Jewish ethical literature

Biblical and rabbinic ethical literature

(This section is adapted from Wikipedia)

Jewish ethics may be said to originate with the Hebrew Bible, its broad legal injunctions, wisdom narratives and prophetic teachings. Most subsequent Jewish ethical claims may be traced back to the texts, themes and teachings of the written Torah.

In early rabbinic Judaism, the oral Torah both interprets the Hebrew Bible and delves afresh into many other ethical topics. The best known rabbinic text associated with ethics is the non-legal Mishnah tractate of Pirkei Avot, popularly translated as “Ethics of the Fathers”. Similar ethical teachings are interspersed throughout the 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 cross-fertilization and polemical exchange with both the Greek (Western philosophical) ethical tradition and early Christian tradition.
Medieval ethical literature

Medieval ethical writings

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. Examples of medieval Musar literature include:

Other important sources of Jewish ethicals include Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (12th century) and Joseph Karo and Moses Isserles’s Shulkhan Arukh (16th century), especially the section “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 Mussar 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 Kohlershow 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 and Conservative rabbis often engage in applied ethics by interpreting rabbinic law (Halakha) in responsa (formal opinions). Popular topics include medical and bioethics, 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. Inspired by both Maimonides and the success of Catholic ethics, David Novak has promoted a natural law approach to Jewish social ethics. While Jewish feminists are not prominent in ethics per se, the principles of feminist ethics arguably play a pivotal role in the ebb and flow of Jewish denominational politics and identity-formation.

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).

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