The Values of Jewish Texts

Why one rabbi believes text study leads to moral behavior.

Study of texts can be morally effective…only if other actors are present. First, the teacher must be a moral role model. He or she need not know all the moral answers; on the contrary students gain a great deal in their own moral growth when they see their teachers openly wrestling with moral issues and actively encouraging students to express a variety of views for class consideration. However teachers must demonstrate a sense of moral integrity and seriousness.

Second, the home and the community need to support what students learn in text study. In modern North America, this does not happen, resulting in considerable dissonance between what the students learn from texts and what goes on in the rest of their lives. This is true for adults as well as for chil­dren. If one thinks that the traditional concepts or values themselves need to be changed, as Kaplan and Buber did, then the way that texts are studied—and the selection of which texts to study in the first place—must be carefully considered in order to attain one’s moral goals. In any case, the more the person’s home and community live in consonance with how the text’s values are taught, the more that text study can morally influ­ence students’ lives.

Outside Sources

Third, except for the most ultra-Orthodox, Jewish text study does not exist in a vacuum. It is complemented with the study of non-Jewish texts, whether they be in very different fields, like physics or art, or in related fields, like philosophy, law, and reli­gion. Intelligent study of Jewish texts will not reject out of hand what one learns from outside sources; on the contrary, learning about other matters can enrich and deepen one’s knowledge of Jewish values. Comparative analyses can clarify Jewish concepts and values.

Outside sources might also indicate to us exactly what we do not want to affirm. On the other hand, through the ages Jews have borrowed from the cultures of the peoples among whom they lived, and we in our own time may want to synthesize Jewish values or concepts with others that we learn from elsewhere. Certainly, the value of individual freedom, which is largely a bequest of the Enlightenment, is something that most modern Jews want to in­tegrate into their contemporary expression of Judaism, no matter how difficult that may be. However they are used, non-Jewish materials should be studied not only for their own sake but also to complement how one learns the Jewish tradition and ex presses it in one’s life.

How & When One Studies

Fourth, what one derives from Jewish text study depends critically on the methods one uses to study the text and the viewpoint that one brings to that study. Studying the text sheerly on an academic basis for what it can reveal about ancient timeswill, if done properly, yield such results but little else. On other hand, studying it only to learn what the tradition say will lead to knowledge of the tradition but not moral judgment; indeed, it is likely to lead to mechanical, behavioristic obedience with no ability to critique the texts themselves or the values they announce.The wisest way to study the texts is to combine all these methods and more.

Finally, text study, for all its importance, should not fill the whole of one’s life. Rather, one should combine text study with work, because, as Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah, said in Ethics of the Fathers, “Study of Torah is beautiful with a worldly occupation, for the effort involved in the two of them makes one forget sin; [on the other hand,] all study of Torah that is not ac­companied by work will ultimately fail and lead one to sin.”

Study of texts is best done, then, if one brings to classical Jew­ish texts a respectful but critical religious perspective. Our three thinkers would advocate that for different reasons. Hirsch stressed the authority that religion provides for moral norms, the wealth of experience within the tradition, and the expansive scope of its visions and concerns. Kaplan wrote about the sense of worthwhileness that a person derives from religion, a sense that makes moral effort and sacrifice reasonable and that gives life direction and meaning.Buber was interested in the fact that religion provides absolute moral standards as well as the cosmic but personal framework in which to learn and understand them.

However one understands the content and impact of the Jewish religious vision, it undergirds Judaism’s effect on morality; and when one approaches text study with a religious perspective, the text study itself can be all the more effective in informing and motivating moral conduct and in creating moral character.

The Jewish tradition thus seeks to form moral character through the commonly used elements of family, community, and authority figures, but it also uses God, prayer, law, and study of Jewish texts in that effort. That Judaism employs all these fac­tors in its effort to produce a moral person demonstrates both its seriousness in succeeding at this task and the rich understanding it has about how to educate a person morally.


Discover More

Maimonides (Rambam) and His Texts

One of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, he was both a traditionalist and an innovator.

Why We Read The Book of Ruth on Shavuot

The connections between this story and the spring harvest festival.

Havruta: Learning in Pairs

A modern emphasis on peer-guided text study--an approach with ancient roots--reflects new social realities in the world of traditional Jewish learning.