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 Schofer.
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.