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The Jewish religious and spiritual tradition has been largely concerned with regulating behavior through a wide-ranging legal system. Nevertheless, it has developed–alongside the literature of halakhah (Jewish law) and intertwined with it–a parallel literary tradition concerned with the practice and, to a lesser degree, the theory of ethics.
Both of these traditions begin with assumptions about God’s nature and God’s role in the world. Some of these assumptions are explicit (e.g. that God exists, cares about the world, and makes demands of human beings). Others are implicit in the metaphorical and narrative literature that characterizes classical Jewish thought (e.g. that God visited Abraham when he was recovering from surgery). Ethical thought in Judaism is as tightly bound to theology as it is to law. The involvement of God in moral issues gives Jewish ethical thinking a passion and urgency beyond what is to be found in many other traditions, ancient and modern alike. This is a God who, in one talmudic tale (Sanhedrin 39b), excoriates His angelic retinue when they rejoice at the drowning of the Israelites’ Egyptian persecutors, asking them “Creatures who are My own handiwork are drowning and you sing songs before Me?!”
The tradition of Jewish ethics relies on biblical precedents. Some moral imperatives such as the repeated admonition in the prophetic books to attend to the needs of society’s weaker classes (resident aliens, orphans, and widows), appear also in the Torah as motive clauses for specific laws: e.g., “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Others, such as the many conventional adages in biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and parts of other books), appear only outside of the legal context.
Rabbinic Judaism adopted many of its terms for ethical behavior from biblical usage, but re-shaped some and added many others of its own, such as bein adam la-havero (the entire realm of interpersonal relations) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness and caring). The rabbis of classical Judaism and the authors of medieval legal and ethical works displayed particular concern for maintaining respect for human beings—k’vod ha-b’riot—and directing human impulses into channels that protect the privacy, dignity, and reputation of every individual.
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