Jewish Ethics, from Ancient Bible to Modern Bus

By Lawrence Grossman
Monday, February 13, 2012

The next time someone tells you that ethical behavior doesn't need a foundation in religious teaching, step onto an Israeli bus (it doesn't have to be the gender-segregated variety) or open a mass-circulation Israeli newspaper and see how religion puts Jewish ethics on steroids.

On the bus you will find a sign saying, "Mipnei Sevah Takum."  In the newspaper, you will see that the gossip column bears the heading "Rekhilut."  Both phrases have their origins in chapter 19 of Leviticus, which teaches us how to live a holy life.  The sign on the bus confronts the bus rider with the command, "Stand up for the elderly!"  The title of the gossip column—which is the Hebrew word for gossip—derives from the prohibition, "Lo telekh rakhil be'amekha": Do not go around being a tale-bearer.  For the Jew (religiously observant or not) who knows the origins of these terms, giving up a seat for an old person is not just a nice thing to do but an absolute imperative; and turning to that gossip column should generate at least a fleeting sense of guilt at one's participation in sin.      

Why do these ancient texts and others like them still resonate so strongly, not only in Israeli culture—which is, after all, predominantly secular—but for knowledgeable Jews elsewhere as well?  

We all know that the Jewish people, uniquely, can trace itself back some 3,000 years.  Less appreciated is the fact that over that long stretch of time, Jews developed a rich, varied, and unbroken tradition of ethical thought.  Until about two centuries ago, it was inextricably entwined with the Jewish religion.  But it now comes in secular varieties as well; and these, too, like the bus sign and the title of the gossip column, are built on old religious foundations.

Alan L. Mittleman's A Short History of Jewish Ethics: Conduct and Character in the Context of Covenant admirably recounts the Jewish tradition of ethical inquiry from its biblical beginnings until today.  Mittleman, Professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is thoroughly at home in the primary sources and secondary literature.  He is also an expert on contemporary moral philosophy, which enables him to contextualize Jewish thought within a wider framework of ethical theory.  The subject matter is sometimes technical and almost always complex, but Mittleman is surely right that a culture should be evaluated "in light of its complexity rather than through reductions and abstraction."  He covers a vast amount of information in 200 pages, and the reader who perseveres will learn much about the broad sweep of Jewish ethical thinking.

The book makes clear that while there is a coherent Jewish ethical tradition, it is composed of widely disparate strands.  The Hebrew Bible, itself the product of at least a millennium of writing, presents an amalgam: ritual and ethical laws; stories that impart ethical norms—even, as evident in Abraham's pleas for the people of Sodom, the notion that God is bound by humanly comprehensible ideas of justice; prophetic exhortations to ethical conduct; and advice from the Wisdom Literature, based on experience rather than revelation, about living morally even in the face of evidence that such action may not receive its just reward.  

Mittleman then jumps boldly into the sea of the Talmud to demonstrate how rabbinic discussions, both legal and non-legal, often reinterpreted biblical sources to serve ethical ends—virtually eliminating the death penalty, for example, or interpreting "an eye for an eye" as requiring monetary compensation rather than physical retribution, or enhancing the status of women.  Two chapters cover the medieval period: One deals with the ethical teachings of philosophers such as Saadiah and Maimonides, while the other is concerned with popular sermonic and kabbalistic writings.  The latter give ethical behavior a new urgency, Mittleman notes, by mythically connecting it to the reintegration of the divine and the speeding-up of messianic end-time.         

Mittleman next shows how the triumph of secularism in the early modern West divested ethical theory of its spiritual underpinnings.  He discusses the Jewish thinkers who sought new justifications for the ethical life—Spinoza, the Jewish Kantians, Rosenzweig and Buber.  He also describes varieties of neo-traditionalism such as the Hasidic and Musar movements, which, for all their reassertion of certain classical Jewish norms, were clearly affected by the forces of modernity.

From this plethora of material Mittleman succeeds in distilling the key ideas that have characterized Jewish ethical thought: There is one God, who entered into a covenant with the Jewish people.  In turn, the Jewish people accepted this covenant of their own free choice.  The covenant requires them to adhere to a strict code of conduct that they, as creatures possessed of free will, have the ability to fulfill.  While the code comes from God, its demands are, to a great extent, compatible with human rationality.

Most important, we learn, Jewish ethics aims not just to ensure that people treat each other decently—a function that every ethical system is supposed to perform—but also to inculcate character traits that make people virtuous, a task that secular ethical systems gave up on long ago.  Mittleman calls this a "perfectionist ethic," and he concedes that it is "austere, demanding, and uncompromising."  Nonetheless, he believes that such an ethic "may open up new possibilities for what a flourishing, well-lived life entails."

In other words, it's not enough to give up the seat on the bus; you also have to avoid that gossip column.

Lawrence Grossman is the director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.

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