Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Jewish Ethics and the Question of Justice for Palestinians and Israelis -- Part One

How does one do Jewish ethics? That is, how does one appeal to the Jewish tradition for ethical guidance? Of course, one needn’t be interested in doing so, but if one is – then what is a good way of going about it?

Ask most orthodox Jews, especially rabbis, about Jewish ethics and they will answer you with Jewish law. You want to talk about the morality of abortion according to Jewish sources? Euthenasia? Homosexuality? The rabbis will consult what other (orthodox) rabbis have said about these topics in their law books and responsa. They will try to convince you that Jewish law (halakha) and Jewish ethics (musar) are not only coextensive, but that the latter is reducible to the former.

The halakhicization of Jewish ethics is a recent development in the history of Jewish literature. Alongside the extensive Jewish legal literature, there is an even more extensive Jewish ethical (musar) literature, which, if one looks at the number of manuscripts and printed editions, reached a much larger audience than the small, professional class of jurists that read the legal literature. To consider contemporary issues in light of classical Jewish ethical sources, one needs apparently to take into consideration this literature.

Unfortunately, the musar literatue is of little help in dealing with social and political morality. Most of the classical manuals of Jewish ethics deal with personal morality, specifically, with the virtues an individual should seek and the vices she should avoid. Personal morality is not immediately relevant to determining the rightness or wrongness of social acts, practices, or principles.

But if we leave out both halakha and musar, what do we have left for doing Jewish ethics?

Well, we could take the route of non-orthodox Jewish thinkers, which is to try to appeal to broad ethical imperatives from the Jewish tradition (“Seek peace”; “Pursue justice”; Sanctify God’s Name”). The problem here is that these principles are vacuous without some sort of specification; they can be enthusiastically upheld by people with moral sensibilities as disparate as those of Martin Buber and Meir Kahane. How does one pursue justice? How does one sanctify God’s name? How does one adjudicate conflicts between principles?

Again, to achieve specific Jewish ethical guidance, the orthodox will reach for their law codes and rabbinical responsa. As an orthodox Jew, I have no problem claiming that Jewish law can and should be a source of Jewish ethical reflection. This does not mean adopting the modern orthodox fallacy (heresy?) of reducing ethics to law. Rather it means that precedents can be brought from the Jewish legal tradition not only to determine Jewish law, but also to uncover the broad ethical assumptions on which that law is based. In most cases, these broad ethical assumptions will have nothing specifically “Jewish” about them. Derekh eretz kadmah le-Torah General morality precedes Jewish morality. But how they are specified may be instructive about how we can go about doing Jewish ethics.

In a subsequent post I will apply these general reflections to the question of justice for Israelis and Palestinians.

Time to learn some Mishnah…


rayberau said...

I challenge the translation of "Derekh eretz kadmah le-Torah" into "General morality precedes Jewish morality" (as alias J. Haber has it in "Jewish Ethics and the Question of Justice for Palestinians - Part Two"):

Literally "The way of the earth ... is older than (kadmah in Aramaic) / precedes (makdiym) / has precedence over (diyh kediymah) ... the Torah / the Religious Law." A preferable translation might be "Natural law or general ethics takes precedence over religious law or Torah ethics". Certainly "general" ethics affects "Jewish" ethics as much as "Torah" ethics does. "Jewish" ethics and "Torah" ethics - as with all human ethics - must have a secure base in "the way of the earth" (natural law or general human ethics).

Alias J. H. distinguishes halakha (Jewish law) from musar (personal morality, which he says excludes societal ethics) Jewish ethics though is a wider idea encompassing societal ethics as well as Jewish religious law (halakha) and personal morality (musar). Historically the experience of living under Babylonian, Persian, Greek and then Roman law has greatly influenced Jewish societal ethics. Limiting the discussion to halakha and musar greatly reduces the concept of general Jewish ethics. If "the way of the earth" (natural law or general ethics) is "human ethics" and if Jewish ethics is no more than halakha and musar then you might as well say there is an absence of anything one could call "Jewish ethics" that is separate from law and custom ("halakha" and "musar") and instead of Jewish ethics we would understand ethics to be general "human ethics".


Jerry Haber said...

I am a bit confused by your challenge. I wrote "General morality precedes Jewish morality." You suggest "General ethics takes precedence over Jewish ethics." Unless you think that morality and ethics are significantly different, I don't see your point.

Philosophers use the terms "morality" and "ethics" often interchangeably. I did not mean to imply that personal morality excludes societal ethics. If a person is honest, that means that he is honest in dealings with other people, and voila, you have society.

All this is a matter of definition of terms. When somebody talks about mussar and its literature, at least in a traditional context, he is not referring to halakha and its literature.

I would certainly not call musar "custom", which is minhag.

What I was polemicizing against was the attempt to reduce ethics to law and to claim that legal answers are the same as ethical answers.

Let me take a specific example: lying to a gentile. The question, "Is it permissible to lie to a gentile" is discussed within the halakhic tradition, but it is also discussed within the mussar literature, and the discussions are in many ways independent. I call the former a legal discussion and latter an ethical discussion, but of course, ethical intuitions (God's?) are imbedded within halakha, and one can take ethics in a very broad sense.

You and I both know that this is a very tricky topic