Jewish Ethics Confronts Modernity

The adaptation of the Jewish ethical tradition to modern life.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from Contemporary Jewish Ethics, ed. Menachem Marc Kellner (Sanhedrin Press, 1978). 

Contemporary Judaism is distinguished from medieval Judaism in that it is faced with an entirely new [set of issues] and in that it presents a multiplicity of answers to that complex of problems. With respect to the subject at hand, we may say that contemporary Jewish ethics is distinguished from medieval Jewish ethics[, which was concerned primarily with internal Jewish affairs and guided by traditional assumptions about the authority of the rabbinic tradition,] in that the problems it faces are largely those it shares with the surrounding culture (e.g., the problem of relating morality and religion, and specific questions like political obedience and medical ethics). In short, Jews and Judaism have become part of the modern world and, to a significant degree, the modern world has become a factor which cannot be ignored by both Jews and Judaism. 

Contemporary Jewish ethics is further distinguished from its medieval counterpart by the fact that it speaks with a divided voice. One must not ask today, “What is the Jewish position on such and such?” but rather, “What is the Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform interpretation of the Jewish position on such and such?” Although many writers persist in presenting the Jewish position on various subjects, it very often ought more correctly to be characterized as a Jewish position.

got ethics?In order to understand fully the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism [and their approaches to contemporary ethics], one ought to examine them in terms of their historical development. For our purposes, however, it should be sufficient to sketch out their basic theological differences. This can be done conveniently by examining their varying conceptions of revelation. Briefly put, Orthodoxy follows the traditional rabbinic claim that the Torah represents the direct, conclusive revelation of God's will. Halakhah, which derives directly from that revelation, is the will of God. It is normative for all Jews in all places and at all times. Although Orthodoxy recognizes the fact of halakhic change, it insists that such change has come about and may come about only within the context of well-recognized halakhic mechanisms. The basic Orthodox contention with respect to the halakhah is that it is a divine, not a human, system and that as such it is not subject, in essence, to the sort of historical development which is characteristic of human institutions.

Reform Judaism, on the other hand, in both its classic and modern positions, entirely rejects the claim that the halakhah represents the revealed will of God. Revelation, it maintains, is progressive, akin to inspiration, and is ultimately concerned with ethics. This emphasis is summed up in the famous motto of early Reform, that Judaism is nothing more than ethical monotheism. While contemporary Reform thinkers have largely given up the classic Reform claim that Judaism took a quantum leap from the time of the Prophets (in whose call for social morality early Reform thinkers saw God’s revelation most clearly embodied) to the nineteenth century and the rise of Reform, it is still the case that Reform Judaism rejects the halakhah as a norm and still looks to the prophetic tradition for the “essence” of Judaism.

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Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.