Ethics ex Nihilo (Inventing Jewish Ethics)

Published by the good people at the Journal for Jewish Ethics where I argue that modern Jewish ethics is a lot like an AMC Gremlin:

About longer arcs of Jewish tradition, there is simply too much to say in these few pages. Viewed theoretically via the prism of Jewish intellectual history, I touch strategically upon points along that arc to suggest why what modern philosophers and modern theologians, Jewish and Christian, mean by ethics is too neat a box in which to fit “Judaism.” Assuming that the Jewish ethical tradition is a distinctly modern discursive formation, the skeptical questions I am asking here are whether “Jewish ethics” is a “thing” and whether Judaism is itself strictly ethical. Jewish ethics is a mythical beast that slips the net the moment one thinks one has it trapped, which is not to say that this chimerical creature has no indigenous habitat in the sources of Judaism. The tradition is not without its own peculiar moralities, but the tradition is “unethical,” which is to say morally inconsistent, complicated by extra-moral aspects, not theorized as such.


Jewish ethics had to be invented in the 1970s because it did not exist in the first place, not being an “independent thing,” not unambiguously backed up by God at the foundational center of a continuous group of teachings stretched across the tradition. Submerged into theology, ritual, law, ethos, and ethnos, it is not clear that the Jewish ethical tradition exists apart from its retrospective consecration as a more or less profound work of the modern moral imagination. The creation ex nihilo or the emanation of Jewish ethics would be a form of reasoning, as per William James, under which, for practical and aesthetic reasons, essential moral features are lifted out of a body that is itself ethically vague, having “no subdivisions ab intra, nor precise limitations ab extra.”

— “Ethics ex Nihilo (Invention of Jewish Ethics,” Journal of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 7, No. 1–2, 2021

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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.
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1 Response to Ethics ex Nihilo (Inventing Jewish Ethics)

  1. dmf says:

    thanks for sharing will read soon, ethics always have to be assembled in each occasion they aren’t tools /rules/algorithms which pre-exist and can be applied, even if one has say a book of “ethics” they still need to be interpreted/assembled by those involved. So called Principle based ethics and the like are a sleight of hand trick…

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