Jewish Ethics

It has been told you, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: To do justice and love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom. [Micah 6:8, 9]

Hillel taught: What is hateful to you, do not do to another person. (Talmud, masechet Shabbat 31a).

We speak of “Musar” as the compendium of Jewish ethics, but this terms is of modern origin. Biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism did not distinguish ethical mitzvot (commandments) from what we today would term ritual or religious commandments. All mitzvot (commandments) were understood to have came from God; all were considered to be of divine origin and equally compelling. Both the Bible and Sages concur: God cares deeply about each and every human decision and behavior because each human being is created in the divine image and ought to behave in this world as a reflection of that image. The more general statements, such as, “Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15) is concretized in specific ethical injunctions and obligations. Here are but a few examples:

For Jews, ethics are part and parcel of wisdom: one who attains wisdom understands God’s ways. Those who understand God’s ways will surely follow them. Ethical behavior is therefore a matter of carrying out God’s will in the world and participating in the ongoing creation of the world according to God’s will. The prophet Jeremiah (9:22,23) said: “Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise glory in their wisdom; let not the strong glory in their strength; let not the rich glory in their riches. Only in this should one glory: In earnest devotion to Me. For I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world, for in these I delight --declares the Lord.” As God delights in kindness, justice, and equity, so should we.

A distinguishing feature of Jewish ethics is its emphasis on social ethics and engagement with the community. Many other religious traditions promote asceticism as the ideal context in which the highest ethical existence can be attained, suggesting that withdrawal from everyday life is prerequisite to ethical perfection. In contrast, Judaism asserts that the normal human condition is not inherently evil, but rather precisely the realm which concerns God: God wants us treat one another with justice and compassion, not to separate ourselves from one another.

Judaism focuses on social reality and life in this world, seeking to improve it. I say “improve” and not “perfect” because although Judaism offers an vision of perfection, the emphasis is on realistic and achievable improvement rather than impossible perfection. Hence on Rosh Hashanah Jews repent sins actually committed and seek to improve themselves in the coming year. We are not commanded to be perfect; had God expected us to be perfect, God would have created us perfect. Rather, God created us capable of self-control and improvement, and expects both from us. The Torah presents us with fallible patriarchs and matriarchs as our models, and it is no coincidence that Israel derives its name from the patriarch, Jacob, who begins life with many ethical challenges, but through the course of time and struggle, grows. When he wrestles with the angels and receives the name “Yisrael,” we can identify with him and his struggle to grow into an ethical human being; his struggle is ours. Jacob no more reaches perfection than any other human being; his struggle to grow, improve, and attain wisdom, however, are an inspiring model for us all.

The Rabbis extended and expanded Jewish ethics, exploring every aspect of Jewish life: home and family, market and business place, synagogue, community, relations with the governing powers, Jewish courts (what we would term both the civil and criminal realms). They were masters of “case law” in which the particulars of every context must be fully examined to determine the right and proper course of action. For the Rabbis, ethics are not merely lofty principles or theoretical guidelines, but concrete principles governing human discourse, daily behavior, and decision-making. They used their own lives as models, holding themselves up both as moral exemplars as well as examples of moral failure at times. For the Rabbis living ethically and engaging in moral behavior is the quintessence of living a holy life. They taught that living ethically is no simple matter; there is no simple set of rules one follows. Rather, life is complex and most all ethical situations are nuanced; therefore one must engage in study and prayer to determine the right course of action.

Medieval and later Jewish philosophers, halakhists, and kabbalists derived systematic formulations of Jewish ethics -- both theoretical and practical -- and their efforts continue to inform and teach us. Among them are Saadia Ga’on, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses Maimonides (Rambam), Bachya ibn Paquda, and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto.

Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter (1810-1883) was the father of the modern Musar Movement (Jewish Ethics Movement). His chance meeting with Rabbi Zundel of Salant, a great scholar and man of rare humility and modesty, had a powerful effect on Rabbi Lipkin. He became Rabbi Zundel’s disciple and made every effort to conduct his life in accord with the ethical principles and moral behaviors of Rabbi Zundel. As the head of his own yeshivah in Vilna, he preached and taught the doctrine of Musar (Jewish moral teachings), attracting large audiences and giving rise to the Musar Movement. I recall as a child the stirring tale of Rabbi Lipkin instructing his people to eat on Yom Kippur during a cholera epidemic which swept Vilna in 1848. When the people, shocked by such a demand, refused, Rabbi Lipkin himself ascended the bima and ate food before them, explaining that God gave us Torah that we might live by its laws, not die because of them.

Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, known in the Jewish world as the Chofetz Chaim, published Sefer Chofetz Chaim in 1873, in which he organized and explained the laws of lashon hara -- gossip and evil talk. Nearly half the sins mentioned in the machzor on Yom Kippur are committed verbally, so the Chofetz Chaim’s teachings on lashon hara are worthy of serious and devoted study. They boil down to three rules:

  1. Do not say or imply anything derogatory about anyone else, whether true or not. The Sages taught that lashon hara kills three people -- the victim, the listener, and the speaker -- it destroys the reputation of the victim, damages the perceptions of the listener, and diminishes the moral standing of the speaker.
  2. Do not listen to derogatory things said about anyone and, if you cannot remove yourself from the conversation, do not believe them. Providing someone with an audience for lashon hara is encouragement to engage in this sin. What is more, one thing we can all be sure, anyone who would say derogatory things about another person, would be quick to speak similarly about us if we displeased them in some way.
  3. Do not attack another person with words. By all means, argue ideas and principles, but avoid ad hominen attacks at all cost. When you are tempted to say something cruel and hurtful to someone else, either because you are feeling hurt by them and want to retaliate, or because you are angry, remember a time someone hurt you deeply with words.

Jewish ethics is an ever-expanding arena, as Jews explore their relationship to an ever-changing world. New technology, innovative medical advancements, changing social realities present themselves in a confusing array of possibilities requiring serious contemplation and thought to determine the path God would have us take through the maze of possibilities. Our sacred texts provide reliable guides, both in determining ethical principles, and in providing methods for determining moral behaviors.

More Ideas and Ideals: