I keep coming back to the 1970s in my search to find the origins of “the Jewish ethical tradition,” by which I mean ethics as an isolated and reified discourse. My own sense is that Jewish ethics rests on shallow intellectual foundations. We’re not talking about a deep tradition. Today’s installment comes from Joseph Dan’s Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics. For now I’m sticking in the footnotes where I found a few things of note. The first is that the first chapter of this 1986 text culls material collected by the author in his Ethical and Homiletical Literature (Sifrut ha-Musar veha-Derush), which was published in Hebrew in 1975 (p.149n.1). So we can put this text alongside Marvin Fox’s Modern Jewish Ethics, which was published in the same year.
The second thing is this. Against modern liberal Judaism and what we are now coming to understand as modern Jewish ethics, Dan concedes this point deep in the footnotes. “Anyone approaching the musar literature of the Middle Ages and early modern times seeking these values is disappointed. Neither rationality nor social justice serve as cornerstones in this literature” (p.160n.4).
This note is followed by an interesting anecdote in the next footnote. Dan relates how he followed his teacher Isaiah Tishby who started teaching musar literature at the Hebrew University in 1951. “Yet Professor Tishby did not write a comprehensive study of the subject….and his other disciples write important monographs on specific subjects but not on the genre as a whole.” It would seem that there was something about the subject of Jewish ethics that did not congeal into a coherent whole. There was something abortive about the project. According to Dan, “The subject ceased to be taught in that department in 1975” (p.160.n.5).
Then in the following footnote there is this. Dan locates again his own research in musar and musar literature in two encyclopedia entries, one in the Encyclopedia Judaica and one in the Hebrew Encyclopedia in addition to the main monograph mentioned above. These publications are also situated in the early 1970s. Referring again to Tishby, Dan writes, “Our intention was to continue this work and dedicate subsequent volumes to musar literature from the thirteenth century to modern times, but this was not accomplished” (p.160n.6).
The readers of Dan’s little book should be left wondering just why such a vitally important project never pulled together. Perhaps one or two of them might come to the critical conclusion that there simply was not enough material there to begin with, not enough deep historical material with which to construct a scholarly discourse committed to a coherent and autonomous Jewish ethical tradition. With a little help from this or that classical or medieval source, the Jewish ethical tradition would represent a modern surface phenomenon, which should be understood as such.
About Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics, more next week.