Reviving Jewish Ethics

A Code of Jewish Ethics:

Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy

By Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Harmony/Bell Tower, 576 pages, $29.95.

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The seven deadly sins, codified most likely in the 13th century, have enjoyed sustained notoriety, both ecclesiastical and in the public imagination. What is most noteworthy about these “capital sins,” as they are called by the Catholic Church, is their content… or, rather, the lack thereof. For notice, none of these transgressions refer to behaviors, such as violence, stealing or lying, but rather are directed toward such delinquent character traits as greed, anger and sloth.

A thousand years earlier, Christianity brandished its attention to the inner life in contradistinction to the presumed Jewish focus on external behavior. Over the millennia that followed, Judaism has been accused by its critics, Jews among them, of fostering an obsessive fixation with legalities while ignoring the spirit and motivation that underlie the laws. To be sure, detailed Jewish strictures govern behavior even in the domain of interpersonal relationships, in business, family and community: For example, you are to give charity whether you want to or not, and, for the most part, sanctions attach to what you actually do, not to what you are inclined to do. But the notion that Judaism ignores character is a sheer canard borne of studied ignorance. After all, the Bible itself repeatedly calls on us to improve our dispositions; according to some medieval rabbis, the cultivation of character is the very purpose of the Torah. So, too, an entire tractate of Mishna, Pirke Avot, speaks directly to our personality traits, Maimonides’s chief work on ethics, “The Eight Chapters,” closely tracks Aristotle’s investigation of the virtues, and throughout history, Jewish libraries have had to make room for new, celebrated treatises on the emotions that attend genuine piety. Moral character was an abiding interest of Hasidism, the core project of the 19th-century Mussar movement and a central topic for an array of modern Jewish thinkers.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin believes, however, that too many contemporary Jews have lost sight of this ethical tradition. The same individuals who are punctilious in their religious observance become unconscionably lax when it comes to the dictates of ethics. For Telushkin, dictates is the operative term — the imperatives of everyday ethics merit no less fastidiousness than any other religious commitment. Accordingly, he has set out to create “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” as he titles his projected three-volume work. The first, “You Shall Be Holy,” has just been published by Harmony/Bell Tower. Overtly adopting the template of the principal codes of Jewish law — the Mishnah Torah and the Shulchan Aruch — Telushkin organizes his book by subject matter, followed by numbered subdivisions. The chapter on humility, for example, is divided into four sections, addressing humility’s importance, its cultivation, the danger of arrogance and the necessity of self-esteem. Following this arrangement, the guidelines in the current book cover a wide swath — including how to judge others; how to avoid anger; how to repent and forgive, and the ethics of speech. This structure works well for both writer and reader, even if one is uneasy with the attempt to codify context-laden ethical dilemmas and the always nuanced character traits they evoke. But there is a far more serious assumption underlying Telushkin’s broad-shouldered — and important — enterprise that deserves our attention.

For decades now, Telushkin has been mining Jewish law and lore and presenting his findings in user-friendly compilations. His writing style, always clear and engaging, perfectly meets his practical aims. In his latest book — as in his earlier ones, such as “The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living” (Harmony/Bell Tower, 2000) and “Jewish Wisdom” (William Morrow, 1994), Telushkin is also happy to sprinkle nuggets from secular sources when they serve his message; among the motley cast appearing here are John Maynard Keynes, Cecil B. DeMille, a Yankee pitcher with a temper problem and the fictional Jean Valjean from “Les Miserables” (full disclosure: I, too, am quoted). But it would be grossly unfortunate to see this assemblage of precepts, anecdotes and moral advice as merely a bouquet of charming tidbits, a tasteful collection of inspirational vignettes that make for a lovely bar or bat mitzvah gift or a handy repository for desperate speakers and rabbis. This is not ethics lite. The presumption that “serious” moral reflection must be at a remove from mundane particularities misconstrues the nature of moral discourse, and so the significance of Telushkin’s contribution. In fact, it is in the immediate messiness of ordinary life that a dynamic ethical worldview emerges.

In the standard academic study of ethics, one first charts a normative theory — say utilitarianism or Kantian ethics — then tries to apply these principles to actual experiences. But many contemporary moral philosophers now recognize that this top-down approach regularly fails to reach to our streets and homes, where our real lives unfold. Moral theories, for example, routinely ignore the special relationships of family and friends as well as the biological and psychological constraints that militate against our best intentions. Because the richest laboratory for ethical wisdom is the push and pull of routine life, we learn more about ethical decision-making from novels and telling anecdotes than from abstract propositions.

The corpus of Telushkin’s work offers a needed antidote to similar theorizing about Jewish ethics. Certainly, conceptual questions invite consideration, beginning with the very notion of Jewish ethics. Some argue — a view to which I am partial — that it makes no more sense to speak of a distinctive Jewish ethics than to speak of Jewish geology or Jewish botany. The Bible nowhere posits an extralegal moral sphere or distinguishes between moral categories and religious categories. (A timely example: Those who readily quote the biblical condemnation of homosexual acts as a toevah, an abomination, as evidence of a moral transgression, should be reminded that the same term, toevah, is used to condemn nonkosher foods and the bringing of a blemished sacrifice to the altar.) But whatever one’s view on the theoretical independence of Jewish ethics, Telushkin’s code does demonstrate a distinctive Jewish sensibility on a variety of ethical issues. For example, he steadfastly makes clear that, unlike Christianity, Judaism does not preach universal forgiveness but insists that in some instances, to forgive the perpetrator is to malign the victim. As elsewhere, we learn of this perspective not from moral speculation but from specific, real-life cases in which the wrong committed is beyond the pale of human redemption.

Alas, the temptation to theorize ensnares Telushkin himself. In the chapter “How To Criticize and How Not To” Telushkin stipulates that when we rebuke we do so gently, patiently and privately. A book review disallows the second and third of these conditions, and might also obscure the “gentle” constructive spirit intended here. But this misstep is worth noting, for, paradoxically, it illuminates the strength of the rest of the book.

Straying from the focus of his text — everyday morality — Telushkin holds forth for a few pages on the foundations of theological ethics. He draws a broad distinction between ethics derived from reason and ethics derived from God’s commands, and suggests that the former is incapable of prohibiting blatant immorality, even murder, as evidenced by godless Stalinists and Nazis. Now, even rudimentary reflection would reveal the muddled circularity that lies in this defense of theological ethics and crude attack on reason-based morality: We’re appalled by murder because of its self-evident iniquity — we’d worry about someone who doesn’t murder only because he’s convinced of some proof for God’s existence. Moreover, pointing to bad reasoning (Stalinists) does not subvert reasoning itself. Suffice to point out that the Taliban are theists (as were most Nazis, and are most killer on death row), but they are hardly emblematic of moral rectitude. We of course believe that these fundamentalists can’t be getting their morality from God (nor is the Hindu according to the Baptist, and so on), but this presupposes a prior notion of what qualities we assume a good God possesses. Let us not be coy: Surely, one could manufacture a voluminous anti-code culled from Jewish and ancillary sources that promoted all sorts of values we find repugnant, including ethnic racism, sexual chauvinism, hatred of heretics, along with a defense of slavery and even genocide.

But this is precisely why Telushkin’s code is so worthwhile; it recognizes that we are already in place with ethical intuitions of right and wrong, sensibilities we possess without appeal to competing ethical theories. But it also appreciates that these moral intuitions require constant nourishment, constant honing, else they atrophy. We need the sort of tangible examples that extend the horizons of our empathy and honesty, and remind us of our responsibilities. Teluskin’s code is a wonderful corrective for the moral cynicism that has ineluctably seeped into all our lives. Although his prescriptions address us as individuals, as does his chapter on gratitude, this might be a fitting occasion to extend a communal thank you to Joseph Telushkin for continuing to provide us with such rich repositories of the best of our heritage.

Reviving Jewish Ethics

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