Torah Study & Moral Behavior

Is Torah study intended to lead directly to moral and ethical behavior?


In the following article, the author compares the thoughts of three modern theologians: Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder of neo-Orthodoxy, also known as modern Orthodoxy; Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; and Martin Buber (1878-1965), an existentialist thinker. Reprinted with permission from Love Your Neighbor And Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (The Jewish Publication Society).

Study can teach students the content of moral norms and the skills of moral judgment, and it can motivate people to act morally. In addition, the very act of studying itself might incul­cate moral values. Kaplan and Buber were not nearly as much convinced of this as Hirsch was.

Kaplan & Buber

Thus Kaplan did not even list study in his 95-page chapter titled “Basic Values in Jew­ish Religion,” and he continually declared that world better­ment is the aim of education, to be achieved through making the Jewish heritage relevant to the present moral and spiritual needs of Jews. In line with that, however, he advocated more study and less praying, since “worship and prayer are directed toward the attainment of peace of mind, [while] the study of Torah can set in motion all of the moral influences that go into the molding of character and the shaping of society.”

torah study and moralFor Buber, also, the aim of education was functional: It is a means to train good character by exposing the student to God as a model to the extent that the instructor can.For Buber, then, the text was only a vehicle for the instructor to reveal his or her own under­standing of what it means to be in dialogue with God.


Hirsch, though, saw immense moral value in the act of study­ing itself. That is not surprising, for Hirsch’s Orthodoxy directed him much more intensely to study the traditional texts. Hirsch believed that the process of intensive textual study was the way to inculcate a number of moral values. Specifically, morality is largely a matter of the proper exercise of one’s will. The devel­opment of mental skills, though, is also a matter of free will, since students will engage in concentration, analysis, memorization, and creative thinking only if they choose to do so. Thus “the entire intellectual schooling of our youth” is, in effect, a “continuous exercise in moral education,” since it trains the stu­dent to choose to act constructively.

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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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