The Values of Jewish Texts

How study leads to increased sensitivity to morality

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How & When One Studies

Fourth, what one derives from Jewish text study depends critically on the methods one uses to study the text and the viewpoint that one brings to that study. Studying the text sheerly on an academic basis for what it can reveal about ancient timeswill, if done properly, yield such results but little else. On other hand, studying it only to learn what the tradition say will lead to knowledge of the tradition but not moral judgment; indeed, it is likely to lead to mechanical, behavioristic obedience with no ability to critique the texts themselves or the values they announce.The wisest way to study the texts is to combine all these methods and more.

Finally, text study, for all its importance, should not fill the whole of one's life. Rather, one should combine text study with work, because, as Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah, said in Ethics of the Fathers, "Study of Torah is beautiful with a worldly occupation, for the effort involved in the two of them makes one forget sin; [on the other hand,] all study of Torah that is not ac­companied by work will ultimately fail and lead one to sin."

Study of texts is best done, then, if one brings to classical Jew­ish texts a respectful but critical religious perspective. Our three thinkers would advocate that for different reasons. Hirsch stressed the authority that religion provides for moral norms, the wealth of experience within the tradition, and the expansive scope of its visions and concerns. Kaplan wrote about the sense of worthwhileness that a person derives from religion, a sense that makes moral effort and sacrifice reasonable and that gives life direction and meaning.Buber was interested in the fact that religion provides absolute moral standards as well as the cosmic but personal framework in which to learn and understand them.

However one understands the content and impact of the Jewish religious vision, it undergirds Judaism's effect on morality; and when one approaches text study with a religious perspective, the text study itself can be all the more effective in informing and motivating moral conduct and in creating moral character.

The Jewish tradition thus seeks to form moral character through the commonly used elements of family, community, and authority figures, but it also uses God, prayer, law, and study of Jewish texts in that effort. That Judaism employs all these fac­tors in its effort to produce a moral person demonstrates both its seriousness in succeeding at this task and the rich understanding it has about how to educate a person morally.


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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.