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date: 05 March 2021

(p. 25) Jewish Ethical Theories (p. 26)

Ethical Theories, Not Theory

One may rightfully ask why this volume opens with a collection of essays that examine and explain various Jewish ethical theories—and not just one essay. After all, insofar as Judaism is a monotheistic tradition, a tenet of which maintains that its truths are universal in scope, it stands to reason that the tradition should endorse just one ethical theory. This calculus of one God equals one ethic sounds attractive and, indeed, it inspired many Jews throughout the millennia to construct overarching, universal Jewish ethical theories. From such greats as Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century to Moritz Lazarus in the nineteenth, from Franz Rosenzweig in the early twentieth century to Byron Sherwin in the later part of that century, and on into the twenty-first century, many luminaries endeavored to develop unified ethical theories for Jews. For them, Judaism offers but one ethical system.

Such systems are enticing. By definition they are totalizing, which means that they understand themselves to be so encompassing that nothing could be beyond their concern. Their relevance to morally complicated practical issues need not be explained, because everything falls within their purview. It would be superfluous in such systems to justify why addressing an issue using Judaic texts and tools is important in the first place; it could not be otherwise, they assume. This certainty regarding relevance is no doubt comforting when one confronts novel situations. Such systemic theories were especially popular in the premodern period, when it was relatively difficult to relocate physically or religiously. One lived within a particular horizon or worldview that, for better and for worse, had to contend with the vagaries of existence. Alternative paradigms were either unavailable or so denigrated as to be unreasonable to consult, much less follow. (p. 28)

Such efforts portray the Judaic tradition as a unified whole, a system whose components fit comfortably next to each other with no contradictions or even countervailing elements. As such, these grand unified theories condensed Judaism’s vast library that, undeniably, emerged over millennia and continents, into a single narrative. Like thick and rich syrups, such condensed narratives express the essence of Judaism—or at least the essence that the author sees and endorses. Some pivot on the Deuteronomic teaching to do what is right and good (hayashar v’hatov), while others, following the prophetic wont to single out Judaism’s essence, isolate either love (ahavah) or righteousness (tzedek) as the keystone that keeps the pillars of Judaism’s ethics upright. Anything in the textual tradition that might countermand these essences either is dismissed altogether through silence or suppression, or is apologetically explained away. The system’s coherence and universalism are what mattered; certainty of the system’s rectitude was a prerequisite.

The rise of modernity, however, shattered certainty in systemic theorizing. Since the Enlightenment and its corollary emancipation of Jews, overarching systemic theories in Jewish ethics have faced challenges they cannot explain away. The bloody twentieth century proved that systemic theories, especially of and by certain forms of government, are more dangerous than beneficial. Suspicion became necessary not only of governing regimes and of how people organize and behave, but also of the ways people think and what motivates them. That ancient and mass motivator—religion—ultimately succumbed to scrutiny. Especially in the last century, religions, in the face of skepticism, increasingly had to explain themselves both to their adherents and to non-coreligionists. Some religious communities underwent lengthy and often difficult self-critical deliberations wherein their totalizing narratives were refashioned to be more persuasive in an increasingly cynical world. The Second Vatican Council is but one prominent example of this phenomenon.

Jews, too, critically examined the Judaic tradition in ways that heretofore had been anathema if not heretical. The rise of Wissenschaft des Judentum, the scientific study of Judaism, in the nineteenth century entailed not only a new look at classic texts but also a new appreciation of those texts’ pretexts, or assumptions, and contexts. History, and Jewish history in particular, became a field of inquiry that Jewish scholars could no longer ignore. Locating texts in their geopolitical contexts sharpened Jewish discourse and, paradoxically, muted its impact. On the one hand, Jewish scholars situated classic texts in their historical strata and thereby uncovered and highlighted the broad range of contexts and assumptions of the texts’ provenance. Yet this more precise understanding of the development of the Judaic textual tradition undermined the notion of only one Jewish system of ethics, law, or theology. If the Babylonian Talmud is indeed patchwork, which Wissenschaft shows it is, claiming that it is all of a single cloth is disingenuous. Erecting a system based on the Talmud—or the Bible or rabbinic literature generally—seemed increasingly suspect. (p. 29)

Though history and historiography challenged Jews, they also pushed Jews to make a more concerted effort to justify their assertions about Jewish ethics to skeptical and pluralistic audiences of both Jews and non-Jews. Especially since the early twentieth century, Jews have used a great deal of ink to situate their notions of Jewish ethics in both history and the present—for they know that the better they explain themselves and their reasons, the more purchase they will find among co-religionists and even among sympathetic non-Jews. Justifications became an increasingly prevalent element of modern Jewish ethical writing.1 No longer able to excommunicate deviants from the Jewish community, Jewish ethicists labored to persuade wayward Jews away from inappropriate behavior and toward what they understood to be the better path. In the modern Enlightenment environment, guaranteeing freedom of religion and, with it, freedom from religion, even stalwart Orthodox ethicists admit that at best they can only suggest and prod, provoke and pull Jews toward the right and the good; they cannot mandate.

Although this lean toward rhetoric has become more explicit in recent times, it has always been present in the Judaic library. From as early as the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), words have been the medium through which norms have been communicated and motivation expressed. Each historical layer of the Judaic library, and even different genres that developed concomitantly, articulate various ways of defining what is moral and then motivating people to choose the moral path. In so doing they simultaneously demonstrate various ways of thinking about morality, or, put differently, they manifest different ethical theories.

Hence this volume begins with a series of essays examining many of the layers of Jewish ethical theories.

Making Sense of Many Theories

The order of these theories as presented in this book warrants a brief note. Chapters 1 through 10 follow a fairly linear chronological order, starting with the Bible and ending with the Holocaust. Since this book could not give due attention to all players in Jewish ethical theorizing, editorial decisions had to be made to select the elements on which to focus, whom to include, and what to put aside. These decisions were made by the co-editors, and we added many more chapters than we initially brainstormed because others whom we consulted pointed out glaring gaps.

After this historical survey, chapters 11 through 14 describe ethical decision- making as it has developed in the largest streams of modern Jewry: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist. To be sure, all of these streams came into being before World War II, yet their ethical theorizing matured dramatically afterward, because of, and perhaps despite, that war. Obviously this is not to say that any stream of modern Jewry has achieved a final ethical methodology—or that any could. Still, these chapters describe the considerable thought about moral issues (p. 30) that each stream has developed, especially as Jews confronted the meanings of the Holocaust and the State of Israel and found themselves being profoundly influenced in every aspect of life by revolutionary technological development in virtually every field.

Chapters 15 and 16, the last two chapters in this section, explore issues that pervade all streams of modern Jewry—feminism and post-modernism, respectively. The last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence and growth of these sociopolitical and philosophical concerns, which Jewish ethicists have found irresistible, irritating, or both simultaneously. A few of these ethicists have been on the forefront of these larger movements that challenge modernity’s assumptions about gender, power, and moral decision-making.

With no intention to undermine the reader’s enjoyment of these chapters, a brief synopsis of each follows, so that readers of Part I have an overall sense of “the forest” before they examine the individual trees.

Elaine Goodfriend opens the volume with a careful reading of biblical ethical concepts. Fear of God (yir’at Elohim) is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful notion inspiring social concern and behavior. It is therefore difficult to assert a strong and impermeable boundary between religion and ethics in the biblical milieu. Such a boundary does not exist between law and ethics either. For these reasons the Bible contains multiple ways to motivate people to do what is right and good, ways that are championed by later contributors to Jewish ethical theories, as subsequent chapters will demonstrate. While some of these motivating factors pertain to Israelites alone, the Bible nonetheless assumes that other nations also can and should behave according to at least some basic minimal standards. For this reason many biblical ethical texts concern relations between or among communities, including those between Jews and non-Jews, not just between or among the individuals within them.

Charlotte Fonrobert notes that speaking of ethics is rather difficult when one considers rabbinic literature. Not only does this literature lack the very notion of ethics, it also emerges from various terrains and times and perforce bespeaks not only different moral conclusions, but even differing presumptions on how to reach those positions. Hence claims that there is a single rabbinic ethic are inherently suspect. That said, the rabbis of old certainly do wrestle with ethicality, its interrelationship with both rabbinic and biblical halakhah (law), and the desire to balance particularist with universalist concerns.

Joseph Dan explores the medieval genre of sifrut ha-musar, “ethical literature,” which has largely been left unanalyzed in the recent burgeoning of the field of Jewish ethics. This absence, Dan maintains, extends primarily from 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. This does not mean, however, that musar is nonethical; rather its purpose is 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 in Christian milieus. (p. 31)

That the medieval period produced wide-ranging ethical thought is further demonstrated in the chapter by Warren Zev Harvey. Encyclopedic in its sweep, Harvey’s chapter shows that the varieties of Jewish philosophy in the medieval period defy easy categorization, let alone condensation into a single notion of Jewish ethics. The scholars surveyed here are Saadia Gaon, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Paquda, Judah Halevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, Abraham ibn Daud, Moses Maimonides, Levi Gersonides, Jedaiah Bedersi, Hesdai Crescas, Joseph Albo, and Joseph ibn Shemtov.

Baruch Spinoza’s Aristotelian critique of Judaism—and of religion generally—in the seventeenth century marked the beginning of a period of intense Jewish self-evaluation that continues to this day. David Novak unpacks Spinoza’s criticisms to show that the ultimate ethical existence, that is, a virtuous existence, entails attention to three interpenetrating relations: between the self and God, between the self and others, and with oneself. Obedience and love, Spinoza asserts, are the ultimate character traits that instantiate the highest forms of ethical existence in these realms.

With the increasing civic and intellectual freedoms that emancipation and the Enlightenment brought to Jews, the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic flourishing of Jewish thought and activity. Ira Stone traces the challenges this new modernity posed to Jews and shows how they variously responded. Such scholars as Moses Mendelssohn, Samuel David Luzzato, Elijah Benamozegh, Nachman Krochmal, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Hermann Cohen, and Israel Lipkin’s Mussar Movement are considered here. Though they variously retain traditionalism, their responses, Stone contends, were all reforms insofar as they each created “what might be called an indigenous Jewish response to modernity.”

Early twentieth-century Jewish theologians and philosophers were no less creative than their predecessors, as Jonathan K. Crane shows in his treatment of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. These three German scholars, writing in the decades surrounding World War I, were both attracted to and repulsed by modernity. On the one hand, the modern drive toward nationalism inspired their commitment to Jews and Judaism, and so each plumbed the Jewish textual tradition to ground his ethical theory. Yet the destructiveness that self-centeredness can (and did) cause led each man to promote an ethic that attends to others. Crane explores this turn to others and otherness, a turn that oriented much subsequent Jewish ethical theorizing.

Matthew LaGrone engages the thought of two giants of twentieth-century American Judaism—Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of whom taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. 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 mitzvot (commandments) in favor of “folkways” so as to inspire social behavior, for it is through the folk themselves that morality comes into being. Heschel, by contrast, (p. 32) favors a more 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.

Lawrence Kaplan analyzes the ethical theories of Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, two luminaries in twentieth-century Orthodoxy in Israel and the United States, respectively. Kaplan shows that 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 behavior comes into being. In some ways, this difference in focus—on Jews or on God—echoes the primary difference between Kaplan and Heschel in the Conservative Movement.

Michael Berenbaum tackles the difficulties the Holocaust posed and continues to raise for Jews, Jewish theology, and specifically Jewish ethics. He identifies eight major commitments made by Jews and non-Jews that have since then inspired Jewish and global responses to such human-made atrocities as genocide and crimes against humanity.

The next several chapters turn our attention to the streams of modern Jewry. Michael Marmur traces the emergence of Reform Jewish ethical sensibility from its early days in nineteenth-century Germany through its evolution to modern America, Israel, and beyond. He identifies four major sensibilities that, while presented chronologically, are nevertheless found among contemporary Reform Jews: the notion that ethics should be the first theology of Judaism, a passion for tikkun olam (repairing the world from injustices), a suspicion and critique of modernity, and an ethics of authenticity.

Changing what Jews do and altering the reasons why they should do things differently was not an exclusively Reform endeavor; Conservative Judaism also instituted innovations, especially since World War II. These changes, Shai Cherry argues, are most easily apparent in Conservative liturgy as well as in halakhic positions vis-à-vis women, homosexuality, and mamzerut (bastardy). Conservative thinkers and scholars of Jewish law, however, have taken diverse approaches as to how and when to make such changes, and so one cannot articulate a single “Conservative theory” of Jewish ethics. Cherry, in fact, argues for his own approach in contrast to those of some of the other representatives of Conservative Judaism whose theories and legal rulings he discusses.

By differentiating Haredi, or ultra-Orthodoxy from Modern Orthodoxy, David Shatz focuses on the latter’s wrestling with the meta-ethical issue of the interrelationship between halakhah and ethics. He tests four theses comprising what he calls the maximalist Modern Orthodox position to demonstrate how they go about addressing moral conundrums already embedded in the textual tradition and those that modernity poses to contemporary Jews, illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of each of them and then arguing for the approach that he thinks is best. (p. 33)

Though founded as a stream within Conservative Judaism in 1922 and becoming a separate movement only in 1968, the Reconstructionist Movement may be the youngest mainstream branch of modern Jewry, but its commitment to ethics has always been central to its self-understanding. David A. Teutsch demonstrates Reconstructionism’s concern for ethics by identifying the movement’s assumptions about how and why Jews should act in the world. Indeed, as shaping actual Jewish living has continuously been its major goal, the movement eventually developed what is now called values-based decision-making that is to guide collective as well as personal ethical deliberation and concrete action.

Judith Plaskow argues that all the many forms of Jewish feminism are “fundamentally about ethics.” Across denominations, in the broader feminist movement, in academia, in Israel and North America, Jewish women have been reshaping what and how Jews and non-Jews think and act—regarding women, gender, inequality, injustice, and many other critical ethical issues, including Judaism itself. Feminist methodologies creatively critique halakhah, theology, liturgy, ritual, and textual interpretation, all with implications for social and political analysis and activism. In doing so, Jewish feminists—too numerous to list here—“have created both a rich literature and a legacy of activism that is ethical to its core.”

Nearly concurrent with the rise of feminist criticisms in recent decades was the emergence of postmodernism that both endorsed particularity (as against the universality championed by modernity) and simultaneously critiqued the totalizing effects inhering in particularity. “To affirm Jewish tradition without affirming classical models of Jewish authority,” Martin Kavka claims, “is the goal of postmodern Jewish ethics.” Kavka begins by tracing the complicated interrelationship of Jewish and secular philosophy in Emmanuel Levinas’s thought. He then turns to the ethical philosophy of embodiment and self-mastery by Jonathan Schofer and Chaya Halberstam, to show that postmodern Jewish ethics is simultaneously intensely personal while also procedural and communal.

Additional Theories

Lest the reader assume that these chapters cover the totality of Jewish ethical theorizing, it should be stressed that it is only limited space that prevents additional Jewish ethical theories to be addressed at length here. Their exclusion is not a reflection on the sophistication of these approaches but more their prevalence relative to the other approaches included here.

For example, much more can be said about the emergence of the field of Jewish studies (Wissenschaft des Judentums) in the nineteenth century and its impact on how scholars think about Judaism, Jews, and Jewish ethics. Then and, truthfully, throughout Jewish history, Jews gave certain lines of inquiry privilege over others predominantly because Jews were influenced by the theoretical approaches and (p. 34) practical issues their Gentile colleagues were exploring. In fact, every layer of the Judaic textual library includes diverging assumptions and expectations of human agency. This is true for the Bible as it is for rabbinic literature. For example, in his study of the Talmud, Eugene Borowitz teases apart halakhic discourse from non-halakhic to show that each has its own (myriad) ethics.2 And looking forward, there has been a resurgence of energy devoted to virtue ethics as it has been expressed in rabbinic—and postmodern—texts.3

With the emergence of the Society of Jewish Ethics in the early twenty-first century, a growing collection of academics, rabbis, and professional practitioners has been wrestling with Jewish ethics at practical and theoretical levels. Their annual conference, concurrent with those of the Society of Christian Ethics and the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics, serves as a context that encourages comparative studies and cross-religious ethical theorizing.

And, of course, readers would do well to acknowledge that each chapter here offers but a summary of the theories the author addresses. Precisely because of that fact, each chapter includes a section entitled “Suggestions for Further Reading” so that readers may pursue the theories described in greater depth.

In the meantime, we hope the reader will enjoy the following chapters surveying the breadth and depth of Jewish theories of ethics.


(1.) See, for example, Jonathan K. Crane (2005) “Why Rights? Why Me?” Journal of Religious Ethics. 35/4:551–81.

(2.) Eugene Borowitz, The Talmud’s Theological Language-Game: A Philosophical Discourse Analysis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).

(3.) See, for example, Jonathan Schofer The Making of a Sage: A Study of Rabbinic Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005); Dov Nelkin “Virtue,” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy, eds. Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman, and David Novak, 739–58 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).


(1.) See, for example, Jonathan K. Crane (2005) “Why Rights? Why Me?” Journal of Religious Ethics. 35/4:551–81.

(2.) Eugene Borowitz, The Talmud’s Theological Language-Game: A Philosophical Discourse Analysis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).

(3.) See, for example, Jonathan Schofer The Making of a Sage: A Study of Rabbinic Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005); Dov Nelkin “Virtue,” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy, eds. Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman, and David Novak, 739–58 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).