(Jewish Ethics) Depends Upon How You Choose The Terms


Does Jewish ethics exist? It depends. Again sticking with Modern Jewish Ethics, the 1975 collection of essays edited by Marvin Fox, Aharaon Lichtenstein put it quite bluntly. “[A]s formulated, this particular query is a studded minefield, ever key term is an ill-defined boobytrap” (p.62). The answer to the essay “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize An Ethic Independent of Halakha?” would hang upon what one means by “Jewish,” “tradition,” “recognize,” “ethics,” “independent,” and “halaklah.”

We could also throw in the indefinite article. The point I would make is that the entire edifice that is supposed to structure the query fragments into the component features of the edifice. For instance, in Fox’s essay in this volume on Saadya Gaon, the negative answer depends upon the way Fox has defined “independent ethics” in terms of the impossibility of reason to define on its own moral rules not just as socially useful, but as logically necessary. This raises the bar and turns it into an impossible condition. One could also note that the argument is based on the famous midrash in which the nations in competition with Israel all turn down God’s gift of the Torah, leading one to wonder who all these people are without enough moral sense to prohibit stealing, murder, etc (p.185). Having put his cart before the horse, there’s no way that Fox could answer the question in the affirmative.

Or consider Lichtenstein’s essay. Is there an ethical component to halakah that is “constitutive,” “continuous,” “pervasive,” consistent,” “inextricably interwoven,” “complementary,” and “overriding” (cf. p.67). Maybe a relation defined as less would be more? Maybe the fabric is “interwoven,” but subject to “unraveling”?  Is Lichtenstein maybe talking about “Torah” instead of “halakhah” (cf. p.66). Perhaps it makes sense to avoid the term “halakhah” and replace it with “Torah,” on the one hand, and “din” (determinate and detailed lawful judgment) on the other? Lichtenstein suggests that the whole exposition might be a “sham” and wonders if “the fiction” of “halakhic comprehensiveness” might be preserved (p.77). Shifting terms, this would mean that “din” is indeed distinct from “good.” Indeed, I can think of no one who argues that “din” defines “Judaism.” But what then about “law” is not so clear. Lichtenstein comes close to recommending that we should fix our terms because “halakhah” is not the umbrella term in rabbinic literature (midrash Halakhah and Talmud) that it was to later become, i.e. that “unum necessarium of the Jew committed to tradition” as “commanding presence” and “magisterial to the point of personification” (p.82).

Looking past Hazal, what complicates the picture in Joseph Dan’s Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics is whether by ethics one means something ordinary like derekh eretz, i.e. ways of the world, standards of moral decency, or interpersonal (social) behavior, i.e. those mitzvot between a person and his or her fellow, versus the via mystica, i.e those mitzvot between a person and God (especially chapter 5), which is not what most of us mean by ethics, not today at least.

More on that mess later, and more on Lichtenstein. For now, let’s stick with this quick upshot. As per Lichtenstein, we are treading into “fiction” and make-believe. As  “figures,” it really depends upon what one is going to mean by terms like “ethics” and “halakhah,”apart from which there is a lot of noise, but no such thing as “Jewish ethics,” whether dependent or independent of something called “din,” “halakhah,” or “law,” as well as what one means by “reasonable” and “rational.” Perhaps the only one advice to give –careful as you go now.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Jewish Ethics) Depends Upon How You Choose The Terms

  1. If you haven’t seen it check out https://www.amazon.com/Divine-Command-Ethics-Perspectives-Philosophical/dp/0415297699 for a more rigorous analytic approach to the literature,

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