Jewish Ethical Behavior

The involvement of God in moral issues gives Jewish ethical thinking a passion and urgency.

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.

In the modern era, the social integration of Jews into their host societies and the creation of an autonomous Jewish society in the Land of Israel have emphasized certain practical moral issues, and even raised issues not faced by Jews for centuries. Respective examples include how religiously observant Jews are to relate to their nonobservant fellow Jews, and how a Jewish nation is to conduct warfare and relate to non-Jewish citizens. At the same time, Jewish intellectual life has seen the disappearance even of a unified language of discourse for ethical thinking in a Jewish context.

jewish ethical behaviorThe fragmentation of approaches, even among religious Jews, has brought a radical discontinuity with the past in the realm of ethical thinking as in every other area of Jewish life. Traditionalists have attempted to apply the methods and categories of halakhah [Jewish law] with varying degrees of rigidity and fluidity. Reform Judaism introduced the notion that “prophetic Judaism,” the ethical imperatives of the Torah and especially the biblical prophets, is the “essence” of Judaism. That preference for the ethical imperative still guides much decision-making in the liberal Jewish religious camp.

It is interesting to note that there is no traditional liturgical blessing formula (b’rakhah) said on the performance of ethical mitzvot as there are for more ritually oriented practices. Some suggest that this is because when one is about to give to a poor person, visit someone ill, offer comfort to a mourner, or help a bride and groom rejoice–to give but four examples- saying a blessing would destroy the very moment it is supposed to elevate. B’rakhot direct our attention to the presence of God at the moment of performing a quotidian act, but to do so in these instances might detract from our openness to the presence of the very person before us. Other suggestions for the absence of such blessings note, for example, the potential awkwardness of thanking God for the opportunity to serve others, given that it is dependent on their being in need.

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