The Values of Jewish Texts

How study leads to increased sensitivity to morality


In the following article, the author describes his opinions on how Jewish text study can lead the student to live a more moral life. In doing so, he makes reference to three modern theologians: Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder or neo-Orthodoxy, also known as modern Orthodoxy; Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; and Martin Buber (1878-1965), an existentialist thinker.

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.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.

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