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Jewish ethics stands at the intersection of Judaism and the Western philosophical tradition of ethics.
Biblical and rabbinic ethical literature
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:
- 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.
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).
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.
Laws concerning business ethics are delineated in the major codes of Jewish law (e.g. Mishneh Torah, 12th c.; Shulkhan Arukh, particularly Choshen Mishpat, 16th c.). A wide array of topics on business ethics are discussed in the responsa literature.
Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (19th century), founder of the Musar movement in Eastern European, taught that just as one checks carefully to make sure their food is kosher, so too should one check to see if their money is earned in a kosher fashion (Chofetz Chaim, Sfat Tamim, chapter 5). 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?”
Family and sexual ethics
“God, Love, Sex, and Family: A Rabbi’s Guide for Building Relationships That Last” by Michael Gold. 1998, HC, Pub. by Jason Aronson Inc.,320 p. Gold writes that this book “grew out of my years of counseling families on a variety of issues. It deals with such questions as the relationship between parents and children, sibling rivalry, making marriages that work, the role of sexuality, and the meaning of family. It is written as a passionate moderate, who believes that family is a God given ideal.”
“Does God Belong in the Bedroom?” by Michael Gold, JPS, 1992. “Does Judaism offer appropriate guidelines to the intimacy of the bedroom? Using the Torah, the wisdom of the rabbis of the Talmud, the Midrash, and exploring the vast reservoir of rabbinic sources on sexuality, Gold demonstrates how those classical sources differ from Christianity and modern secular ethics. He traces traditional Jewish responses through the ages and applies their lessons to the post-pill, AIDS-conscious world Jews live in today. Examines such issues as marital, nonmarital, and extramarital sex; pornography; rape and incest; masturbation; homosexuality; birth control; abortion; new reproductive techniques; and sex education. This is a frank and honest approach to sexual ethics.”
“This Is My Beloved: This Is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations” by Elliot N. Dorff and The Rabbinical Assembly’s commission on sexuality. This booklet teaches, from a Conservative Jewish point of view, the Jewish tradition regarding sexuality. Topics include: sex within marriage, non-marital sex, having children, dealing with infertility, divorce, adultery, incest, single parenthood, contraception, homosexuality, and the laws of family purity. 64 pages.
“Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies”, Perry Netter, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002
“Full of practical inspiration about growing through loss and crisis [this book is a ] supportive companion in this trying time as it helps you address these essential questions: Why is this happening to me? To leave or not to leave; how do I decide? Is divorce kosher? What do I do with all this anger? How do we tell the kids? How do I get closure? What do I say? To litigate or to mediate? How do we continue to raise children together?”
In 19th century Wissenschaft des Judentums, scholars like Julius Preuss studied Talmudic approaches to medicine. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits was a prominent figure in 20th century Jewish medical ethics and a pioneer in religious bioethics. His specialty was the interaction between medical ethics and halakha. Thanks to his academic training in Ireland, Rabbi Jakobovits approached his comprehensive volume, Jewish Medical Ethics, in light of Catholic medical ethics, with which he often compares Jewish ethics. Whether developing or disputing his analysis, subsequent Jewish bioethicists have utilized his work on abortion, euthanasia, the history of Jewish medical ethics, palliative care, treatment of the sick, and professional duties. Likewise, he is credited with popularizing the claim that Judaism supports the nearly absolute sanctity of life.
In its early years, Jewish medical ethics was predominantly an applied ethics. Orthodox pioneers included rabbis and scholars J. David Bleich, Fred Rosner, Abraham Steinberg, Saul J. Berman, Moshe David Tendler, as well as major rabbinic authorities, such as Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Moshe Feinstein and Eliezer Waldenberg. reform movement’s pioneers included Solomon Freehof, and later involvement by Walter Jacob and Moshe Zemer. Pioneering medical ethicists in the Conservative movement included rabbis Elliot Dorff, David Feldman, Aaron Mackler, Joel Roth, and Avram Reisner, while more recent figures have included Leonard Sharzer. Among those oriented to bioethics, leading thinkers include Daniel Sinclair and Noam Zohar. Dr. Mark J. Poznansky, a member of the Order of Canada, has been a leading voice on issues of human and animal experimentation.
Organizationally, Jewish medical ethics and bioethics has grown, especially in the United States and Israel. Journals dedicated to medical ethics and an encyclopedia have been published. In Israel, where an educational Institute for the Application and Practice of Jewish Medical Ethics exists; following hospitals further support Jewish clinical ethicists. Jewish medical ethics and bioethics has been the topic of numerous scholarly conferences, educational workshops, and lectureships, including the “International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics.”
Animals and the environment
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 Cruelty to Animals (“tza’ar ba’ale 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 as painlessly and humanely as possible using the method known as shechitah, where the animal is killed by having its throat cut swiftly using a specially sharpened knife. Jewish butchers have a special training in this which must meet the requirements of kashrut. Animals may also be used in medical research if it will help people in need, and if the animals do not undergo any unnecessary suffering.
The Book of Genesis indicates that God gave people control over the fish, birds, animals, and earth (Genesis 1:26). Genesis 2:15 emphasizes that people were put in the world to maintain it and care for it. The Talmud teaches that wasting or destroying anything on earth is wrong. 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 enivronmentalism movement has emerged.