Jewish Ethics: Some Basic Concepts and Ideas

The biblical text and the rabbinic tradition provide the universal search for an ethical life with passion and some unique concepts.

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The rabbis of late antiquity, building upon the Hebrew Bible, shaped the terms and categories of practical ethics that have guided discussions of ethical issues in Jewish life for the past two millennia. This survey of those terms and some of the main areas of concern of Jewish ethics in the formative period of Judaism is reprinted with permission from Encyclopedia of Judaism.

The rabbis generally referred to morality by the phrase bein adam la-havero (“norms between man and his fellow-man”), which was included in the term derekh eretz (“ways of the world”). From various expressions by some of the most authoritative rabbis, it could be inferred that morality was deemed one of the central components of Judaism: “Simon the Just said, ‘The world stands on three things: Torah, avodah (“divine service”), and acts of lovingkindness’” (Avot 1:2). Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow-man. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

jewish ethics scaleIn terms of the content of the morality of Judaism, the basic meaning of key moral terms such as mishpat (“justice”), tzedakah (“righteousness”), hesed (“kindness”), and rahamim (“compassion”) is much the same as what is understood by current philosophic analysis. Yet there are special qualities to the morality of Judaism, which, in turn, seem to be the result of distinctive approaches.

The involvement of God in the moral struggle imparts a quality of urgency and passion which is unique to Judaism. “For I know their sorrows,” says God (Exodus 3:7) and “... it shall come to pass that when he cries out unto Me that I shall hear” (Exodus 22:26). Hence the “hysterical” tone of the prophets. Injustice cannot be tolerated. Cruelty and human suffering shake the foundations of society. Judaism did not introduce new definitions of moral terms but rather revealed the true source of morality: God rather than man, prophecy rather than wisdom. Therefore, man could no longer be complacent about the moral situation. “Righteousness was asleep until it was awakened by Abraham” (Midrash Tehillim, Psalms 110).

In Judaism, the realm of morality is not restricted to deed but rather includes man’s inner world of consciousness: thoughts, emotions, intentions, attitudes, motives. All are to a degree subject to man’s control and qualify for moral judgement. Thus the Bible warns against coveting (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18), against hating one’s brother (Leviticus 19:17), against “hardening one’s heart” (Deuteronomy 15:9,10), while the rabbis inveighed against envy, desire, and anger (Mishnah Avot 2:11) and noted that “thinking about transgression may be worse than transgression itself” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma29a).

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