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Principles of Jewish Ethics

John D. Rayner
Summer 2003


Ethics is concerned with questions of right and wrong, and of good and bad. But we must immediately qualify that because these terms are also used in non-ethical senses. For instance, a good car is simply an efficient car, and a bad car an inefficient one. There is no moral judgment implied because a car can’t choose how it will perform. Therefore the use of ethical terms presupposes the possibility of choice.  

Interestingly, we have for ‘bad’ the alternative ‘evil’ which nearly always does have an ethical sense. (I say ‘nearly always’ because we also have such expressions as ‘an evil smell.’) Precisely for that reason we would not call an inefficient car an ‘evil’ car, for it can’t help being made the way it is. What a pity that we don’t have a similarly dual vocabulary for the other concepts I have mentioned. Therefore the word ‘good’ has to serve two quite different functions, to denote efficiency, as in ‘a good car’, and to denote an ethical quality, as in ‘a good person’ or ‘a good deed.’  

Similarly with regard to ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ There is a right and a wrong way to treat a fellow human being, and that is a matter of ethics. But there is also a right and a wrong way to address an ambassador, or to eat spaghetti, but that is not a matter of ethics at all but only of etiquette. What then is it that makes the difference? That is not at all easy to say. It is partly that an ethical action is always one that is done by one human being to another, or at least to another sentient creature such as an animal. But that doesn’t explain why the way we address an ambassador is not an ethical issue. Therefore we must add that in ethically right or wrong conduct there is also an element of a significant benefit being conferred or harm being done by one person to another.  

Ethical Emphasis in Judaism  

If that clarifies sufficiently for our purpose what we mean by ethics, let us now ask how big a role it plays in Judaism. And before we attempt to answer that, let us ask a further question: compared with what? There are two possible rivals. One is belief and the other is ritual.  

It is well known that in the history of Christianity there have been phases in which supreme emphasis was laid on correct belief, or orthodoxy, as against incorrect belief, otherwise known as heterodoxy or heresy. On the whole that has not been true of Judaism. It has indeed always insisted, as the most fundamental of all its demands, that only the One God shall be acknowledged and worshipped. But beyond that and a few other affirmations of great generality, it has hardly ever attempted to define in any detail what a Jew must believe. Its emphasis has been on what a Jew must do: on action rather than belief. But action can be of two kinds, ethical and ritual. So we are left with the question of the relative importance which Judaism gives to each of these.  

Of course that depends on the kind of Judaism we are talking about. To the priestly writers of the Pentateuch, ritual was a matter of supreme importance, almost as if the world would come to an end if the correct sacrifices were not offered at the correct times in the correct manner. Yet the same writings also include moral injunctions such as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” sometimes in close juxtaposition with the most minute regulations of the sacrificial cult, as if they were of equal significance.  

On the other hand, the greatest of the Prophets - Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah - took a very different view. According to them the priestly emphasis on ritual was a misunderstanding, a hangover from a pagan past. The God of monotheism, according to them, has no interest in sacrifices or any other rituals, but only in right conduct. “I hate, I despise your feasts,” says Amos in God’s name, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ... But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an over-flowing stream” (5:21-24). That is a recurring theme in all the Prophets I have named (e.g., Hos.6:6, Isa. 1:11-17, Micah 6:6-8, Jer. 7:21-23, Isa. 58:1-8).  

What About the Rabbis?  

But what about the Rabbis? Which of the two trends did they follow? The short answer is: both. For they were essentially lawyers. Their chief enterprise, known as Halakhah, was the legal interpretation of the Pentateuch, and since that made no clear distinction between ethics and ritual, they didn’t either. All the commandments of the Pentateuch were equally grist for their jurisprudential mill.  

And yet the Rabbis were also deeply influenced by the Prophets. This is seen in the humaneness that pervades the Halakhah when it deals with matters of ethical import, such as civil and criminal law. But it is seen even more clearly in the other area of Rabbinic activity, known as Aggadah. For when the Rabbis stood back from their preoccupation with halakhic matters and reflected on the relative importance of ritual and ethics in general terms, they nearly always came down on the ethical side. Hence the Golden Rule as taught by Hillel and again by Rabbi Akiva - and we shall come back to that. Hence Rabbi Simlai’s reduction of the 613 commandments to eleven, then six, then three, then one, all of ethical import (Makkot 23b-24a). Hence, to give only one more example, the remarkable fact that the viddui gadol or ‘Great Confession’ recited on Yom Kippur lists only offences of a moral nature (cf Routledge Machzor, Day of Atonement I, pp. 26-28). It doesn’t, for example, include: “For the sin we have committed against you by eating leaven during Pesach.”  

We may sum up by saying that, halakhically, Rabbinic Judaism follows the Pentateuch in giving equal weight to ritual and ethics; aggadically, it follows the Prophets in giving greater weight to ethics. As for Progressive Judaism, it began by shifting the emphasis decidedly towards the Prophets, even to the extent of treating ritual with disdain. But in more recent times there has been a reversal of that trend, and whether that has now gone too far or not yet far enough is a matter of opinion.  

Three Fundamental Principles  

The fundamental principles of Jewish ethics are, I suggest, three, and the first is the Imitation of God. This is grounded in the repeated injunction of the Torah that we are to walk in God’s ways (e.g., Deut. 10:12, 11:22, 13:5, 28:9) and more specifically in the exhortation, “You shall be holy, for I the Eternal One your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). It is exemplified by the teaching of Deuteronomy that, as God loves the stranger, so we should love the stranger (10:18f), and further elaborated by the Rabbis. Thus, on the phrase, “to walk in God’s ways” (Deut. 11:22), they commented: “As God is called merciful, so you should be merciful; as God is called gracious, so you should be gracious; as God is called righteous, so you should be righteous; as God is called faithful, so you should be faithful” (Sifrei Deut. 49). Similarly, they taught that to walk after God’s ways (Deut. 13:5) means to act in accordance with God’s attributes: “As God clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, and buries the dead, so should you” (Sotah 14a).  

All this implies, of course, that we know what the divine attributes are. But even if we take the view that this is not a matter of revelation but that we merely ascribe to God all those qualities which we admire most in human beings, even then to try to live in accordance with those qualities, although the argument is then circular, is still a noble ambition.  

Incidentally, this principle was included by Maimonides in his Sefer ha-Alitzvot - Book of the Commandments, listing the 613 commandments of the Torah - in spite of his well known insistence that it is impossible for human beings to say anything positive about the nature of God; but he expresses himself carefully. Thus he concludes his account of the eighth of the 248 positive commandments by saying that it means “to imitate (l’hit-dammot) the good deeds and lofty attributes by which God is described in a figurative way, even though God is exalted above all such descriptions.”  

Interlinked Principles  

The second and third fundamental principles of Jewish ethics are interlinked. They begin with the teaching that all humanity is descended from a common ancestor, created in God’s image. Whatever the biblical author may have meant by ‘image’ (tzelem or d’mut, Gen. 1:26f, 5:1), it is clear that the concept confers on human beings the highest possible dignity, with the implication, which is what matters for our purpose, that every one of them is entitled to be treated with a kind of reverential respect. But to this must be added the Golden Rule to which I have already referred. As taught by Hillel, this means that what is hateful to ourselves we should not do to others (Shah. 31a). But the classical expression of it is the positive one in the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, V’ahavta l’re-acha kamocha, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (v. 18). It was this which Rabbi Akiva singled out as k’lal gadol ba-torah, the greatest principle of the Torah (Sifra 89b, Gen.R. 24:7).  

Why do we need both, the Divine Image and the Golden Rule? Because the Golden Rule by itself could be taken to mean that we should care for others only as much as we care for ourselves - which, when our self-respect is low, might mean very little. But as Ben Azzai and Rabbi Tanchuma pointed out, when you think of the Divine Image in every human being, you are reminded that only the highest respect for others (as well as for yourself) is acceptable. Thus the principle of the Divine Image teaches us the quality of the way we should treat others; the Golden Rule teaches us the equality with which we should apply that principle to all our fellow men and women.  

And why do we need both Hillel’s negative formulation of the Golden Rule and the positive formulation of the Torah? Because each has a different set of consequences. Because we should not do to others what is hateful to ourselves, therefore all these are forbidden: murder (Ex. 20:13), manslaughter (Deut. 22:8), kidnapping (Ex. 20:15 as interpreted in the Mechilta), assault (Ex. 21:18), robbery (Lev. 19:13), theft (Lev. 19:11), lying (Lev. 19:11, Ex. 23:7), promise-breaking (Num. 30:3), slander (Lev. 19:16), insulting others (Lev. 25:17, BM 58b), coveting what they have (Ex. 20:14), judging them hastily (Avot 2:4) or uncharitably (Avot 1:6), cursing others (Lev. 1914), hating them (Lev. 19:17) and looking the other way when they are in danger (Lev. 19:16).  

Because we should positively love - that is, care for - others, therefore we should respect their dignity (Avot 2:10) as well as their property (Avot 2:12), speak truthfully to them (Zech. 8:16), greet them cheerfully (Avot 1:15), spread peace among them (Avot 1:12), and perform acts of kindness (g’milut chasadim) towards them (Pe’ah 1:1, Avot 1:2).  

Five Supreme Values  

In addition to these fundamental principles, it would be useful at this stage to identify the supreme values which suffuse all areas of Jewish ethics. They are, I suggest, five in number.  

The first is the sanctity of life - at least of human life. (To what extent similar considerations apply to animal life is another subject, also important, but which we can’t deal with in the time available.) It would not be quite correct to speak of the ‘infinite’ value of human life, as some writers do, for that would preclude the taking of it in contexts such as capital punishment and warfare which have in the past been considered legitimate. But that human life is considered extremely precious and in all normal circumstances inviolable, is clear. This may be inferred from the horror with which the Bible regards murder because it is the destruction of a being created in God’s image (Gen. 9:6) and from its many life-affirming injunctions such as u-vacharta ba-chayyim, “therefore choose life” (Deut. 30:19). But perhaps the most eloquent expression of the all-but-infinite value of human life is in the statement of the Mishnah that “one who saves a single life is considered as if they had saved the whole world, and one who destroys a single life as if they had destroyed the whole world” (Sanh. 4:5).  

The preciousness of human life also plays a major role in the Halakhah, where pikkuach nefesh, the saving of life, overrides practically all other considerations (Pes. 25a), even to the extent that the mere possibility of a human life being saved is sufficient, and questions of probability are set aside (Ket. 15b).  

So far as capital punishment is concerned, it should be noted that, while the Bible demands it for the most serious offences, the Rabbis were clearly uncomfortable with it and tried to make conviction in capital cases virtually impossible (Sanh. 4-5, Mak. 1:10). It should also be added that nowadays many Jews would reject capital punishment altogether, in theory as well as in practice. As for warfare, many Jews nowadays tend towards pacifism, at least to the extent of believing that it can be justified only as a very last resort, when all attempts at a political solution of the conflict have failed, and then strictly in self-defence.  

Truth, Justice, Peace  

The next three major values of Jewish ethics are juxtaposed in the famous aphorism of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, that the world, i.e. civilisation, rests on three foundations: truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18).  

“Truth is God’s seal,” said the Rabbis (chotamo shel ha-kadosh baruch hu emet, Shab. 55a). Therefore, by the principle of the imitation of God, truth should inform all our thoughts, words and deeds. “We should always revere God,” says an ancient Jewish prayer, “privately as well as publicly, acknowledge the truth and speak the truth in our hearts” (cf. Psalm 15:2). “Keep far from anything that is false,” warns the Torah (Exod. 23:7). “Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit,” enjoins the Psalmist (34:14).  

That justice is a major value in Judaism must be obvious to everybody. It can be seen in the repetition for emphasis when the Torah commands, tzedek tzedek tirdof, “justice, justice shall you follow” (Deut. 16:20). It is a recurring theme in the Prophets, as when Amos thunders, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). It is enshrined in innumerable provisions of Jewish law. And the Rabbis added a significant point when they taught that “the sword enters the world because of justice delayed and justice denied” (Avot 5:18).  

As for peace, its praises resound like a refrain all through Jewish literature, beginning with Isaiah’s celebrated prophecy of the day when they “will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again train for war”(2:4) and Micah’s idyllic postscript, “But everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig-tree, and none shall make them afraid” (4:4). The Priestly Benediction, as the Rabbis liked to point out, concludes with the word ‘peace’ (Num. 3:26; Num.R. 11:7) as the greatest of all blessings. What the book of Proverbs says about wisdom was applied by the Rabbis to the Torah: that “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17, Git. 59b). The same repetition for emphasis which we have noted about justice is found in the 34th Psalm when it says, “Seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14), and in Hillel’s evocation of that verse in his famous motto, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, and pursuing peace, loving your fellow human beings, and drawing them towards Torah” (Avot 1:12).  

The fifth supreme value of Jewish ethics is compassion, in Hebrew racharniin. It is a quality frequently attributed to God. Indeed, the famous passage in the book of Exodus known as ‘The Thirteen Attributes of God’ (34:6), which is solemnly recited on the High Holydays, was so interpreted by the Rabbis as to make all thirteen more or less synonymous with compassion (Num.R. 21:16, Pes.K. 57a). So, too, one of the commonest appellations of God in Rabbinic literature is ha-rachaman, ‘The Merciful One.’ And by the same ‘imitation’ logic we have already noted more than once, compassion is constantly enjoined on human beings. “As God is merciful, so you should be merciful” (Sifrey Deut. 49). One talmudic passage speaks of compassion as one of three distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people, the other two being modesty and kindness (Yev. 79a). We may wish to comment halvai, would it were always true, but the implied aspiration is itself significant.  

Like and Unlike  

So far we have considered only the fundamental principles and general values which should govern the mutual behaviour of any two individuals simply because of their common humanity. But many ethical problems arise from the fact that human beings are not alike. On the contrary, they are infinitely various. As the Mishnah teaches, “God stamped every human being with the seal of Adam, yet not one of them is like another” (Sanh. 4:5). Unfortunately, we tend to react negatively to conspicuous differences, whether in appearance or manner or speech or opinion: to view them with suspicion, or to see them as a threat, or as betokening inferiority, and therefore as rendering inapplicable, or less cogent, the general principles we have discussed. Consequently Judaism warns against that temptation.  

Individual differences, it teaches, are not to be deplored but celebrated as tokens of God’s creative wisdom. On the phrase elohey ha-ruchot l’chol basar, “God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16), the Midrash, noting the plural, comments: “When you see a great multitude of people, say: ‘I praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, to whom the innermost secrets of every one of them is known. For as their faces are not alike, so their minds are not alike, but every one of them has a mind of their own” (Num.R. 21:2). Similarly, the Mishnah teaches that just because human beings are infinitely various, therefore every one must say: Bishvili nivra ha-olam, “the world was created for my sake” (Sarah. 4:5). And among the blessings for various occasions the traditional liturgy includes one to be recited “on seeing strangely formed persons, such as giants or dwarfs”, which praises God m’shanneh ha-b’riyyot, for having created human beings in various forms.  

Therefore the general principles and values we have considered most certainly do apply to the way we conduct ourselves towards those who are different from ourselves, and indeed are all the more to be emphasised just because they are liable to be thought inapplicable.  

Strong and Weak  

Not only do human beings differ from each other in innumerable ways, but some are stronger and some are weaker - physically or mentally or economically or politically. And therefore the chief test of any ethical code is how it instructs the stronger to behave towards the weaker, what concern it evinces towards the most vulnerable members of society.  

Among the most vulnerable in most societies have been women. Here two things must be said. The first is that prior to modern times Judaism compared well with most societies in its attitude to women. According to the first Creation Story, though not the second, men and women were created simultaneously - “male and female God created them” (Gen. 1:27). The Matriarchs and other women, like Miriam, Deborah and Hannah, play a prominent role in the biblical narrative. A number of laws were enacted for the protection of women, especially widows. The last chapter of the book of Proverbs paints a dignified picture of eshet chayd, the ‘virtuous wife.’ And all these trends were continued and developed in post-biblical times.  

On the other hand the role which women were encouraged or even allowed to play outside the home, in society, was severely limited. They were exempted from religious duties which had to be performed at specified times (Kid. 1:7), theoretically for their own benefit but in practice often to the point of forbidding them to do these things. They were debarred from playing an equal role with men in synagogue worship. And in spite of all improvements in their status, such as the medieval prohibition of polygamy, they continued to suffer from several disadvantages in the laws of marriage and divorce.  

Judaism Overtaken on Treatment of Women  

So it came about that by the time of the Enlightenment, Gentile society had begun to overtake Judaism in its treatment of women and was moving towards giving them complete equality with men. And since traditional Judaism could not modernise itself sufficiently quickly, it was left to the Progressive movement to institute corresponding changes within Judaism.  

Next to women, the most vulnerable members of any society are those who are “in it but not of it,” in other words, resident aliens or strangers. Accordingly, they are frequently commended in the Bible as particularly requiring sympathy and generosity on the part of the indigenous majority. “The strangers who live with you,” says the 19th chapter of Leviticus, “shall be to you like the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourselves, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (19:34). There are numerous such passages in the Torah and corresponding exhortations in the Prophets, and they raise serious questions about the treatment of asylum seekers in contemporary societies.  

Another vulnerable group are of course the poor and, as one would expect, they are constantly singled out for special concern and compassion on the part of their fellow citizens. Again and again the rich are enjoined to give to the poor and reprimanded if they do so stingily or grudgingly (Deut. 15:7-11). In Rabbinic Judaism there is enormous stress on charity, called tz’dakah, a word which in biblical times had meant ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ and retained something of that connotation in that giving to the poor was considered not so much an act of generosity as a duty incumbent on everybody. Its purpose was to rectify an unfair situation, and it was therefore to be performed without condescension and anonymously, so that the recipient would not be embarrassed. There are also attempts to construct, at least in theory, a social order in which excessive impoverishment is periodically remedied. The 25th chapter of Leviticus, with its sabbatical year and jubilee, is the best example of that.  

Other vulnerable categories are orphans, often commended in the sources of Judaism as calling for compassionate concern, as well as the bodily disabled and the mentally sick, and those whose sexual orientation is unconventional. How a society treats all these vulnerable groups is as good a test as any of how civilised it is.  

Specialised Relationships  

The general principles and values of Jewish ethics require special applications in special contexts, when we are dealing with the mutual obligations of two or more persons, not simply because of their common humanity, but because they stand in a special relationship to one another. Examples are the relations between husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and pupils, employers and employees, merchants and customers, doctors and patients, media and public, judges and litigants, governments and citizens, nation and nation, humanity and environment.  

The Sources of Jewish Ethics  

Let me conclude by raising a question which logically should have come at the beginning: What are the sources of Jewish ethical teachings? Where are they to be found? To a large extent, the answer will have emerged from what has been said already, and especially from the sorts of quotations that have been adduced. But it may be useful to clarify and amplify a little.  

Clearly, one of the major sources is the Prophetic literature with its many moral exhortations. For instance, Isaiah: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1-16f). Or Deutero-Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to cover them, and never to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (58:6f). Or Zechariah: “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace” (8:16).  

Another major source are the commandments of the Torah in so far as they are of a general ethical nature. Because they occur in the Pentateuch and are expressed in the imperative, the Rabbis treated them as legislation rather than only exhortation, and subjected them to legal interpretation. But in themselves they are not necessarily very different from the Prophetic exhortations. Examples are some of the Ten Commandments, for instance: “Honour your father and your mother ... You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Ex. 20:12f). Or, from the Holiness Code: “You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14).  

Some fine ethical teachings are to be found in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, for instance in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: “And now, my children, I beg you: love one another. Drive hatred out of your hearts. Love one another in deed, word and thought” (Testament of Gad 6:1).  

Rabbinic Literature  

Most important for the subsequent development of Judaism is of course the vast Rabbinic literature. But here we must distinguish between its two genres, Halakhah and Aggadah. Many of the ethical values of the Bible, whether expressed in legislative or hortatory form, were embodied by the Rabbis in the minute rules and regulations of the Halakhah. For instance, the mutual obligations of husbands and wives, and of parents and children, are spelt out in minute jurisprudential detail. But side by side with these, the aggadic literature includes many ethical teachings that are, once again, in the form of exhortation rather than legislation. Best known perhaps are those to be found in the Ethics of the Fathers, such as “Let your neighbour’s honour be as dear to you as your own” and “Let your neighbour’s property be as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:10,12).  

But we should note that Halakhah and Aggadah are not always in perfect synchronisation with one another. For the Halakhah, being subject to a strict methodology, can only advance slowly, whereas the Aggadah, being untrammelled by procedural rules, can respond more readily to changing attitudes. An example of that is the Golden Rule which has already been quoted two or three times. Halakhically, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” was understood to refer to fellow Jews only (see, e.g. Sifra to Lev. 19:18 and Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Positive Commandment 206). Even the injunction to love the stranger, which occurs in the same chapter of Leviticus (19:34), was not applied to non-Jews, since the Hebrew word ger was understood to mean ‘proselyte.’ Of course the decent treatment of unconverted non-Jews is also enjoined, but in other contexts (e.g., Git. 61a). But the Aggadah has always understood ‘your neighbour’ to refer to any human being, as is clear, for instance, from Hillel’s famous teaching, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, ohev et ha-b’riyyot, loving your fellow human beings, and drawing them near to the Torah” (Avot 1:12). Needless to say, most Jews nowadays understand the Golden Rule in the universalistic sense of the Aggadah, and a Progressive Halakhah would so interpret it for all purposes.  

Works of a Moralistic Nature  

To these sources we must add a number of medieval and later works of a moralistic nature such as The Duties of the Heart by Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th century), The Book of the Pious by Judah he-Chasid (12th century) and The Path of the Upright by Moses Chayyim Luzzatto (18th century). There is also an extensive literature of ‘Hebrew Ethical Wills’ an excellent anthology of which, edited by Israel Abrahams, was published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1926. In addition, the huge literature of Chasidism contains many fine ethical teachings.  

The modern period has been one of scholarly research rather than creative development. But it is surprising, especially considering the emphasis on ethics in Progressive Judaism, how little attempt has been made to isolate the ethical teachings of Judaism from the broader literature in which they are embedded, and present them in a systematic way. Virtually the first scholar to do so was the philosophy professor Moritz Lazarus in his book Die Ethik des Judentums, published in 1901. There is also an excellent little book entitled Jewish Ethics by my teacher Rabbi Israel Mattuck, published in 1953. But as both of these have long been out of print you may be interested to know that my own attempt to summarise the topic, although only in pamphlet form, is available. It was published four years ago under the title Principles of Jewish Ethics.  

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