A Basic Question re: Jewish Ethics


Is Jewish ethics first Jewish philosophy? Does it even exist? These are serious questions. Philosophically, I have always had doubts about the Jewish ethical project particularly in its most one-sided expression. Maybe the skepticism had and has to do with an early exposure to  Nietzsche. For a recent project I’m turning to that long tradition, only to find that there’s nothing really there despite the big game talked up by Hermann Cohen, Emmanuel Levinas, and their students. While the trope is common, it turns out that there’s not a lot of literature on the subject by  way of monographs. The ones who have written the most about it are Marvin Fox, Lewis Newman, Elliot Dorff, David Novak, Alan Mittleman, Laurie Zoloth, and Jonathan Schoefer.

One could start in the medieval period with Bachya and with Maimonides. But the first sign of suspicion is that most scholars who write about Jewish ethics as a discrete subject will say right off the bat that the idea of Jewish ethics is a modern construction, and that there are few indigenous terms for ethics. In fact, Newman himself draws attention to how little work there is in the field compared to other aspects of Jewish thought and religion (philosophy, mysticism, ritual, etc.) (Past Imperatives, p.ix). He suggests that perhaps the inattention has to do with the way it was transformed into nothing less than the essence of Judaism by liberal Jews, and the way it competes with law for orthodox Jews (ibid., pp.4-8). There might, however, be a simpler answer and, indeed, a hint of apology in the way modern scholars squirm around what turns out to be an absence.

I’m going to stay with this theme for a bit here at JPP, reading through major contributions to the literature on Jewish ethics. Inviting your participation and critical pushback, my own opening gambit is this:

As part of a modern reconstructive-hermeneutical project, you could scour Bible and midrash in search of it; and you can find there traces of it. But that’s not “ethics” if by that one means something more than “morality.” You just come up empty-handed if what you want is a systematic and consistent approach to values, actions, and virtues expressed in a clear cut imperative-normative voice. In the background, my own reflections rely heavily on Babylonian Talmud, which lends itself to this alternative model in which moral norms are put forward and drawn back, structured and deconstructed. To see this requires one to look at and then past the substantive moral phrase, to see the way in which the moral phrase fits into and loosens in the larger sugya that situates it. Going forward here at the blog, I’m going to ignore Talmud and comment upon the modern scholarly literature. Here’s what I suspect. No, ethics, is not the essential and universal component to the Jewish tradition, even if it is “the” one thing that many of us “like” the most about it. And yes, while there are deep moral dimensions to the Jewish tradition, Jewish ethics turns out to be something like a chimera.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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7 Responses to A Basic Question re: Jewish Ethics

  1. efmooney says:

    Is there a contrast between ethics and morals? There’s a large debate in academic philosophy, and no clear consensus. Bernard Williams thinks there’s a ‘morality system’ we’re all raised into as a matter of convention, and he values that above any purported priority of ‘ethics.’ Why does it matter if there’s an ‘ethics’ to investigate distinct from from various localized discussions of morals? Just asking — I use the terms more or less interchangeably without trying to argue for a distinction. If we think Abraham is about to do something wrong (or right) in ascending Moriah, is that an ethical or a moral wrong (or right) ? And what of Spinoza whose great work is called “Ethics” ? Does he write as a non-Jew? And Kierkegaard is usually identified as a Christian thinker, yet his book on Abraham ascending Moriah reads like Midrash.

  2. esque says:

    This project just might take Judaism out of the nineteenth century!

  3. dmf says:

    won’t surprise you to that I don’t think that there can be “essential and universal component(s)” but I wonder if the interests/uses in some way depend on the illusion/author-ity of such a non thing and in this way could function like Jack Caputo speaks of religion in terms of spectral callings (which remind me of the interests of scientists/psychoanalysts/etc in the work of Isabelle Stengers) and the like and not as a source of G_d-like imperatives (as they generally do now?).

    • zjb says:

      when i said essential universal component i meant it as internal to the Jewish tradition (as a basic component to its cultural and intellectual fabric)

      • dmf says:

        yes I’m calling into question the idea that there could be such a thing (also not crazy about a literal take on there being a “tradition”).
        we might loosely (in a sort of wiggensteinian way) want to talk about trends or the like but still seems like a matter of sociology/anthropology to me, something also perhaps about needed distinctions between descriptions and prescriptions at play but haven’t nailed that down yet (some equivalent of not being a mirror as Rorty once talked about in reference to Nature).

      • efmooney says:

        I’ve been impressed by the use of narrative, and of narratives commenting on narratives, as salient in (if not “essential to”) the Jewish tradition. To look for the “essential universal components” of a tradition seems to slant the inquiry toward the discovery of “essential universal principles.” But there can be coherent moral/ethical traditions that are built around narratives — think of Native American or Hindu traditions — and don’t pretend to isolate principles. Searching for universal principles as the foundation of ethics is a momentary Enlightenment project eschewed by many other powerful strands of thought in “Euro-Mediterranean” intellectual and moral/ethical achievement since the 18th century. Why pick Kant over Herder, Diderot over Nietzsche, Thurgood Marshall over Elie Wiesel? Why value impersonal abstract argument and judgment over Midrash and story-telling? If Spinoza is a Jewish thinker, he offers principles and virtues. But in many surveys of Jewish thought he’s left out. He doesn’t seem to think in terms of narrative-ethics, which seems to place him outside the Jewish tradition. (And as an aside, in narrative ethics, prescription and description are wed.)

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