A series of probably only too well known jokes will put this week's theme into some sort of perspective:

Two Jewish businessmen meet in the street. The first one says, "I'm sorry to hear about your fire." The second one responds, "It's not till next week."

Two Jewish business, partners, are having lunch. The first one says, "Oh my, I left the safe open." The second one says, "I am here and you are here, so what do we have to worry about?"

A man comes to a priest, a minister and a rabbi and asks for their solemn support because when he dies he wants to take it with him and gave each of them $100,000 in cash.. Shortly he died and at his funeral the priest, minister, and rabbi each put an envelope in his coffin. When the clergymen met at a luncheon, the priest began by confessing that the roof of the church leaked and felt that some of the man's cash would be better spend doing good works on earth. The minister agreed and told how he gave some of it to the needy of the town. The rabbi was shocked, "Gentlemen, I want you to know that my personal check for the full amount was in that envelope."

Many who see Judaism as an ethical system, for whom these kinds of jokes produce embarrassment and indignation, believe that ethics are the essential component of Jewish tradition. They often assert that Judaism provides not only ethical guidance for Jews, but for all peoples of the world.

There are three basic types of sources of Jewish ethics that we shall examine: I) The Bible; II) Rabbinic Literature, III) Ethical Works.

  1. The Bible

    Many Jews try to build an ethical system upon the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments.. We could engage in a discussion of what exactly are the ten, but a more important discussion would be on the question of where in the Bible are the Ten Commandments given any sort of precedence or even invoked in specific situations rather than being cited as a general list. Moreover, if they are the basis of all ethics, why are they not invoked equally? In other words, why are not the commandments about God and the Sabbath not seen as central as those involving stealing and murdering?

    Much in the Bible contradicts the Ten Commandments: The stubborn and rebellious son can be put to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), slavery is allowed, the despoilation and annihilation of other nations is commanded (Exodus 23:23-24; 27-33; Deuteronomy 7:1-4; 20:9-14), ritual is based on a caste system; capital punishment is allowed for ritual and sexual violations (Leviticus 20:27-divination; 24:16-blasphemy; Numbers 15:35-Sabbath desecration), idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:17, 17:5), harlotry (Deuteronomy 21:20-29). And several leaders attempt to kill their children with God's blessing (Judges 11:34ff, Genesis 21-22).

    Others will point to biblical quotations that advocate universal values of justice, equality, family, and world peace, such as Micha 4:3: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall study war no more." However, looking more carefully in the Bible, we can find Joel 3:10 declaring, "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears: Let the weak say, 'I am a warrior.' In fact, if we examine the entire Bible rather than selective quotations that make us feel comfortable, we find that the Bible may not represent an ideal ethical treatise, or even a systematic unified world view.

    And, if the Ten Commandments or even the Bible are the basis of all ethics, how then are Jewish ethics different from Christian ethics which also contain the Ten Commandments or different from secular law or perhaps even a sense of natural law which basically makes the same human demands on us?

    Some Jews invoke the rabbinic attempts to diminish the apparent harshness of some of these biblical texts or to harmonize the contradictions between them. No doubt, these rabbinic texts certainly reflect a development in Jewish ethics, though not a consistent one because usually citations of rabbinic texts are equally selective. Thus, to the well known bon mot, "The Devil can quote scripture," Louis Ginsberg added, "and were he more knowledgeable he would quote Talmud as well." What the citation of rabbinic texts nevertheless does demonstrate, is that the Bible does not stand alone at the center of Jewish ethics.

  2. Rabbinic Literature-613 Commandments

    For Jews the source of practice and belief is not the Ten Commandments, but 613 commandments, rabbinic law, called halakhah, as embodied in various codes and commentaries such as the Mishnah, the Talmud, Maimonides, the Shulhan Arukh, and She'elot Uteshuvot, Responsa. The fundamental assumption of rabbinic Judaism is that the entire Bible is divine, which means not only the Ten Commandments, but the book of Leviticus as well, and that the true source of its interpretation is found in the teachings of the rabbis. It is, therefore, the rabbinic heritage that has made Judaism distinctive and provides the grounds for any understanding of Jewish ethics.

    Hence a study of Jewish ethics really involves an analysis of rabbinic ethics. Recently, a great deal of serious attention has been given to this subject, usually by individuals with both rabbinic and philosophical training. Their research revolves around the question "Does Jewish tradition recognize an ethic independent of halakhah?" This question thus raises the questions of whether halakhic thinking is ethical and whether those who follow the system recognize any values outside of it?

    This brings us back to the question of natural law. If the rabbis are relying on values outside of halakhah, then why follow halakhah? Similarly, if halakhah makes demands beyond what most people would consider basic natural law, then should it be followed?

    In a fascinating article Gerald Bildstein (S'vara 2) pointed out that in rabbinic literature there are many general ethical principles, but they are rarely invoked in specific cases. One of the most fascinating involves the principle, "lifnim mishurat hadin," which can be understood as both going beyond the letter of the law or staying within the law. Such a concept again points to the question of whether halakhah in and of itself is an ethical system.

    Another concept discussed concerning halachah is the term meta-halakhah, a blend of Greek and Hebrew indicating also the presence of values in rabbinic disccourse beyond that that are found in halakhah. Both of these lines of thinking therefore raise the question of what exactly is halakhah, and what exactly are ethics. In other words, at what point do rabbis invoke principles other than halakhah, and if they do, do they become part of the halakhah or do they remain separate from it?

    Are there circumstances where if a Jew simply followed the guidance of rabbinic law, he or she would be at a loss of what to do? What should Jews do when Jewish law does not produce a answer of what to do in a given situation?

    For example, according to the Talmud, if a person loses an object and gives up all hope of recovering it, then whoever finds it can keep it. However, there are some rabbis who would compel the finder to return the object because of "lifnim mishurat hadin." Some rabbis suggested that such a case should be determined on the basis of the economic status of the finder and the loser, contrary to the biblical principle of not giving the poor person any benefits in a legal case (Exodus 23:3; BM 24b).

    Another example involves the fact that according to the Talmud a Jew must die rather than commit idolatry, incest, or murder. However, rabbis have asked whether a Jewish woman can use her sexuality to save her people. Although there are precedents in the Bible such as Yael and Esther, rabbis have developed no binding instructions in such matters. Without such guidance, does mean that a woman must use her own conscience and that in this matter the halakhah is deficient?

    A famous test of rabbinic ethics, involves the following story taken from the Talmud and the Midrash (Sifra Behar 6:3 and Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 62b): Two men are travelling in the desert. One of them has a canteen of water. If one of them drinks the water he alone will make it back to civilization. If both of them drink, both will die, neither making it back. There are three possible courses of action here. 1) The owner of the canteen should drink and let the other person die. This is the view of Rabbi Akiva. 2) Share it and both should die. This is the view of Ben Petura. 3) The owner of the canteen should give up his water and die so that the other person may live. This view is not found in rabbinic literature.

  3. The Golden Rule in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity

    In his famous essay comparing Judaism with Christianity, "Al Shetei Seifim," translated as "Judaism and the Gospels," Ahad Ha'am, the cultural Zionist Hebrew essayist whom I introduced when speaking about Moses, tried to show that the third opinion, not mentioned by the rabbis, would be the Christian opinion. This third opinion, according to Ahad Ha'am, would exemplify the teaching of Jesus, who said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13)." Ahad Ha'am connected this passage with the differences in the way in which Jews and Christians usually state the Golden Rule.

    Usually Christian apologists proudly point to the fact that in the New Testament the rule is stated positively, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31). In the Talmud, however, the rule as attributed to Hillel is stated in the negative, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor" (Bavli, Shabbat 30b-31a).

    Ahad Ha'am points out that this difference has been a source of embarrassment to the Jews. He, however, tries to show that neither formulation is better than the other, but that each expresses certain basic truths about the nature of the religion of the speaker. He argues that the negative formulation is essential to Judaism and that a Jew need not give up his life for another. Judaism, he felt, has certain objective limitations imposed by its adherence to standards of basic justice beyond which an individual need not sacrifice himself or herself.

    Christianity, however, according to Ahad Ha'am places a great emphasis on converting the egoism of the individual to altruism, which he considers only inverted egoism. Christianity, he felt, places a never-ending burden on the individual to self-sacrifice.

    Three findings raise some doubts about these approaches to the Golden Rule:

    • As I mentioned in an earlier lecture, following a line of thought introduced by Jacob Neusner, although according to rabbinic tradition Hillel lived from about 50 BCE to 10 CE, most of the sayings attributed to him were not quoted, referred to, or attributed to him in rabbinic literature prior to the end of the second century. Since no sage of Hillel's day quoted him or even knew about him, Neusner suggests that attribution of sayings and decisions to Hillel was part of an attempt by rabbinic leaders intent on "discovering for itself more agreeable ancestors . . ." Thus, while the New Testament was being preserved, the rabbis were developing traditions about Hillel. What Neusner implies but does not state is that some of the ethical teachings of Jesus could have been attributed to Hillel by the rabbis who knew of the emerging Gospel traditions. Thus it is just as likely that Jesus influenced Hillel's ethics as Hillel could have influenced Jesus' ethics.

    • In a fascinating appendix to a study of the intertestamental book of Tobit, Frank Zimmerman showed that there are two patterns to the statement of the Golden Rule, the negative formulation of the east, used by Confucius, Tobit 4:5, Hillel, and the Targum Leviticus 19:18, and the positive formulation of the west, used by Aristotle, and Pubilius Syrus. The two exceptions to this pattern are Epictetus who used the negative pattern in the west (though he was born in the east) and Jesus who used the positive pattern in the east. Moreover, he noted at least one Christian writer, St. Aristides who used the negative formulation. Thus, contrary to Ahad Ha'am's paradigm, there is no one essential formula that represents either Judaism or Christianity and the Golden Rule is embedded deeper in world culture.

    • Saul Liberman has pointed out that the story of the two men on one plank was cited by Cicero and the story of two men and one canteen was cited by Al-Razi. In each of these versions the person who is more worthy, either for his own sake or for that of his country, should be saved. Here also the story did not originate with Judaism, so that it may reflect cultural borrowings rather than a predetermined value system.

Jewish and Christian Ethics

This discussion raises the fundamental question, Why do Jews have to compare their ethics regularly to those of Christianity? The answer to this question is four fold:

  1. Christian writers have been quick to condemn Jewish ethics. Christian polemics against Judaism have regularly used texts from the Bible, Midrash, and Talmud in tendentious and contradictory ways. On the one hand, Christian critics of Judaism have tried to show that Christian ethics of love are an improvement over Jewish ethics based on strict justice. While on the other hand they have tried to use other quotations to show that not only is Christianity based on the foundations of Judaism, but that the truths of Christianity can be demonstrated from rabbinic literature. As Jews were massacred, isolated, expressed, and castigated, Christian theoreticians could show that it was Jewish ethics that left something to be desired.

  2. There are indeed teachings in rabbinic literature that are indeed perfect fodder for such arguments. For example, the Torah commands the extermination of various peoples (Deuteronomy 7:1-5) in the Mechilta it says, "tov shebagoyim harog," "kill the best among the gentiles" (14:7; cf. Soferim ch. 15:10). There is another discussion about who has priority for drawing water at a well in which some rabbis argued that the needs of the local Jews to water their cattle or to do their laundry took precedence over the lives of strangers (Tosefta Baba Metzia 11:33-36). These and other similar statements were collected over the years by Christians such as Raymond Martini, Sixtus of Sienna, and Johann Eisenmenger. At times they would add to the collection or quote the material out of context. However, because Christians felt the simultaneous need to enforce censorship on such statements in rabbinic literature, it is difficult to know what is authentic, a situation which put Christian polemicists in the awkward position of basing their charges on passages that Christian censors had removed.

    By the time of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, even the strongest defenders of the Jews both among the Christians and among the Jews conceded that the Jews were deficient in their ethical behavior. For example, as I mentioned in a previous lecture, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm who wrote at the request of Moses Mendelssohn a plea for the amelioration of the civil status of the Jews in 1783, one of the strongest statements in favor of the Jews, stated: "Let us concede that the Jews may be more morally corrupt than other nations; that they are guilty of a proportionately greater number of crimes than Christians; that their character in general inclines more toward usury and fraud in commerce, that their religious prejudice is more antisocial and clannish. . ." The issue of Jewish criminality was elaborated upon by Johann David Michaelis, a German Bible scholar, who noted the high rate of Jewish criminal convictions and membership in gangs. In his response, Mendelssohn noted that these figures were skewed, but nevertheless accepted the fact that Jewish circumstances, as opposed to religious or biological predispositions as suggested by others, led them to deal in stolen goods and pointed out that such behavior was often rewarded by the government which allowed those who had accumulated such wealth to acquire additional citizenship rights.

  3. As other aspects of Jewish practice and belief are abandoned by large numbers of Jews, they are still driven by the desire to prove that Judaism still has something to offer its adherents and the world at large. For these reasons, Jewish Reformers in the nineteenth century began to present Judaism in terms of its "Mission" which was to bring to the world the idea of "ethical monotheism." Such a construction served not only as a response to Christian attacks, but as a way to fill the void for Jews who were dissatisfied with Jewish ritual, communal life, but yearned for a reason to hold on to being Jewish.

  4. Many Jews, especially religious Jews today in Israel and their supporters abroad continue to adhere to traditional Jewish ethics that other Jews would like to ignore or explain away. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus/Shechem, after several of his students were remanded on suspicion of murdering a teenage Arab girl: "Jewish blood is not the same as the blood of a goy." Rabbi Ido Elba: "According to the Torah, we are in a situation of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) in time of war, and in such a situation one may kill any Gentile." Rabbi Yisrael Ariel write in 1982 that "Beirut is part of the Land of Israel. . . our leaders should have entered Lebanon and Beirut without hesitation, and killed every single one of them. Not a memory should have remained." It is usually yeshiva students who chant "Death to the Arabs" on CNN. The stealing and corruption by religious leaders that has recently been documented in trials in Israel and abroad continues to raise the question of the relationship between Judaism and ethics.

Thus literature on Jewish ethics is produced because Jews feel a need for it. Jews still feel a tension between universalistic commitments and the specific obligations of Jewish survival. This position is particularly painful when Jews realize that most other people in the world do not include the suffering of the Jews in their universalistic agenda. The modern Jew, therefore, faces a problem.

There are at least two routes to study Jewish ethics:

  1. Particular problems can be examined both synchronically and diachronically, in the context of Jewish culture and developmentally over time to see how various levels of rabbinic and other traditions developed. In the future installments of this course, both this semester and next I will examine some of these topics in depth, meaning from all points for view, rather than simply citing what I find appealing or offensive. In addition to a lecture introducing the complex structure of the development of Jewish law, I will present topics which will include the extermination of non-Jewish nations, wife-beating, summary execution of the informer.

  2. An examination of previous works of Jewish ethics as both attempts to formulate a sense of ethics as well as cultural artifacts that reflect both internal and external influences, often invoking secular wisdom and justifying it with biblical and rabbinic quotations. The key feature of these works is their aesthetic and motivational quality, often adding a spiritual if not mystical dimension to ethical matters. To this task now I would like to turn. As always, I will resort to the excerpts in Leviant because of their availability, noting that works that are available in Leviant are available independently and in other anthologies.

Jewish Ethical Treatises

  • Pirkei Avot

    There is a traditional Jewish ethical treatises that goes back, most of it, to the Mishnah, if not earlier. Pirkei Avot (Leviant 72-90, and available in any prayerbook), is no more or less ethical than the other tractates of the Mishnah, it simply concentrates together many pithy statements that can, because of their loftiness, enhance clarity in thinking about ethics, and because of their beauty enhance felicity of expression. The fact remains, however, that this tractate is neither systematic nor consistent and it contains many statements that many would be inclined to ignore rather than base an ethical system upon them. A few examples must suffice for now. 1:2, about slaves who should not serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, which is regularly cited in Jewish discourse, makes no sense. Who works without the hope of remuneration? 1:5 counsels men not to talk too much to women in order to prevent evil and 2:7 associates women with witchcraft. Does this represent a legal view towards women or a meta-halakhic prejudice of the time period? The fact is, I think, that Pirkei Avot is not a system but an ornament. In reading it through I am amazed at how many of the maxims, especially fragments of them, have entered into contemporary Hebrew speech: let thy house be opened wide 1:5, provide thyself with a teacher and get thee a fellow disciple 1:6, loving peace and pursuing peace 1:12, If I am not for myself, who is for me? And being for myself alone, what am I? And if not know when 1:14. One of the links in this transmission of Jewish teaching from Moses to future generations includes one Antigonos of Soko (1:3), indicating a level of Greek influence on the leading figures of rabbinic Judaism.

  • Duties of the Heart

    Bahya ibn Pakuda (Leviant 210-224) an eleventh century Spanish rabbi, philosopher, and judge, originally wrote his Duties of the Heart in Arabic, but it was soon translated into a Hebrew version which became an important text. Epitomizing the development of Jewish ethics the work contains quotations not only from the bible, Talmud, Midrash, and Saadia Gaon, but also from Aristotle, Mohammed, and the New Testament. Although Bahya attempts to place the Torah at the center of an ethical system, attributing to the Torah the ability to guide both physical and intellectual matters, he also introduced the new idea of kavvanah, that a ritual act must be fulfilled with proper intention.

  • The Book of the Pious

    A work that has received attention from some of the leading scholars of this century is Sefer Hasidim, the Book of the Pious of Judah ben Samuel the Pious (1140-1217) of Regensberg. Although only limited portions of this vast work are available in English (Leviant 378-388, Medieval Jewish Mysticism, S. A. Singer), important studies in English include the work of Ivan Marcus, Peter Schaefer, Yitzhak Baer, Robert Chazan, Haym Soloveitchik, and Judith Baskin. Key to our subject is the fact that the Book of the Pious is an ethical book, deriving from a Jewish pietistic movement, covering all aspects of life. It places especial emphasis on asceticism, altruism, love of God-including attention to erotic passion for God, magic-including the creation of a golem, use of secret names, and the magical use of the alphabet, penitence-including immersion in snow, ice, ant-hills, and bees. It is clear that the ethics of the Book of the Pious go beyond those of traditional rabbinic Judaism, perhaps even repudiating them. Accordingly, one can be innocent according to the law of the Torah but guilty according to the law of heaven. In particular scholars as early as Yitzhak Baer, writing in Hebrew in 1938, (the article that has recently been translated in Bina, a collection that translates important Hebrew scholarly articles into English) asserted that the Book of the Pious reflects the Christian atmosphere of medieval Germany, parallels with Cluny monasticism, and the thought of St. Francis of Assisi. Thus according to Baer the Book of the Pious represents the penetration of Latin Christian ideas into Judaism.

    As usual, this view is not accepted by everybody, especially Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism. He connected the work with earlier developments in Jewish mysticism which had pre-Christian roots or which represented the spontaneous expression of the Jewish people. In fact, this view is not a particular reaction to the circumstances under which the Book of the Pious were produced but part of a general reluctance on the part of Scholem to accept external influence on Jewish and Judaism. In general he tends to see developments as part of longstanding, often underground, Jewish developments. This tendency is also seen in the studies of Moshe Idel, a major contemporary scholar of Kabbalah who made his reputation by challenging many aspects of Scholem's work. One of the paradoxes of Jewish scholarship in Israel is the often fierce resistance against seeing external influence on Jewish cultural developments. Political independence produced a desire for cultural independence as well, a desire which negates the Zionist dream of again becoming a normal people again. Normal people's culture develops as the result of interactions with other cultures and not in a vacuum.

    Reading through the text of the Book of the Pious it is difficult to escape the incredible amount of attention which Christians and Christian practices received. Jews are encouraged, perhaps as a result of excessive Christian influence not to fast too much and to not cheat Christians or Jews, apparently Jews must have been both fasting and cheating. The Book of the Pious constitutes a serious indictment of the ethical behavior of the Jews, condemning false humility, pernicious charity, and false piety.

  • Fox Fables

    Writing around 1300 Berechiah Ha-Nakdan (called so because he was a scribe who punctuated the biblical text), prepared an elegant Hebrew version of fables he culled from rabbinic and Christian sources. In his introduction Leviant rightly notes that it is not the content of these fables that is marked by any Jewish qualities but the Hebrew style in which the various animals, what ever the source of the fable, are found quoting biblical and rabbinic expressions.

  • Ethical Wills

    One of the most striking ethical genres was the ethical will, repositories of wisdom and Hebrew style from Jews around the world reflecting not only a sense of ethical vision but the current reality of Jewish behavior. One of the most important aspects of these ethical wills from the vantage point of the development of Jewish culture is the sense of self that emerges in them. Not only are they written in the first person singular, but reflect events in the life of the writer and his family, which clearly had been circulated. These too include quotations from non-Jewish sources and references to frequent contact between Jews and non-Jews whom the Jews are warned to treat nicely. As we have seen elsewhere, there are limits to the ethical behaviors suggesting-Eleazar of Mainz warns his children not to take in strangers and cautions marital respect, probably because it was not always there. (Notice that he refers to patraliniality in the Jewish family, p. 444). Judah Asheri writes from the standpoint of a longstanding tradition of ethical works from Pirkei Avot which he cites regularly to Bahya and other tractates. These works are not simply positivistic retelling of facts, but include also reports of events such as visits from the dead, a regular feature of autobiographical writing as we have mentioned in the past.

  • On Gambling

    Leon Modena, a leading rabbi from Venice in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century produced what might be called an anti-ethical text. His On Gambling (Sur Me-ra, Leviant, pp. 537-539), constitutes a dialogue on the subject of gambling which drawing upon all sorts of biblical and rabbinic quotations ultimately seems to tip the balance in favor of gambling. Modena's pro-grambling arguments include the comparison between gambling and investing in agricultural products.

  • Path of the Upright

    Finally Moses Hayim Luzzatto's eighteenth century Path of the Upright constitutes a classic in the ongoing development of beautiful Hebrew style. Of particular interest is his emphasis also on curbing dishonest commercial practices among the Jews. In addition, he stresses the theme of saintliness.


The development of Jewish ethics reflect concern for both the community and the individual. The fundamental aspect has been the survival of the Jewish people. In each of these works it seems that the idea is not to treat non-Jews fairly because they have intrinsic merit but to prevent them from turning against the Jews. It is for this reason that what most ethical theories consider to be essential-not stealing, not murdering-could be put aside under certain conditions for the higher goal of Jewish survival. Similarly, commandments which may modern Jews would consider secondary, such as Sabbath observance, are often of primary importance because they are viewed as essential for Jewish survival. Thus there are Jews both in the diaspora and in the State of Israel who feel that the survival of the Jews is the highest value and there are others who feel that the ethical dimension to life is more important then survival itself.

As an example, which could be repeated in every daily paper in Israel, is a story that ran in the New York Times (2/28/86): "Money Laundering at City's Oldest Yeshiva." The article reported that in one eighteen month period, over 24 million dollars had passed through the books of the Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem on East Broadway. According to the prosecutors involved, personal profit was not the motive of the rabbi and the bookkeeper who were involved (unlike in some, but not all recent cases.) They took no money for themselves and were not aware that organized crime was involved. A spokesman for the school told the Times that whatever was done by the men was so that the school would not die. "The school had to survive. We're a non-profit organization. We live from hand to mouth. We live on donations. If you have no other way, that's what you do."

On the other hand, are many Jews, devoted to Israel and Jewish philanthropy who have no doubt about their loyalties to Judaism. Yet rebelling against what they have viewed as old-world provincialism, ritualism, and obscurantism, they provide their children with cosmopolitan education, rejecting Jewish education but hoping to maintain ethical behavior as a commitment to Judaism. Many of their grandchilden are now being raised Christian and they cannot understand why.

To conclude, the study of Jewish ethics serves as a valuable analytical tool to explore Jewish thought, history, and literature throughout the generations and to better understand the relationship between Jewish and other cultures. These questions are not simply academic, but are at the heart of many problems in determining the priorities of contemporary Jewish life, education, and identity. The lack of clearly thought out approaches to Jewish ethics can drive Jews to the extremes of self-effacing apathy or destructive violence.

What may be most Jewish about Jewish ethics are not an agreed upon set of values but a common language and a shared textual basis for discourse. What is changing of course is that Jews no longer enter ethical discourse with these shared assumptions based on the use of Hebrew language or rabbinic texts. The texts of rabbinic Judaism, upon which ethical discourse is based, are not easy, systematic, or immediately relevant to the voluntaristic life of the twentieth century. These texts were meant, if anything, to be read by a community under the leadership of an intellectual elite. For some Jews there is a desire to create community and reestablish traditional authority patterns. For others, probably most, there is a desire to flee event the most humble of communities and the least demanding of rabbis.

Nevertheless, to speak of ethics divorced from texts, communities, leaders, coercion, ritual, and theology is a new challenge for the Jews, especially secular Jews. One of the features of the Kulturkampf being fought out today is the need for secular and liberal Jews to reclaim traditional texts. To relinquish their study and their meaning to others entails not only an abandonment of a precious cultural legacy, but also control over the meaning and destiny of Jewish life.

For Further Reading see, Marvin Fox, Modern Jewish Ethics





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30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0