(Jewish Mysticism) The Non-Existence of Jewish Ethics (Joseph Dan)


Is there such a thing as Jewish ethics? Does it even exist? What if anything do Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics have to do with each other? Does the one complement or submerge the other? In search of answers to these and other questions, I turned to Joseph Dan’s Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics, originally presented as the Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington in 1983. I’m reading the 1996 edition published in 1995 which includes ideas drawn from Foucault, a surprising theoretical turn indeed.

Most of all, I was most of curious to see if Dan’s little study would either confirm or disabuse the tongue-in-cheek questions I have been pursuing here at the blog about the existence of Jewish ethics. The book’s first chapter concerns the “enigma of Hebrew ethical literature” and concludes with Lurianic Kabbalah and the modern period. Surely this might be the place to learn a little something about the ethical tradition in Judaism, particularly in view of its suffusion by Kabbalah at some point in the late medieval-early modern period.

Alas, the venture stumbled into one incoherence after another, not the fault of the author, and not I hope of the reader, but because of the conceptual confusion of the subject matter –ethics and Jewish ethics. In relation to “modern Jewish ethics,” I quoted Aharon Lichtenstein’s remark that the very project is a conceptual minefield, and that the entire project hangs upon correct definition. Dan’s book confirms that remark.

Trouble is already afoot in the preface to the first edition where Dan concedes that there is “no inherent connection between mysticism and ethics; it can even be said that there is a barrier between them.” His explanation is that mysticism is an elite phenomenon, whereas ethics relates to the norms that concern an entire people (p.ix). In relation to the Bible, Dan further defines ethics in terms of practical and behavioral norms that are not strictly legal, ritualistic, or social. This includes “[a]dvice concerning the everyday way of life, instruction in abstaining from evil, and the pursuit of perfection in attitude and deed.” One thinks especially of the book of Proverbs, as well as the concrete and practical character that informs much ethical discourse in Talmudic and midrashic sources. It’s in the medieval period that we begin to see the why to the what of Jewish ethical norms in the form of “abstract guideline[s]” and on a “theological basis.” But the point here is that the medieval and early modern ethical literature is said to have very little in common with the biblical and rabbinic sources (pp.13-14).


The first takeaway would be to conclude that ethics is defined in terms of derekh eretz, the way of the world, a moral way of being in the world, particularly involving inter-human relations (one could add for good measure inter-species relations, the relations between a person and fellow-creatures, which is a nice translation of the Hebrew). By this definition, mystical ethics are not ethical at all. Rather than the relation between the human subject and fellow creatures, they concern the self (the nihilation of the subject) in relation to God.

One wonders then on what basis Dan sees in Lurianic Kabbalah “a complete fusion between Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics” (p.107). Raised to a fever pitch in the Jewish mystical tradition, every human act is an absolute; like in chaos theory, the performance of a single and the slightest mitzvah, the commission of a single and the slightest sin has a vast theo-cosmic impact on the very fabric of the godhead (p.108-9). Entirely sublimated, one begins to suspect that this system is no longer derekh eretz, no longer worldly, no longer ethical, in the normal usage of the terms defined by Dan himself at the outset of his study.

There is an infelicitous tension at work in this rubric, Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics. On the one hand, Dan insists that Jewish ethics reflects a continuous tradition. On the other hand, he notes that it entered Judaism via Greek and Arabic sources which were then translated into Hebrew (pp.17-19). This is to say that “ethics” was something quite new that went through a process of indigenization. This is supported by Dan’s own observation that medieval Jewish philosophers starting with Saadya Gaon and including Bachya ibn Pakuda and Maimonides wrote “as if” they were doing something new.

Dan wants to deny this claim, assuming the existence of a long tradition reflecting on the right way to live. But one suspects that the philosophers were on to something. In fact, what Saadya is described as doing is brand new, if in fact Dan is correct in his assertion that Saadya sought to organize all ethical questions around a single cardinal point reading human good, perfection, and happiness (pp.21, 21-31). (For a larger discussion of eudaemonia in Jewish philosophy, see Hava Tirosh-Samuelson’s Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge, and Well-Being.) If that is all the case, then the ethical tradition is a uniquely medieval Jewish construction. At one point Dan himself will say that what we have is a “picture” of “direct continuation” (p.33). The idea of continuous ethical tradition in Judaism would be better understood as an image, a work of the imagination, than as something “real.”

The entire rubric of Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics gets fuzzier still when Dan continues to write about Catalan Kabbalah. Ethics now falls completely out of the discussion in favor of a description of anti-Maimonidean, anti-Aristotelean, anti-philosophical polemics (pp.31-48). Ethical treatises are mentioned but not actually talked about, which should be strange in a book devoted to Jewish mystical ethics. The same is true of the material on Hasidei Ashkenaz up until p.62 where Dan finally defines pietistic ethics in terms of overcoming humanity/physicality in order to be spiritual. Earlier described in terms of a human derekh eretz, the subject now is no longer the social obligation between human beings and their fellow creatures, but the relationship between the human creature and its Maker. More radical still, humanity itself is described not simply as “overcome” but as “sacrificed” in the tradition of Ashkenazi pietism. This constitutes a paradox that might turn out actually to be a contradiction, if not a farce. The good is achieved only through the bad, i.e. through pain and suffering (p.70-1).

Not autonomous and beyond heteronomous, Jewish mystical ethics are theonomous. As if retracting the very core of his thesis, Dan is not even sure whether musar is even ethics. “The translation of sifrut musar into ethics created expectations that this literature is characterized by devotion to the principles and detailed instruction concerning the ethical behavior of the individual in a social, context…The problem, however, is that the Hebrew sifrut ha-musar does not conform to these outlines.” He goes on to say that the religious character of this tradition cannot be reconciled with ethics in the modern or even classical sense of the term. To be sure, one can follow Dan who calls this a “completely different concept of ethics.”  But if this tradition is so completely different, then why even call it ethics in the first place (p.120, emphasis added)?!

After ethics as conventionally understood, what’s left is compared by Dan with what Foucault called “the care for the self.” As described by Dan, this care is not social, but rather a fusion of ethical and aesthetic self-perfection. By aesthetic, Dan means “the sense of self-satisfying individual cravings,” “the desire to look at one’s face in the mirror and be content with what one sees.” The “ethical and the aesthetical [sic] are fused together in such a desire” (p.116). With no independent ethical sphere in Judaism, all those social obligations are sublimated into the system of religious obligation in which they disappear (p.119-20). In this, union with God represents the highest good and ultimate freedom to the point that individual identity of the subject is lost in “folds of pure spirituality” (pp.126-7).

One could quibble this way and that. Does the expression “folds of pure spirituality” sound more like Foucault or like Deleuze? Or has Dan simply amalgamated the two. Either way, Jewish tradition begins to resemble something akin to post-structuralism. Against the grain of modern Jewish philosophy, which long ago traded in the language of “realization,” the subject, no longer autonomous, now de-realized, gets dissolved into a superintending fluxus that folds into itself. Or rather, something other than the human has been made “real.”

So what about Jewish ethics? We all know that mysticism ultimately overwhelmed philosophy in Jewish intellectual history. Dan’s book, devoted to “Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics” effectively undermines (deconstructs) the author’s own confidence in the continuity of the Jewish ethical tradition. As Dan notes, derash (i.e. midrash, homiletics, theology) is “ten times” more prominent than musar in Judaism. The point is that the mystical way of world and self nihilation “marginalizes the social-ethical aspect, which is secondary in this Hebrew tradition” (pp.121, 131). This might be “good,” even excellent, but not “ethical.” As for “Jewish ethics” in relation to the mysticism that comes to dominate Judaism in the pre-modern period, it’s not at all clear that this thing even exists.


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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3 Responses to (Jewish Mysticism) The Non-Existence of Jewish Ethics (Joseph Dan)

  1. dmf says:

    I think it comes close to a kind of category error to treat “ethics” as some thing (like say a kind of bird or particle) that we can find or not in the world as opposed to seeing it as a characterization that we use to frame some things one way or another for our own interests/purposes (pragmatism in a minimalist anthropological sort of way, we being tool-using critters), so perhaps more in the light (shadow?) of Foucault to what effect/affect are some techniques of (in this case) normalization put to and how are they shaped&employed and by whom?

    • zjb says:

      i’ve been experimenting with treating these kinds of phenomena (ethics, Judaism, religion) like “things” or “objects.”

      • dmf says:

        gotcha, if one follows folks like Isabelle Stengers even the ‘objects’ of science (physical laws etc) in some sense are more reflections of their makers (than not discoverers) interests than any-thing else (not the things unto themselves if you will and or something like nature isn’t cut at the joints), I like the related work of Andy Pickering (he adds a sense from lab-work of the materials offering certain resistances and affordances and so not being totally mutable) who talks about such phenomena as relative/temporary/achieved stabilities (not than an object nor process oriented philosophy in their narrow senses/disputes).
        do you find this to be working for you or perhaps it just echoes some of the tensions/failings you outline in the work you are reviewing?

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