Jewish Ethical Behavior

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In the modern era, the social integration of Jews into their host societies and the creation of an autonomous Jewish society in the Land of Israel have emphasized certain practical moral issues, and even raised issues not faced by Jews for centuries. Respective examples include how religiously observant Jews are to relate to their nonobservant fellow Jews, and how a Jewish nation is to conduct warfare and relate to non-Jewish citizens. At the same time, Jewish intellectual life has seen the disappearance even of a unified language of discourse for ethical thinking in a Jewish context.

jewish ethical behaviorThe fragmentation of approaches, even among religious Jews, has brought a radical discontinuity with the past in the realm of ethical thinking as in every other area of Jewish life. Traditionalists have attempted to apply the methods and categories of halakhah [Jewish law] with varying degrees of rigidity and fluidity. Reform Judaism introduced the notion that “prophetic Judaism,” the ethical imperatives of the Torah and especially the biblical prophets, is the “essence” of Judaism. That preference for the ethical imperative still guides much decision-making in the liberal Jewish religious camp.

It is interesting to note that there is no traditional liturgical blessing formula (b’rakhah) said on the performance of ethical mitzvot as there are for more ritually oriented practices. Some suggest that this is because when one is about to give to a poor person, visit someone ill, offer comfort to a mourner, or help a bride and groom rejoice--to give but four examples- saying a blessing would destroy the very moment it is supposed to elevate. B’rakhot direct our attention to the presence of God at the moment of performing a quotidian act, but to do so in these instances might detract from our openness to the presence of the very person before us. Other suggestions for the absence of such blessings note, for example, the potential awkwardness of thanking God for the opportunity to serve others, given that it is dependent on their being in need.

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