The Values of Jewish Texts

How study leads to increased sensitivity to morality

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In the following article, the author describes his opinions on how Jewish text study can lead the student to live a more moral life. In doing so, he makes reference to three modern theologians: Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder or neo-Orthodoxy, also known as modern Orthodoxy; Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism; and Martin Buber (1878-1965), an existentialist thinker.

Study of texts can be morally effective…only if other actors are present. First, the teacher must be a moral role model. He or she need not know all the moral answers; on the contrary students gain a great deal in their own moral growth when they see their teachers openly wrestling with moral issues and actively encouraging students to express a variety of views for class consideration. However teachers must demonstrate a sense of moral integrity and seriousness.

Second, the home and the community need to support what students learn in text study. In modern North America, this does not happen, resulting in considerable dissonance between what the students learn from texts and what goes on in the rest of their lives. This is true for adults as well as for chil­dren. If one thinks that the traditional concepts or values themselves need to be changed, as Kaplan and Buber did, then the way that texts are studied—and the selection of which texts to study in the first place—must be carefully considered in order to attain one's moral goals. In any case, the more the person's home and community live in consonance with how the text's values are taught, the more that text study can morally influ­ence students' lives.

Outside Sources

Third, except for the most ultra-Orthodox, Jewish text study does not exist in a vacuum. It is complemented with the study of non-Jewish texts, whether they be in very different fields, like physics or art, or in related fields, like philosophy, law, and reli­gion. Intelligent study of Jewish texts will not reject out of hand what one learns from outside sources; on the contrary, learning about other matters can enrich and deepen one's knowledge of Jewish values. Comparative analyses can clarify Jewish concepts and values.

Outside sources might also indicate to us exactly what we do not want to affirm. On the other hand, through the ages Jews have borrowed from the cultures of the peoples among whom they lived, and we in our own time may want to synthesize Jewish values or concepts with others that we learn from elsewhere. Certainly, the value of individual freedom, which is largely a bequest of the Enlightenment, is something that most modern Jews want to in­tegrate into their contemporary expression of Judaism, no matter how difficult that may be. However they are used, non-Jewish materials should be studied not only for their own sake but also to complement how one learns the Jewish tradition and ex presses it in one's life.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.