavior. Throughout life, in fact, a strong part of our motivation to follow moral rules stems from our desire to have friends and to be part of a larger community. We also aspire to moral ideals, in part, because we crave the esteem of other people, especially those near and dear to us.

Contemporary communities in the United States, including Jewish ones, tend to be much more fractionalized and voluntary than they were in times past, and communities the world over tend to find themselves in continual interaction with other communities, thus blurring the coherence and authority of any one community’s moral message. Nevertheless, communities still function to provide a shared life, including experiences and vocabulary that shape moral vision and behavior.

(p. 11) Leaders and Other Moral Models. Just as children learn morality first from their parents, so too adults learn to discern what is moral and gain the motivation to work for moral goals from their leaders and their other moral models. Nobody is perfect, of course, and part of the task in seeking moral leadership is to understand that specific people may be ideal in certain ways and not in others. When political and religious leaders are shown to have moral faults, this sometimes unfairly and unrealistically undermines our appreciation of their real moral leadership in other matters. Thus the leadership in civil rights shown by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson should not be forgotten just because they were each involved in morally questionable behavior in other aspects of their lives.

Similarly, Judaism uses leaders like the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses, other biblical people, and rabbinic figures throughout the ages as models of ideal behavior and, importantly, also as models of what happens when you do something morally wrong. In describing what they did wrong as well as what they did right, Judaism keeps its leaders from becoming idols while still holding them up as figures to be thought of when deciding on one’s own moral course.

It is not only people with specific offices in society who influence us morally. Teachers, counselors, friends, and even our children and students can show us how to behave. Although Rabbi Judah, the President of the Sanhedrin (or, in another version, Rabbi Hanina) was probably referring to the intellectual knowledge of the Jewish tradition, his famous dictum can equally apply to the moral lessons we learn from it: “Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my peers, but most from my students.”12

General Values, Maxims, and Theories. The Torah announces some general moral values that should inform all our actions—values like formal and substantive justice, saving lives, caring for the needy, respect for parents and elders, honesty in business and in personal relations, truth telling, and education of children and adults. The Torah’s laws articulate some of these general moral values, and others have found their way into books of moral maxims. The biblical Book of Proverbs and the tractate of the Mishnah (c. 200 c.e.) entitled Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot) are two important ancient reservoirs of Jewish moral precepts, and medieval and modern Jewish writers have produced some others, such as Moses Hayyim Luzzato’s Paths of the Righteous (Mesillat Yesharim).

Some medieval and modern Jewish thinkers formulated complete theories of morality, depicting a full conception of the good person and the good community, together with justifications for seeing them in that particular way and the modes of educating people to follow the right path. Several disparate examples of such theories, each with its own recipe for living a moral life out of the sources of Judaism, include the following: Maimonides’ twelfth-century rationalist approach, borrowing heavily from Aristotle, articulated in his code (Mishneh Torah) and his philosophical work (Guide for the Perplexed); the mystical views of the thirteenth-century Zohar and the sixteenth-century Lurianic kabbalah; the behaviorist approach of the nineteenth-century figure, Israel Salanter, founder of the musar movement; the neo-Kantian rationalism of Hermann Cohen in the early (p. 12) twentieth century; and the existentialism of Emanuel Levinas in the last half of the twentieth century.

Theology. As in other Western religions, for Judaism God is central not only to defining the good and the right, but also to creating the moral person. God does that in several ways.

First, acting in God’s judicial and executive functions, God helps to ensure that people will do the right thing. God is the infallible Judge, for He knows “the secrets of the world,” as the High Holy Day liturgy reminds us. Nothing can be hidden from God, and God cannot be deceived. Moreover, God holds the power of ultimate reward and punishment. To do the right thing just to avoid punishment or to gain reward is clearly not acting out of a high moral motive, but such actions may nevertheless produce good results. Moreover, the Rabbis state many times over that even doing the right thing for the wrong reason has its merit, for eventually correct moral habits may create a moral person who does the right thing for the right reason.13

God also contributes to the creation of moral character in serving as a model for us. The underlying conviction of the Bible is that God is good, and God’s actions are, as such, paradigms for us. The Bible itself raises questions about God’s morality, for there are times when God appears to act arbitrarily and even cruelly; but, for all that, Jewish texts trust that God is good.14 We, then, should aspire to be like God: “As God clothes the naked…so you should clothe the naked; as God visited the sick…so you should visit the sick; as God comforted those who mourned…so you should comfort those who mourn; as God buries the dead…so you should bury the dead.”15

God’s role as Covenant partner and as Israel’s Lover probably has the greatest effect on creating moral character within us. We should abide by God’s commandments, in part, because we were at Sinai, we promised to obey them there, and we should keep our promises. Thus, as the Haggadah of Passover reminds us, “In each and every generation a person is obliged to view himself as if he himself went out of Egypt” on the trek to Sinai, and God made the Covenant with all generations to come: “It is not with you alone that I create this Covenant and this oath [of obedience], but with those who are standing with us this day before the Lord, our God, and with those who are not with us today….Secret things belong to the Lord, our God, but that which has been revealed is for us and for our children forever to carry out the words of this Torah.”16

Ultimately, though, God serves to shape moral character by entering into a loving relationship with us. That is, the Covenant is not only a legal document, with provisions for those who abide by it and those who do not; the Covenant announces formal recognition of a relationship that has existed for a long while and that is intended to last, much as a covenant of marriage does. Relationships, especially intense ones like marriage, create mutual obligations that are fulfilled by the partners sometimes grudgingly but often lovingly, with no thought of a quid pro quo return. For God, as for a human marital partner,17 we should do what the norms of morality require, and then we should go “beyond the letter of the (p. 13) law” (lifnim m’shurat ha-din) to do favors for our beloved. In moral terms, we then become the kind of people who seek to do both the right and the good, not out of hope for reward, but simply because that is the kind of people we are and the kind of relationships we have.

Prayer. Along with theology comes a life of prayer. Jews are commanded to pray three times each day, with four services on Sabbaths, Festivals, and the New Year, and five on the Day of Atonement. Aside from the spiritual nourishment, intellectual stimulation, aesthetic experience, and communal contact that Jewish prayer brings, it also serves several significant moral functions.

One of these is moral education. Until the twentieth century, most Jews could not afford to attend formal schooling beyond ten years of age. Since the printing press was not invented until 1450 or so, Jews could not learn about the Jewish tradition through reading books either. The Rabbis long ago instituted the practice of reading a section of the Torah four times each week, but that would expose Jews to the entirety of the Torah only in a year’s time. As a result, the Rabbis created a framework of three biblical paragraphs constituting the Shema and twenty-two single-line blessings surrounding the Shema and constituting the Amidah, so that Jews would have an easily memorized formula to teach them the essence of Jewish belief. In fact, that outline is as close as Judaism ever got to a creed, an official statement of Jewish beliefs. That outline also serves to announce and rehearse some of Judaism’s central values, including knowledge, forgiveness, health, justice, hope, and peace.

Moreover, the fixed liturgy reorients us to think about things from God’s perspective. Even though the English word “prayer” denotes petition (“Do this, I pray”), and even though Jewish liturgy has room for asking God for things, the vast majority of the fixed liturgy praises and thanks God. This immediately tells Jews that they must get out of their egocentric concerns and think of life from God’s vantage point. That alone should help them focus on the important things in life rather than the partial goods to which they may devote too much energy.

Prayer also serves as a way for people to confront what they have done wrong and to muster the courage to go through the process of teshuvah, return to the proper path and to the good graces of God and the community. People sometimes are stymied by their sins and by the guilt they feel. Jewish liturgy has Jews asking God to forgive our sins three times each day. Such confessional prayers enable people to relieve the guilt involved in sin so that they can repair whatever harm they have done and take steps to act better in the future.

Study. While family, community, authority figures, and even God are used by other societies to create moral character, albeit in different ways and degrees than Judaism uses those elements, study is one Jewish method for creating moral people that few other societies use. Moreover, this is an ancient Jewish method, stemming from the Torah itself. The Torah was not given to a group of elders who alone would know it; it was rather given to the entire People Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. In keeping with the public nature of revelation in Judaism, God tells Moses a number of times, “Speak to the people Israel and say to them (or command (p. 14) them).”18 Moreover, every Jew is responsible to know God’s commands and to teach them to their children.19 To ensure that that would happen, the Torah institutes a public reading of the entire Torah every seven years at which “men, women, and children” were to be present.20

By the Second Temple period the Torah was actually read much more often than that, with small sections read on Saturday afternoons and on the mornings of the market days, Mondays and Thursdays, and larger sections read every Sabbath and Festival morning. These selections were arranged so that the entire Torah would be read once each year—or, for some communities, every three years. The reading would commonly include a translation into the vernacular and, on the Sabbath and Festivals, a lesson or homily based on the section chanted that day. This helped to ensure that the reading was not merely a mechanical act, but rather a truly educational experience. All of these public readings were part of the regular service, and so Jewish worship is characterized by the combination of prayer and study.

Moreover, the Pharisees made study an end in itself.21

These are the deeds for which there is no prescribed measure: leaving crops at the corner of the field for the poor…doing deeds of lovingkindness, and studying Torah.22

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.23

As a result, those who teach others have, in the Rabbinic view of things, special merit:

David said: “O Lord, many groups of righteous people shall be admitted into Your presence. Which one of them is most beloved before You?” God answered: “The teachers of the youth, who perform their work in sincerity and with joy, shall sit at My right hand.” [a paraphrase of Psalm 16:11]24

He who teaches his neighbor’s child deserves to sit in the Heavenly Academy…and he who teaches the child of an ignoramus deserves to have God nullify a decree against him.25

He who teaches his neighbor’s child is as if he had created him.26

The relationship between study and morality goes in both directions: study can refine moral sensitivity and buttress the drive to act morally; conversely, morality is a prerequisite for appropriate teaching and study. Maimonides expresses this latter point explicitly:

We teach Torah only to a student who is morally fit and pleasant in his ways, or to a student who knows nothing [and therefore may become such a person with learning]. But if the student goes in ways that are not good, we bring him back to the good path and lead him to the right way, and then we check him and [if he has corrected his ways] we bring him in to the school and teach him. The Sages said: (p. 15) Anyone who teaches a student who is not morally fit is as if he is throwing a stone to Mercury [i.e., contributing to idolatry]…Similarly, a teacher who does not live a morally good life, even if he knows a great deal and the entire people need him [to teach what he knows because nobody else can], we do not learn from him until he returns to a morally good way of life.27

How, though, does study contribute to morality? It does so in at least four distinct ways:

  1. (1) Content. The most obvious goal of text study is to inform students about what is right and wrong, good and bad.

  2. (2) Judgment. In real life situations, values often clash, and so good judgment in resolving moral conflicts is a necessary asset of a moral person. Two types of text study aid the development of moral judgment: dialectic texts (e.g., the Talmud) that demonstrate moral argumentation so that those who study them sharpen their own abilities to analyze, criticize, and synthesize moral arguments; and philosophical texts that require students to stand outside the tradition and probe the justifications for its claims.

  3. (3) Motivation. Text study can also help to motivate people to act morally by teaching them specifically what to do and what to avoid, by creating a community of learners who care about each other and the tradition they are studying and are thus willing to forego what they would like to do and do what they would prefer not to do in order to remain part of their community, and by presenting ideals and moral models to which to aspire.

  4. (4) The moral values attached to study itself. Study can teach students such values as self-discipline, the value and pleasure of work, modesty, sociability, team spirit, caution, and exactitude. Depending on how the study is done, it can also teach students either to accept authority or to question it.

Law. Law is the other methodology to shape moral thinking and action that is employed by Judaism in ways that differ at least in degree, if not in kind, from other traditons. Judaism puts a great deal of emphasis on law as a moral tool—more than most other traditions, but with close parallels to Islam and Confucianism. Moreover, while classical Christian texts have a very negative view of law, in Judaism law is both important and sweet—indeed, as Jewish liturgy portrays it, a gift from God.

Here are some of the ways that Jewish law aids in defining and motivating morality:Law defines and enforces minimal standards. The most obvious contribution is simply that Jewish law establishes a minimum standard of practice. This is important from a moral standpoint because many moral values can only be realized through the mutual action of a group of people, and a minimum moral standard that is enforced as law enables the society to secure the cooperation necessary for such moral attainment. Furthermore, there is an objective value to a beneficent act, whether it is done for the right reason or not. Consequently, establishing a minimum standard of moral practice through legislation provides for at least some concrete manifestations of conduct in tune with the dictates of morality, even if that conduct is not moral in the full sense of the word for lack of proper intention.

(p. 16) In spelling out minimal standards of moral conduct, there is always the danger that people will interpret the minimum requirements legalistically as the total extent to which they need to extend themselves for others. That, however, would involve a serious blindness to the realm of morality that would probably not be cured by removing the legal trappings from the minimum standards. Moreover, Judaism guards against such an abuse through its requirements of public and private study of the Bible and other morally enriching literature, through liturgy and sermons, and through making the minimal requirements of action rather demanding in the first place!

Law helps to actualize moral ideals. But it is not just on a minimal level that law is important for morality; law is crucial at every level of moral aspiration in order to translate moral values into concrete modes of behavior. The prophets enunciated lofty values, and we rightly feel edified and uplifted when we read their words or those of other great moral teachers in each generation. On the other end of the spectrum, when we hear “fire and brimstone” sermons or go through the painful self-examination of a confessional procedure such as Yom Kippur, we come away feeling chastened and purified. But the vast majority of life is lived between these two extremes of moral awareness as we pursue our daily tasks. Consequently, if that edification and chastening are going to contribute to a better world in any significant way, they must be translated into the realm of day-to-day activities. We ordinarily do not have sufficient time or self-awareness to think seriously about what we are doing, and hence a regimen of concrete laws that articulate what we should do in a variety of circumstances can often enable us to act morally when we would not ordinarily do so. Rabbi Morris Adler has articulated this point well:

Religion is not a matter of living on the “peaks” of experience. That is for the saint and the mystic. More fundamentally, religion must mean transposing to a higher level of spiritual awareness and ethical sensitivity the entire plateau of daily living by the generality of men. Idolatry is defeated not by recognition of its intellectual absurdity alone, but by a life that expresses itself in service to God. Selfishness and greed are overcome not by professions of a larger view but by disciplines that direct our energies, our wills, and our actions outward and upward.28

Law provides a forum for weighing conflicting moral values and setting moral priorities. Until now we have spoken about areas in which the moral norm is more or less clear and the problem is one of realizing those norms. Many situations, however, present a conflict of moral values, and it must be determined which value will take precedence over which, and under what circumstances. Nonlegal moral systems usually offer some mechanism for treating moral conflicts, but they often depend on the sensitivity and analytic ability of an authority figure or each individual. By contrast, the law provides a format for deciding such issues publicly, thus ensuring that many minds of varying convictions will be brought to bear on the issue. This does not guarantee wisdom, but it does at least provide a greater measure of objectivity and hence a more thorough consideration of the relevant elements.

Law gives moral norms a sense of the immediate and the real. Issues are often joined more clearly in court than they are in moral treatises or announcements of policy because the realities with which the decision deals are dramatically evident (p. 17) in the courtroom and a decision must be reached. Moral essayists or theorists, on the other hand, do not face the immediate responsibility of having people act on their decisions, and hence they tend to be somewhat “ivory-towerish.” Consensus statements on moral issues produced by denominations or other groups of people often suffer from the need to include the opinion of everyone in the group and thus lose sharpness and, sometimes, coherence. In contrast, a court ruling is specific and addressed to a real situation. In fact, much of the sheer wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition can be attributed to the fact that the Rabbis served as judges as well as scholars and teachers. Of course, how to apply a precedent to a new case is not always clear, but the legal context adds a sense of immediacy and reality to moral deliberation.

Law gives moral norms a good balance of continuity and flexibility. Because law operates on the basis of precedent, there is a greater sense of continuity in a moral tradition that is structured legally than in one that is not. After all, one of the things that people seek in creating a legal system in the first place is the security of knowing what they can expect of others and what is expected of them. This is achieved in law by the methodology of precedent, of stare decisis, “it stands decided.” On the other hand, through legal techniques like differentiation of cases, the law preserves a reasonable amount of flexibility and adaptability. By contrast, moral decisions made on the basis of conscience often have little public effect or staying power; and moral decisions made on the basis of natural law or divine law understood in a fundamentalistic way lack sufficient malleability to retain relevance to new situations and to take advantage of new knowledge. A legal tradition, although certainly not without its problems in practice, attains the best balance that human beings can achieve between tradition and change.

Law serves as an educational tool for morality. Theories of education are numerous and diverse, but the Jewish tradition has a clear methodology for moral education.

Rab Judah said in Rav’s name: A man should always occupy himself with Torah and good deeds, though it is not for their own sake, for out of (doing good) with an ulterior motive he will come to (do good) for its own sake.29

This largely behavioristic approach to moral education is not totally so. As we have seen above, the study of the Tradition is also an integral part of Jewish moral education. But in the end the emphasis is on action:

An excellent thing is the study of Torah combined with some worldly occupation, for the labor demanded by both of them causes sinful inclinations to be forgotten. All study of the Torah without work must in the end be futile and become the cause of sin.30

The same educational theory is applied to moral degeneracy and repentance:

Once a man has committed a sin and repeated it, it appears to him as if it were permitted.

Run to fulfill even a minor precept and flee from the slightest transgression; for precept draws precept in its train, and transgression draws transgression.

(p. 18) If a transgression comes to a man a first and second time without his sinning, he is immune from the sin.31

If one accepts this approach to moral education in whole or in part, formulating moral norms in terms of law is very important educationally; for legally requiring people to act in accord with moral rules is a step toward teaching them how to do the right thing for the right reason.

Law provides a way to make amends and repair moral damage. One goal of law is social peace. Legal systems therefore generally provide ways for dealing with antisocial behavior and for adjudicating disputes. A religious legal system like Jewish law also provides a way for overcoming guilt; making amends; and reconciling with God, with the aggrieved parties, and with the community as a whole. That process is teshuvah, return, according to which the assailant must do the following: acknowledge that he or she has sinned; experience and express remorse; apologize to the victim; compensate the victim in whatever way possible; and take steps to ensure that when a similar occasion arises again, the wrongdoer will act differently. In defining the process, Jewish law makes moral repair demanding but possible.

It goes further: it demands that when the process has been completed, the victim must respond in kind. So, for example, according to the Mishnah, if one person injures another, the assailant must pay the victim for five remedies—the injury itself, the time lost from work, pain, medical expenses, and the embarrassment the injury caused. After describing how each of these payments is to be calculated, the Mishnah says that “Even though the assailant pays the victim, God does not forgive him until he asks the victim’s forgiveness;” this is the apology required in the process of return. But the Mishnah then states that if the victim refuses to pardon the assailant, the victim becomes the wrongdoer and is regarded as “cruel.”32 There clearly are cases when wrongdoers should not be forgiven, but, by and large, we must forgive those who have fulfilled the requirements of the process of return and have asked for forgiveness. In the law of many American states, a felon who has been released from prison is barred from voting and from government jobs the rest of his or her life and must reveal the past felony to any potential employer. In Jewish law, by contrast, it is prohibited even to mention the person’s past crime unless it has direct bearing on a practical decision, for once the person has fulfilled the requirements of the process of return, to mention the past sin is, according to the Mishnah, oppressive, slanderous speech.33 Thus Jewish law aids and abets reconciliation and peace.34

Law helps to preserve the integrity of moral intentions. We usually construe ourselves as having good intentions, but actions test, clarify, and verify our intentions. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way:

The dichotomy of faith and works which presented such an important problem in Christian theology was never a problem in Judaism. To us, the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible. The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities…

(p. 19) It would be a device of conceit, if not presumption, to insist that purity of heart is the exclusive test of piety. Perfect purity is something we rarely know how to obtain or how to retain. No one can claim to have purged all the dross even from his finest desire. The self is finite, but selfishness is infinite…. God asks for the heart, but the heart is oppressed with uncertainty in its own twilight. God asks for faith, and the heart is not sure of its own faith. It is good that there is a dawn of decision for the night of the heart; deeds to objectify faith, definite forms to verify belief.35

Concretizing moral values in the form of law is thus an important method for testing the nature and seriousness of our intentions so that we may avoid hypocrisy. It also graphically shows us the effects of our intentions, so that hopefully we will alter those that are knowingly or unknowingly destructive. In other words, law brings our intentions out into the arena of action, where we can see them clearly and work with them if necessary.

In all of these ways, then, law contributes to morality. We have taken the trouble to discuss this rather thoroughly in order to demonstrate that the interaction between law and morality involves contributions in both directions. This is especially important when trying to understand Judaism, which went so far in trying to deal with morality in legal terms.

As important as law is in shaping Jewish moral vision and behavior, however, it is not the sole vehicle that Judaism uses to create a moral person and society. All of the other methods discussed earlier—stories, history, family and community, moral leaders and models, moral maxims and theories, theology, prayer, and study—play critical roles, along with law, in enabling Judaism to contribute mightily to creating moral individuals and communities. These methods do not guarantee moral character or behavior, for life does not come with guarantees, especially for something as difficult to acquire as moral sensitivity and action. Moreover, there are aspects of Judaism and of religions generally that actually function as obstacles to moral vision and behavior, and people of all religions must take steps to ensure that those factors do not lead to morally atrocious results. At the same time, we must recognize and seek to enhance the morally beneficial effects of the multiple ways in which Judaism contributes to morality.

On balance, many of us, your editors certainly included, are grateful for the moral contributions of Judaism to our lives, as we are for the many other ways it makes our lives richer. Ultimately, we might celebrate those gifts in language much like that of the Psalmist:

The Teaching (Torah) of the Lord is perfect, renewing life.

The decrees of the Lord are enduring, making the simple wise.

The precepts of the Lord are just, giving the heart joy.

The instruction of the Lord is lucid, making the eyes light up.

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

The judgments of the Lord are true, completely just.

More precious than gold, than much fine gold,

Sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb.36

(p. 20)

Modern Movements, Modern Approaches

Finally, readers should know that modern Jews use these various literary sources and methods in very different ways. In some respects, this is nothing new: Jews have argued about moral issues with each other and even with God from the time that Abraham, the very first Jew, argued with God about the fate of the people of Sodom. Judaism is, in fact, a tradition that loves analysis and argument, one that has a remarkable tolerance for uncertainty and pluralism. There have always been differing schools of Jewish thought and practice, ranging from debates between prophets and kings in the First Temple period to the Pharisees and Saducees of the last centuries b.c.e. and the first century c.e. to the rationalists and mystics of the Middle Ages, to the modern movements of Judaism.

In other ways, though, the disputes among the modern movements are different from those of the past. The Enlightenment and its political ramifications in the late eighteenth century to our own day have made Jews living in Western countries at least theoretically and, to varying extents, legally full citizens of the nations in which they live. Their debates therefore address not only internal, Jewish issues, but how best to participate as citizens in the moral decisions of their nations. This has taken on yet another coloration in the modern State of Israel, where Jews, as a majority, have become fully responsible for the policies of the state. Furthermore, the Enlightenment provided not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion, and so genuinely secular forms of Jewish expression have become both possible and actual. Thus the range of Jewish responses to moral issues has expanded immensely in the modern period. To understand the ideological background of the chapters in this volume, then, especially those in Part II, which deals with specific moral topics, it is important for readers to know how the modern movements of Judaism understand and apply the classical literature and methods of Jewish ethics described here.

In modern North and South America, and, to a lesser extent, in Europe and Israel, Jews are divided into primarily (but not exclusively) three movements: Orthodox, Conservative (Masorti), and Reform (Progressive). In the United States, the Reform movement is the largest, with 39 percent of Jews affiliated with synagogues; the Conservative Movement is next, with 33 percent; and the Orthodox is the smallest, with about 21 percent.37 About half of American Jews, however, are not affiliated with any synagogue, so one must divide these numbers by two to see the percentage each movement represents of the Jews of the United States. Some are unaffiliated for financial or other reasons, though, so the fact that they do not belong to a synagogue does not necessarily mean that they are secular in either thought or action. Still, because it is generally the case in other religions that if you do not believe in a particular religion’s central tenets or seek to abide by its ritual and moral rules, you are not a member of that religion, it is important to note that Jews can, and many do, identify as Jews culturally or ethnically but not religiously. Some self-identified secular Jews, in fact, take an active role in Jewish (p. 21) communal organizations such as Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, and Jewish Centers, for example.

Among the religious movements, Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given word-for-word by God at Mount Sinai and that we have an accurate record of what God said, for what God said has been unerringly transmitted from the revelation at Mount Sinai to our own day as published in modern texts of the Torah. Furthermore, in addition to this Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), God revealed at Mount Sinai an Oral Torah, transmitted by word and action throughout the generations. The Oral Torah is at least as important and authoritative as the Written Torah. Because God is the author of both the Written and Oral Torahs, Jewish law as it has come down to us may be applied to new circumstances but otherwise must not be changed and must be obeyed as the command of God. Even Orthodox Jews, however, are not biblical fundamentalists in the way that some Christians are, for the Written Torah must always be understood and applied through the lens of the Oral Torah.

Conservative Judaism—called Masorti (Traditional) Judaism outside of the United States and Canada—is based first on the conviction that we must study the Jewish texts and practices not only through its traditional interpretations, but also by using all of the tools that scholars use to understand any other tradition. These include, but are not limited to, cross-cultural studies, linguistic studies, and archaeology. When one uses these resources, one finds evidence that the Torah consists of several documents that were composed at various times and edited together later (usually presumed by the time of Ezra c. 450 b.c.e.). This makes sense because in the ancient world writing materials were hard to come by and most people were illiterate, so all of the cultures of the ancient world were transmitted primarily in oral form—that is, literally what elders said to the young and also what people saw going on in their society. The Torah, then, represents the first written edition of these oral traditions.

How Conservative/Masorti Jews understand the role of God in the creation of the Jewish tradition, including the process of revelation, varies. Moreover, Conservative Jews generally believe that Jewish law is binding on us not only because of God’s role in its creation, but also because it has been a critical identifying mark of the Jewish community. This includes what moderns call rituals, which serve to mark the transitions of time and of the life cycle and give them meaning and even artisitic expression in a uniquely Jewish way. Jewish law also includes the parts of Jewish law that moderns would call moral, giving Jews moral guidance in ways that also often differ from the guidance of other traditions. The content of Jewish law has changed in a variety of ways over time, and so Conservative/Masorti Jews believe that to be historically authentic to the Jewish tradition we as a community must be prepared to change it in our own time as well to make it relevant to new circumstances and new moral sensitivities; but in the end Jewish law is binding on us as Jews. (The communal agency within the Conservative/Masorti movement charged with applying Jewish law to modern circumstances is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, consisting of twenty-five rabbis (p. 22) chosen by a formula intended to ensure variations in expertise, experience, age, and gender, who are voting members, and five lay leaders and one cantor who serve in an advisory, but not a voting, capacity.)

The Reform movement emphasizes individual autonomy. In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Reform leaders focused on the moral import of the Jewish tradition and rejected, or at least deemphasized, its ritual components; it saw Judaism as exclusively ethical monotheism. In the last half century, however, Reform leaders have reintroduced a concern for Jewish rituals, and they have emphasized that individual Jews should decide how they are going to express their Jewish commitments based on knowledge of the tradition and not just what they want. Reform rabbis have created a Responsa Committee to give guidance to Reform Jews in making their individual ritual and moral decisions.

As we indicated earlier, we, the editors of this volume, deliberately chose authors who reflected this diversity of modern Jewish life so that readers could understand the history of Jewish ethical thought and Jewish responses to modern issues from a variety of perspectives. At the same time, we asked authors to present their material in as objective a way as possible, indicating when they are taking their own particular approach with which other Jewish scholars might differ. In this way we hope in this volume to present our readers with a fair and accurate picture of Jewish ethical and moral thought.


(1.) This point was made more eloquently and convincingly by Louis E. Newman in what has by now become a classic essay in Jewish ethics, “Woodchoppers and Respirators: The Problem of Interpretation in Contemporary Jewish Ethics,” Modern Judaism 10:2 (February 1990), 17–42; reprinted in Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 140–60.

(2.) For a description of the range of positions regarding the relationship between religion and morality, see Elliot N. Dorff, Matter of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), Appendix (pp. 395–417). For a description of the issues involved in these relationships and the varying Jewish resources relevant to morality, see Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), Chap. One (pp. 1–32) and Appendix (pp. 311–44).

(3.) E.g., J. David Bleich, “Halakhah as an Absolute,” Judaism 29:1 (Winter 1980), 30–37; J. David Bleich, “Is There an Ethic Beyond Halakhah?” in Studies in Jewish Philosophy, Norbert M. Samuelson, ed. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1987), pp. 527–46; and David Weiss Halivni, “Can a Religious Law Be Immoral?” in Perspectives on Jews and Judaism, Arthur Chiel, ed. (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1978), 165–70.

(4.) Eugene B. Borowitz, Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), chs. 19–20, esp. pp. 280–83, 286–88. Seymour Siegel, “Ethics and Halakhah,” Conservative Judaism 25:3 (1971), 33–40. Robert Gordis, The Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 50–68, 138–44. See also chs. 10 and 11, where he argues for changing the status of women in Jewish law on moral grounds. David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (New York: Free Press, 1985), ch. 4, esp. p. 97, where he says: “Prayer, religious awe, and the nonrational retain their place in religious life even as one makes the ethical a controlling category for the development of the halakhah. At the same time, however, the divine power and mystery must never be used as a justification to undermine the category of the ethical.”

(5.) In the Conservative Movement, see, for example, Elliot N. Dorff, For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2007), ch. 6; and, very differently, Joel Roth, The Halakhic Process: A Systematic Analysis (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1986), chs. 1 and 9. Among Orthodox writers, see Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?” in Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, Marvin Fox, ed. (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), pp. 62–88 (reprinted in Contemporary Jewish Ethics, Menachem Marc Kellner, ed., [New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1978], 102–23), and Shubert Spero, Morality, Halakha, and the Jewish Tradition (New York: Ktav and Yeshiva University Press, 1983). In the Reform movement, see Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York: UAHC Press, 2000), Introduction, esp. pp. xxiv–xxv.

(6.) For a taste of the polemics within the Jewish tradition and community, readers might consult Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), and the Jewish Choices/Jewish Voices series of books, which consists of six volumes, published in 2008–2010 by the Jewish Publication Society. The first three volumes, on body, money, and power, are edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman, and the last three, on sex, war, and social justice, are edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg. Each book contains four cases that raise moral issues in the volume’s area of life, some traditional and modern sources relevant to those issues, and short essays by several contemporary Jews who take differing stands on those issues, often by reading the tradition differently.

(7.) Elliot N. Dorff, “Violent and Defamatory Video Games,” (accessed August 10, 2011). Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association 564 U.S. (2011), (accessed August 10, 2011).

(8.) Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), Appendix.

(9.) For one good treatment of that, see Michael Goldberg, Jews and Christians Getting Our Stories Straight: The Exodus and the Passion-Resurrection (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985).

(10.) Dorff summarizes the differences between the Jewish, Christian, and American secular visions in Chapter One of his book To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002).

(11.) See Jonathan K. Crane, Narratives and Jewish Bioethics. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, forthcoming).

(12.) B. Makkot 10a, where this is quoted in the name of Rabbi (Judah, the President of the Sanhedrin); B. Ta’anit 7a, where it is quoted in the name of Rabbi Hanina.

(13.) B. Peshahim 50b; B. Sanhedrin 105a; B. Arakhin 16b; B. Sotah 22b, 47a; B. Horayot 10b; B. Nazir 23b.

(14.) See Elliot N. Dorff and Arthur Rosett, A Living Tree: The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 110–23, 249–57; and Elliot N. Dorff, For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2007), Chapter 6.

(15.) B. Sotah 14a.

(16.) Deuteronomy 29:13, 28.

(17.) God is depicted as Israel’s marital partner a number of times in the Bible, whether fondly, as in Jeremiah 2:2, or angrily when Israel proves to be an unfaithful lover, as in Hosea, chapter 2.

(18.) For example, Numbers 15:1–2, 17–18, 37–38; 19:1–2; 28:1–2; 34:1–2; 35:1–2, 9–10.

(19.) The duty for Jewish adults to learn the Torah themselves: Deuteronomy 5:1. The duty of parents to teach their children: Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19.

(20.) Deuteronomy 31:9–13.

(21.) The Pharisees may have been influenced in this, as Moses Hadas contends, by the Greeks; cf. Moses Hadas, Hellenistic Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), pp. 69–71. Thanks to Rabbi Neil Gillman for this reference. The Rabbis, though, also stressed action, and so their stance toward whether study or action was more important was deeply ambivalent in a way that the Greek worship of knowledge never was. See B. Kiddushin 40b.

(22.) M. Pe’ah 1:1.

(23.) B. Shabbat 127a.

(24.) Pesikta (Buber), p. 180a.

(25.) B. Bava Metzia 85a.

(26.) B. Sanhedrin 19a.

(27.) M. T. Laws of Study 4:1.

(28.) Morris Adler, The World of the Talmud (New York: Schocken, 1963), p. 64.

(29.) B. Pesahim 50b, and in parallel passages elsewhere.

(30.) M. Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:1.

(31.) B. Yoma 86b; M. Avot 4:2; B. Yoma 38b.

(32.) M. Bava Kamma 8:7.

(33.) M. Bava Metzia 4:10.

(34.) For more on the Jewish process of return, including a discussion of when forgiveness is not appropriate, see Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Pesonal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), Chapter 6.

(35.) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1955), pp. 296–97.

(36.) Psalms 19:8–10.

(37.) [No author stated], The National Jewish Population Study 2000–2001 (New York: United Jewish Communities, 2003), p. 7; available at (accessed June 8, 2012).