Jewish ethics is the moral philosophy particular to one or both of the Jewish religion and peoples. Serving as a convergence of Judaism and the Western philosophical tradition of ethics, the diverse literature of Jewish ethics‘s broad range of moral concern classifies it as a type of normative ethics. For two millennia, Jewish thought has focused on the interplay of ethics with the rule of law. The tradition of rabbinic religious law – Halakhah – addresses several problems associated with ethics, including its semi-permeable relation with duties that are usually not punished under law.
Jewish ethical literature
Biblical and rabbinic ethical literature
In early rabbinic Judaism, the oral Torah both interpreted the Hebrew Bible and engaged in novel topics. Ethics is a key aspect of this legal literature, known as the literature of halakhah.
The best known rabbinic text associated with ethics is the non-legal Mishnah tractate of Avot (“forefathers”), commonly translated as “Ethics of the Fathers”. Similar ethical teachings are found throughout more legally oriented portions of the Mishnah, Talmud and other rabbinic literature. Generally, ethics is a key aspect of non-legal rabbinic literature, known as aggadah. This early rabbinic ethics shows signs of ideological and polemical exchange with the Greek (Western philosophical) ethical tradition.
Medieval ethical literature
In the medieval period, direct Jewish responses to Greek ethics may be seen in major rabbinic writings. Notably, Maimonides offers a Jewish interpretation of Aristotle (e.g., Nicomachean Ethics), who enters into Jewish discourse through Islamic writings. Maimonides, in turn, influences Thomas Aquinas, a dominant figure in Christian ethics and the natural law tradition of moral theology. The relevance of natural law to medieval Jewish philosophy is a matter of dispute among scholars.
Medieval and early modern rabbis also created a pietistic tradition of Jewish ethics. This ethical tradition was given expression through musar literature, which presents virtues and vices in a didactic, methodical way. The Hebrew term musar, while literally derived from a word meaning “discipline” or “correction,” is usually translated as ethics or morals. ArtScroll translates the word as censure in Psalms 50:17.
Examples of medieval Musar literature include:
- Chovot ha-Levavot (‘Duties of the Heart’) by Bahya ibn Paquda.
- Ma’alot ha-Middot by Yehiel ben Yekutiel Anav of Rome.
- Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous) by an anonymous author.
- Kad ha-Kemah by Bahya ben Asher.
Halakhic (legal) writings of the Middle Ages are also important texts for Jewish ethics. Important sources of Jewish ethical law include Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (12th century) and Joseph Karo and Moses Isserles’s Shulkhan Arukh (16th century), especially the section of that code titled “Choshen Mishpat.” A wide array of topics on ethics are also discussed in medieval responsa literature.
Modern ethical literature
In the modern period, Jewish ethics sprouted many offshoots, partly due to developments in modern ethics and partly due to the formation of Jewish denominations. Trends in modern Jewish normative ethics include:
- The pietistic musar tradition was continued by 18th-century rabbis such as Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his book Mesillat Yesharim. Other musar writings were authored by Haskalah writers such as Naphtali Herz Wessely and Menachem Mendel Lefin.
- The musar tradition was revived by the Jewish ethics education movement known as the Musar Movement that developed in the 19th-century Orthodox Jewish European (Ashkenazi) community.
- The 19th- and early 20th-century Reform movement promoted the idea of Judaism as Ethical Monotheism. The writings of Abraham Geiger and Kaufmann Kohler show this approach.
- In the 20th and 21st centuries, liberal Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have fostered novel approaches to Jewish ethics, for example in the writings of Eugene Borowitz. Some Reform rabbis have also engaged in applied ethics by writing legal responsa.
- In 20th and 21st centuries, Orthodox rabbis often engage in applied ethics by interpreting rabbinic law (Halakha) in responsa (formal opinions). A dominant topic has been bioethics.
- 20th- and 21st-century rabbis in Conservative Judaism have also produced legal responsa on a wide range of topics. Dominant topics have included bioethics, sexual ethics, and business ethics. Leading Conservative ethicists such as the philosopher and rabbi Elliot Dorff have also written extensively on moral theory.
- Other modern Jewish philosophers have pursued a range of ethical approaches, with varying degrees of reliance upon traditional Jewish sources. Notably, Hermann Cohen authored Religion of Reason in the tradition of Kantian ethics. Martin Buber wrote on various ethical and social topics, including the dialogical ethics of his I and Thou. Hans Jonas, a student of Martin Heidegger, draws upon phenomenology in his writings on bioethics, technology and responsibility. Emmanuel Levinas sought to distinguish his philosophical and Jewish writings; nevertheless, some scholars are constructing Jewish ethics around his innovative and deeply Jewish approach. Jewish feminism has used the principles of feminist ethics and also played a role in Jewish ethics.
Academic scholars of Judaism have also engaged in descriptive Jewish ethics, the study of Jewish moral practices and theory, which is situated more in the disciplines of history and the social sciences than in ethics proper (see Newman 1998).
In 2003, the Society of Jewish Ethics was founded as the academic organization “dedicated to the promotion of scholarly work in the field of Jewish ethics.” The Society promotes both normative research (the field of ethics proper) and descriptive (historical/social scientific) research.
Central virtues and principles in Jewish ethics
Major themes in biblical ethics
The writings attributed to the Biblical prophets exhort all people to lead a righteous life. Kindness to the needy, benevolence, faith, compassion for the suffering, a peace-loving disposition, and a truly humble and contrite spirit, are the virtues which the Prophets hold up for emulation. Civic loyalty, even to a foreign ruler, is urged as a duty (Jer. 29:7). “Learn to do good” is the keynote of the prophetic appeal (Isa. 1:17); thus the end-time will be one of peace and righteousness; war will be no more (Isa. 2:2 et seq.).
Summaries of classical rabbinic ethics
Hillel the Elder formulated a version of the Golden rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” (Talmud, tracate Shabbat 31a; Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan.) Rabbi Akiva, a 1st-century CE rabbi, states “Whatever you hate to have done unto you, do not do to your neighbor; wherefore do not hurt him; do not speak ill of him; do not reveal his secrets to others; let his honor and his property be as dear to thee as thine own” (Midrash Avot deRabbi Natan.)
Rabbi Akiva also declared the commandment “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. xix.18) to be the greatest fundamental commandment of the Jewish doctrine (compare to Great Commandment); Ben Azzai, in reference to this, said that a still greater principle was found in the Scriptural verse, “This is the book of the generations of Adam [origin of man]. In the day that God created man [Adam], in the likeness of God made he him” (Gen. v.1; Sifra, Ḳedoshim, iv; Yer. Ned. ix.41c; Gen. R. xxiv).
Rabbi Simlai taught “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses; then David came and reduced them to eleven in Psalm 15.; Isaiah (33:15), to six; Micah (6:8), to three: ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’; Isaiah again (56:1), to two: ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right’; and Habakkuk (2:4), to one: ‘The righteous person lives by his faithfulness’.”
Justice, truth, and peace
Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel taught: “The world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace” (Avot 1:18).
Justice (“din” corresponding to the Biblical “mishpat”) being God’s must be vindicated, whether the object be of great or small value (Sanh. 8a). “Let justice pierce the mountain” is the characteristic maxim attributed to Moses (Sanh. 6b). Stealing and oppression, even if only in holding back overnight the hired man’s earnings, are forbidden.
Falsehood, flattery, perjury and false swearing are also forbidden. The reputation of a fellow man is sacred (Ex. 21:1). Tale-bearing and unkind insinuations are proscribed, as is hatred of one’s brother in one’s heart (Lev. 19:17). A revengeful, relentless disposition is unethical; reverence for old age is inculcated; justice shall be done; right weight and just measure are demanded; poverty and riches shall not be regarded by the judge (Lev. 19:15, 18, 32, 36; Ex. 23:3).
Shalom (“peace”), is one of the underlying principles of the Torah, as “her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are shalom (‘peace’).”Proverbs 3:17 The Talmud explains, “The entire Torah is for the sake of the ways of shalom”. Maimonides comments in his Mishneh Torah: “Great is peace, as the whole Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world, as it is stated, ‘Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are peace.'”
Loving-kindness and compassion
Main articles: Chesed and Jewish Views On Love
Simon the Just taught: “The world rests upon three things: Torah, service to God, and showing loving-kindness (chesed)” (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Loving-kindness is here the core ethical virtue.
Loving-kindness is closely linked with compassion in the tradition. Lack of compassion marks a people as cruel (Jer. vi. 23). The repeated injunctions of the Law and the Prophets that the widow, the orphan and the stranger should be protected show how deeply, it is argued, the feeling of compassion was rooted in the hearts of the righteous in ancient Israel.
Friendship is also highly prized in the Talmud; the very word for “associate” is “friend” (“chaver”). “Get thyself a companion” (Abot i. 6). “Companionship or death” (Ta’an. 23a).
Respect for one’s fellow creatures is of such importance that Biblical prohibitions may be transgressed on its account (Ber. 19b). Especially do unclaimed dead require respectful burial (see Burial in Jewish Encyclopedia iii. 432b: “met miẓwah”).
Health and self-respect
In addition to teaching caring for others, Jewish sources tend to teach that humans are duty bound to preserve their lives (Berachot 32b) and health. Foods dangerous to health are more to be guarded against than those ritually forbidden. Jewish ethics denies self-abasement. “He who subjects himself to needless self-castigations and fasting, or even denies himself the enjoyment of wine, is a sinner” (Taanit 11a, 22b). People have to give account for every lawful enjoyment they refuse (Talmud Yer. Ḳid. iv. 66d). A person should show self-respect in regard to both one’s body, “honoring it as the image of God” (Hillel: Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 34), and one’s garments (Talmud Shabbat 113b; Ned. 81a). According to Judaism, real life goes beyond the concept of breathing and having blood flow through our veins, it means existing with a purpose and connecting to God and others.
Areas of applied Jewish ethics
In the Torah, there are more commandments concerning the kashrut (fitness) of one’s money than the kashrut of food. These laws are developed and expanded upon in the Mishnah and the Talmud (particularly in Order Nezikin). The Talmud denounces as fraud every mode of taking advantage of a man’s ignorance, whether he be Jew or Gentile; every fraudulent dealing, every gain obtained by betting or gambling or by raising the price of breadstuffs through speculation, is theft (B. B. 90b; Sanh. 25b). The Talmud denounces advantages derived from loans of money or of victuals as usury; every breach of promise in commerce is a sin provoking God’s punishment; every act of carelessness which exposes men or things to danger and damage is a culpable transgression. There is a widely quoted tradition (Talmud Shabbat 31a) that in one’s judgement in the next world, the first question asked is: “were you honest in business?”
Laws concerning business ethics are delineated in the major codes of Jewish law (e.g. Mishneh Torah, 12th century; Shulhan Arukh, particularly Choshen Mishpat, 16th century). A wide array of topics on business ethics are discussed in the responsa literature. Business ethics received special emphasis in the teaching of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (19th century), founder of the Musar movement in Eastern Europe. Enforcing laws regarding the proper treatment of workers in the food industry has been central to the efforts of Conservative Judaism’s Hekhsher Tzedek commission and its 2008 approval of a responsum by Rabbi Jill Jacobs which required paying workers in accordance with Jewish law and treating workers with dignity and respect.
Main article: Tzedakah
The Jewish idea of righteousness (“tzedakah”) gives the owner of property no right to withhold from the poor their share. According to Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, the highest level of tzedakah is giving charity that will allow the poor to break out of the poverty cycle and become independent and productive members of society. Tzedakah may come in the form of giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
Traditional Jews commonly practice “ma’aser kesafim,” tithing 10% of their income to support those in need. The Rabbis decreed (against Essene practice, and against advice given in the New Testament) that one should not give away much, most or all of their possessions. They did not expect a supernatural savior to come and take care of the poor, and so they held that one must not make oneself poor. Given that nearly all Jews of their day were poor or middle-class (even the rich of that time were only rich relative to the poor), they ruled that one should not give away more than a fifth of his income to charity, while yet being obligated to give away no less than 10% of his income to charity.
Many folios of the Talmud are devoted to encouragement in giving charity (see, for example, B.B. 9b-11a; A.Z. 17b; Pes. 8a; Rosh. 4a), and this topic is the focus of many religious books and rabbinic responsa.
Ethics of speech
Evil-speaking is a sin regarded with intense aversion both in the Bible and in rabbinical literature. The technical term for it in the latter is lashon hara, “the evil tongue.” In the Bible the equivalent words are: dibbah, meaning “talk” in a sinister sense; rakhil, the “merchandise” of gossip with which the talebearer goes about; and ragal, a verb, denoting the “peddling” of slander. As these words indicate, that which is condemned as lashon hara denotes all the deliberate or malicious accusations, or even the exposure of truthful information which has the purpose of injuring one’s neighbor, that is, calumny proper, and also the idle but mischievous chatter which is equally forbidden, though it is not slander.
One commandment in the Torah is to use one’s speech to correct, admonish, or reprove others (Leviticus 19:17). Some Jews have explained this as a matter of “giving musar” (discipline, instruction) in line with a verse from Proverbs 1:8: “Hear, my child, the discipline (musar) of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.” Giving musar through speech is meant to help mold lives. There are timing and other aspects to the giving of musar: what to say, to whom, and when (how often). One suggestion from the late Rabbi Yisroel Belsky is that when there is a need to give musar to a friend: “Give musar as a friend.” Some musar is on topics that are a major part of everyday life, such as consoling mourners and visiting the sick. Rabbi Elya Lopian taught the practice as “teaching the heart what the mind already understands.” Rabbi Paysach Krohn cited Rav Shimon Schwab as teaching that although “[at times] you must give musar” the command to do so (Lev. 19:17) is followed by love your neighbor as yourself. and that “if you want ..(someone).. to change, (it must be) done through love.”
Jewish family ethics
Main article: Honor your father and your mother
The Jewish tradition gives great stress to reverence for parents. More Orthodox forms of Judaism view the father as the head of the family, while seeing the mother as entitled to honor and respect at the hands of sons and daughters. More liberal Jews view the mother and father as equal in all things.
The family plays a central role in Judaism, both socially and in transmitting the traditions of the religion. To honour one’s father and mother is one of the Ten Commandments. Jewish families try to have close, respectful family relationships, with care for both the elderly and young. Religious observance is an integral part of home life, including the weekly Sabbath and keeping kosher dietary laws. The Talmud tells parents to teach their children a trade and survival skills, and children are asked to look after their parents.
Marriage and sexual relations
Main article: Jewish views on marriage
Marriage is called kiddushin, or ‘making holy’. To set up a family home is to take part in an institution imbued with holiness. Monogamy is the ideal (Gen. ii. 24). Celibacy is regarded as contrary to the injunction to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 2:18 and Isaiah 45:18). According to the Talmud and midrash, man is enjoined to take a wife and obtain posterity (Yeb. 63b; Mek., Yitro, 8). “He who lives without a wife lives without joy and blessing, without protection and peace”; he is “not a complete man” (Yeb. 62a, 63a), and for it he has to give reckoning at the great Judgement Day (Shab. 31a).
In most Orthodox interpretations of Judaism, sex is not considered acceptable outside marriage, but it is an important part of the love and care shown between partners. Sexual relations are forbidden during the time of the woman’s period. After her period has ended, she will go to the mikveh (the ritual immersion pool) where she will fully immerse herself and become ritually clean again. Sexual relations may then resume. Married couples need to find other ways of expressing their love for each other during these times, and some say that the time of abstention enhances the relationship. Many non-Orthodox Jews see sex outside of marriage as permissible and have rejected Orthodox laws regarding abstinence during menstruation.
Adultery and incestual relationships (Leviticus 18:6–23) are prohibited. Orthodox Jews view male homosexuality as explicitly prohibited by the Torah, but other Jews view various forms of homosexual behavior or all forms of homosexual behavior as permitted by the tradition.
Medical ethics and bioethics
Jewish medical ethics is one of the major spheres of contemporary Jewish ethics. Beginning primarily as an applied ethics based on halakhah, more recently it has broadened to bioethics, weaving together issues in biology, science, medicine and ethics, philosophy and theology. Jewish bioethicists are usually rabbis who have been trained in medical science and philosophy, but may also be experts in medicine and ethics who have received training in Jewish texts. The goal of Jewish medical ethics and bioethics is to use Jewish law and tradition and Jewish ethical thought to determine which medical treatments or technological innovations are moral, when treatments may or may not be used, etc.
The ethics of proper governance is the subject of much contention among Jews. Various models of political authority are developed in the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, and later Jewish literature. Many prominent Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides, see monarchy as a moral ideal, while others, such as Abravanel, disparage the model of monarchy. Modern Jews have championed a variety of Jewish political movements, often based on their conceptions of Jewish ethics.
Ethics of warfare
Jewish war ethics are developed by Maimonides in his “Laws of Kings and their Wars,” part of his Mishneh Torah. Modern Jewish war ethics have been developed especially in relationship to the Israeli military’s doctrine of Purity of arms.
Main articles: Religion and Capital Punishment and Capital and corporal punishment in Judaism
The Talmud approves of the death penalty in principle but the standard of proof required for application of death penalty is extremely stringent, so that situations in which a death sentence could be passed are effectively impossible.
Relationship to non-Jews
The non-Jew is within the covenant of ethical considerations (Ex. xxii. 20; Lev. xix. 33). “You shall love him as yourself,” a law the phraseology of which is taken to show that in the preceding verse “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. xix. 18) “neighbor” does not connote a Jew exclusively. There was to be one law for the native and the stranger (Lev. xix. 34; comp. Ex. xii. 49).
The exhortation, ‘Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 10:19), is considered important in Judaism. During Passover, Jews are expected to show hospitality to all, and to consider the needs and feelings of anyone who may be marginalized, for whatever reason. According to the Hebrew Bible, the slaves of Jewish people had special rights that preserved their dignity as equal human beings, allowed them freedoms, and forbade mistreatment.
Non-Jews are to have a share in all the benevolent work of a township which appeals to human sympathy and on which the maintenance of peace among men depends, such as supporting the poor, burying the dead, comforting the mourners, and visiting the sick (Tosefta Giṭtin, v. 4-5; Babylonian Talmud, Giṭtin 64a).
Most Jews do not actively seek to convert non-Jews to Judaism; in fact conversion to Judaism can be a lengthy and difficult process. They cannot actively approve of religions that appear to promote idolatry or immorality.
Jews believe that non-Jews who follow the Noachide code, the minimum ethical and religious requirements for all non-Jews, will be equally recognized by God. The laws of the Noachide code are: do not engage in idolatry; do not engage in blasphemy; do not murder; do not steal; do not commit acts of sexual immorality; do not cause excessive pain to animals (e.g. eating a limb torn from a living animal); and establish courts of justice.
The principle of Kiddush Hashem requires Jews to conduct themselves in every way as to prevent the name of God from being dishonored by non-Israelites. The greatest sin of fraud, therefore, is that committed against a non-Israelite, because it may lead to the reviling of God’s name. A desire to sanctify the name of God may help to motivate some Jews to treat adherents of other creeds with the utmost fairness and equity.
Treatment of animals
See also: Tza’ar ba’alei chayim and Jewish Vegetarianism
According to Jewish tradition, animals have a right to be treated well, even ones that might belong to one’s enemy (Ex. 23:4). The Biblical commands regarding the treatment of the brute (Ex. xx. 10; Lev. xxii. 28; Deut. xxv. 4; Prov. xii. 10) are amplified in rabbinical ethics, and a special term is coined for the prohibition on causing suffering to animals (“tza’ar ba’alei hayyim”). Not to sit down to the table before the domestic animals have been fed is a lesson derived from Deut. xi. 15. Compassion for the brute is declared to have been the merit of Moses which made him the shepherd of his people (Exodus Rabbah 2), while Judah ha-Nasi saw in his own ailment the punishment for having once failed to show compassion for a frightened calf.
Consideration for animals is an important part of Judaism. It is part of the Noachide code. Resting on the Sabbath also meant providing rest for the working animals, and people are instructed to feed their animals before they sit down to eat. At harvest time, the working animals must not be muzzled, so that they can eat of the harvest as they work. All animals must be kept in adequate conditions. Sports like bullfighting are forbidden. Animals may be eaten as long as they are killed using shechitah, a method where the animal has its throat cut using a specially sharpened knife. Jewish butchers are trained in this method which must meet the requirements of kashrut.
Enforcing laws regarding the treatment of animals in the certification of food products has been part of the effort of Conservative Judaism’s Hekhsher Tzedek commission.
In modern times, a Jewish vegetarian movement has emerged, led in part by Jews who believe that Jewish ethics demands vegetarianism or veganism.
Main article: Judaism and environmentalism
The Book of Genesis 1:26 indicates that God gave people control over the animals and earth, while Genesis 2:15 emphasizes that people were put in the world to maintain it and care for it. The Talmud teaches the principle of Bal tashkhit, which some take to mean that wasting or destroying anything on earth is wrong. Many take the view that pollution is an insult to the created world, and it is considered immoral to put commercial concerns before care for God’s creation. However, humans are regarded as having a special place in the created order, and their well-being is paramount. Humans are not seen as just another part of the ecosystem, so moral decisions about environmental issues have to take account of the well-being of humans.
Trees and other things of value also come within the scope of rabbinical ethics, as their destruction is prohibited, according to Deut. xx. 19 (Talmud, tracate Shabbat 105b, 129a, 140b, et al.). In modern times, a Jewish environmentalist movement has emerged.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia