Jewish Ethics Confronts Modernity

The adaptation of the Jewish ethical tradition to modern life.

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The Conservative position is roughly midway between that of Orthodoxy and Reform. Conservative Judaism does not view revelation as God “talking” to the Jewish people, as it were, revealing to them exactly what it is he wants them to do. Rather, Conservative Judaism maintains that the Jewish people have had what may be called “revelatory” experiences of God, to which they responded by creating the Torah. Halakhah, then, is the way in which Jews have sought to preserve their experiences of God. Although taking its source in the Jews’ experience of God, it is basically a human institution and undergoes change and historical development like all human institutions. It is normative in the conditional sense that one ought to obey the halakhah if one wants to preserve the insights and experiences of the Jewish people as a whole and of those Jews in particular who have confronted God directly in their own lives. Conservative Judaism thus sees the halakhah as the Jewish vocabulary for approaching God. It does not see the halakhah as normative in the absolute sense, however, which would imply that obedience to halakhah is explicitly demanded of every Jew by God.

These three different interpretations of revelation and halakhah give rise to different emphases within Jewish ethics. Generally speaking, Orthodox thinkers will approach questions of ethics by seeking to determine the teachings of the halakhah on the issues at hand. That is not to say that they do not recognize a super-halakhic realm of Jewish ethical teaching. Aharon Lichtenstein, for example, has shown the extent to which an Orthodox thinker can recognize such a realm. But no Orthodox thinker will admit the possibility of there being a Jewish ethical teaching which might contradict halakhah. That possibility, however, is explicitly stated by at least one important Conservative thinker, Seymour Siegel. “It is my thesis,” he writes, “that according to our interpretation of Judaism, the ethical values of our tradition should have power to judge the particulars of Jewish law. If any law in our tradition does not fulfill our ethical values, then the law should be abolished or revised.” This position would most likely be rejected by Orthodox thinkers on the grounds that it sets human beings up as judges of God’s law.

Generally speaking, at least until the 1970s, the Reform approach to ethics has been to identify Jewish ethics with prophetic teachings which, in turn, were usually interpreted in terms of contemporary liberalism. Of late, however, Reform thinkershave shown new sensitivity to the teachings of the post-biblical Jewish tradition and generally seek to ground their ethical judgments in the Jewish tradition as a whole.

Summing up, we may say that the contemporary Jewish approach to ethical problems is distinguished from the medieval approach in at least two important ways. It is no longer informed by the basic unanimity of spirit which underlay medieval Jewish ethics in all its various styles and forms. Further, and as a result of the Jew’s unprecedented level of integration into the surrounding world, Jewish ethics today faces an entirely new complex of problems. Although there are elements of continuity between medieval and modern Jewish ethics, the discontinuities are more important. This is one of the many ways in which the wrenching changes which accompanied the Jewish entry into the modern world are reflected.

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Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.