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We Asked 21 Rabbis: Is There Such A Thing As Jewish Values?

As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “Is there a unified set of specifically Jewish values, and if so, what are they?” Here are their responses:

Image by Anya Ulinich

Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: We’re not the only people who honor the dignity of each human life, give charity, rest weekly or promote education. It’s not our values that are unique, it’s how we frame and embrace them. Tagged as “Jewish Sensibilities” in 2003 by Vanessa Ochs and expanded since by others including the Lippman Kanfer Foundation, some of these distinctive Jewish approaches to life include: partnership/community (Brit), practiced faith (Na’aseh v’Nishmah), life as a journey (Lech Lecha), variety (Elu v’Elu), embracing imperfection (Shevirah), mindfulness, accountability and the possibility of renewal (Teshuvah), wrestling and questioning (Yisrael), unyielding hope (Tikvah). Instead of gauging our distinctiveness by our content, we should earn it by our commitment.

Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: I can think of many values that are core to Judaism — justice, ethical responsibility, study as a way of encountering the Holy, the appropriate balance of compassion and judgment — though I don’t think we have a monopoly on any of them. The value I cherish most that seems most often to be surprising to friends of other faith-traditions is the primacy of change. Our tradition names God as I-Am-Becoming-Who-I-Am-Becoming. Constant renewal is “baked in” to Judaism and Jewish practice. Of course, we also have voices fearful of change (Chatam Sofer, I’m looking at you), but for me, embracing continuing revelation means embracing the constancy of change: not as a detriment to Judaism, but as an unfolding of Judaism itself.

Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: There are so many. Among them, the sanctity of the individual created in G-d’s image; equality before the law; the pursuit of justice; the perfectibility of society. The problem is that we’ve succeeded in transmitting these values to much of the world. What can we do for an encore? Does the world still need the Jews? R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk noted a seeming contradiction within a famous verse in Exodus. “You will be treasured to Me from all the nations, because the entire earth is mine.” If He owns and controls everything, then there is no room for anything to be special! The rabbi explains that the largest part of the world claims to be monotheistic and to serve Him. Jews are treasured because they demonstrate to all the rest that to truly take G-d seriously, you have to be in a constant relationship with Him, not just at chosen times and places. The complexity and detail of a Torah life teaches what it means to make G-d a reality in our lives, rather than just a slogan. And the world will turn into the utopia that is promised only when evil is completely banished – which will only happen when people make G-d the focus of their lives.

Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: I don’t know about a unified list of values, but I think there is a question from which most Jewish ethical thinking flows, which is, “What does God want from us?” It’s practically obligatory to disagree with me here, but everyone should slow their roll and hear me out. We’re a superego-y kind of people. Atheist or Theist, the Jewish way is to have a higher cause, and then ask how we’re obligated to that cause. That question, to what are we obligated, how are we responsible, is the Jewish way of framing ethicality. And it’s also our way of expressing frustration. “What does God want from us?” is what we ask when the world is not ethical to us.

Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: There are wonderful Jewish values, like not oppressing the stranger. Rules prohibiting clothes with linen and wool are either ethically irrelevant or arbitrary tests of obedience. And there are objectionable Jewish values: condemning homosexuality and exterminating Canaanites are also Jewish. Historical Jewish values include both universal male education and female exclusion. Judaism has neither monopoly nor patent on values like education — they are both Jewish values and values found in other cultures; their emphasis is distinctive of Jewish culture, even if not unique to Jews. Each of us, based on our own beliefs, chooses OUR Jewish values from the larger set of what Jews have articulated and lived over our long history.

Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: Of course there are specifically Jewish values. We can start with God choosing Abraham to spread the light of monotheism because he would teach not only his children but his descendants to do the way of God, which is to do what is just and right. One might argue that these are not Jewish values, that other religions teach the same thing. That’s true. But the question is this: where did these values originate, and the answer is in the Hebrew Bible. Virtually anything that is described as “the Christian thing to do” is something that Christianity learned from its older brother. We are more than happy to share our values, in fact it is our mission to do just that. Still, the values of the Torah and the Hebrew Prophets are Jewish values we happily give to the rest of the world.

Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: We have a unique calendar, history, and culture with unique texts, practices, and wisdom. But unique values? No. Trying to claim any value as uniquely Jewish is dangerous — it implies no one else shares that value and can easily lead to a false sense of moral superiority. Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on any value. But that doesn’t mean it is valueless. Like any moral system, halacha (Jewish law) is about figuring out which values to prioritize in each situation. Judaism also offers unique perspectives on how to enact different values. Besides, there is still value in reaffirming non-unique values.

Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: Our mitzvot, commandments, are opportunities for connection with each other, the world we inhabit and the Divine that connects us all. These mitzvot give us a lens into the notion of Jewish values that range from universalistic to particularistic. To love our fellow human being, to care for the needy, to welcome the stranger and guest, to tend to the Earth and care for animals, to respect our elders and be mindful of our language – these are specifically Jewish charges which enforce universalistic values. To keep Shabbat, to eat in a Kosher way, to dress and speak modestly, to marry a Jewish partner, to raise and educate Jewish children, to study Torah, to pray three times a day, to observe laws of family purity — these are specifically Jewish charges which enforce particularistic values. Judaism’s unified set of specifically Jewish values is that they are vast and contain both.

Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: Judaism is a unique and special tradition. However, many of the values we teach can be found in other religions and groups. What is unique about Judaism is the way everything comes together. We have our own language, history, sacred texts, culture, music and art. We express what are universal values in specifically Jewish ways.

Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: I would never claim that Judaism has the monopoly on values, but clearly there are some fundamental ones. The dignity of every human being as being created in the image of God is basic. Salvation, however that is defined, is an entitlement of all righteous in the world, Jew or not. The recognition that there is only one God and that God is moral and good and belongs to no specific faith is fundamental. God does not wear a kippa. The notion, introduced at Sinai, that slavery is evil. The canard that Judaism is concerned primarily with legalisms unlike the compassion of the Christian Bible is easily disproven when one reads the Torah and the holiness codes. Life and its preservation is an ultimate Jewish value. An interesting hypothesis I once came across was that anti- Semitism was the result of Judaism bringing ethics and morals to a resentful, savage world. We were the ultimate ‘party poopers’ for the heathens and barbarians of old.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: Halakhah (Jewish Law), Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Jewish ethics offer us diverse and complex instructions on what it means to live a moral and holy life. While there are thinkers who have tried to capture a formula to have Judaism be labeled as “Ethical monotheism,” or “Tikkun Olam,” or “Divine submission,” these definitions don’t capture the richness and fullness of Torah life. The essential element, then, is to embrace the concept of hitlamdut — constant search for growth and learning — that ensures that we ask big questions, seek truth, and work on our inner teshuva (self-growth). We yearn for unity but are always left with more questions.

Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: I believe there are some basics to Jewish values including first and foremost the Ten Commandments. But as we move beyond the first ten, I believe that there are some underlying values about how we treat one another, both our family and those not in our immediate family. And it begins with, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Taken with the words of Rabbi Hillel, What is hateful to you do not do to others. And we have a basic set of guidelines for interaction in the world. As Rabbi Hillel would say, the rest is commentary.

Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah: The Torah’s story of humanity begins with the assertion that every human being is created in the image of God. This belief in tzelem elohim forms the basis for all later Jewish law governing interpersonal relationships. As equal creations b’tzelem elohim, all human beings have the same right to live dignified lives. Later Jewish law, from the Torah through the present day, concretizes this fundamental value by establishing laws meant to protect against desperate poverty, to ensure fair systems of justice, to prevent the exploitation of those with less money or power, and otherwise to create a society that enables all of its members to live full and dignified lives.

Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: There is a comprehensive set of Jewish values that are enumerated in classical Jewish texts such as the Chumash and the Talmud and codified by later authorities. That said, clearly not every Jew accepts those values and may embrace some and reject others. In that regard, to some degree everyone has his or her own set of values, but I think it’s important to have a starting point and would encourage people to learn the classical system thoroughly before rejecting it — one has to know the rules before they can be broken.

Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of Many yeshivas, when teaching Talmud, skip the Aggadata — the so-called legends — in favor of the more complex legal passages. This is a mistake. For sure, Jewish values emerge from laws about proper interpersonal conduct and our relationship with God. But they also can be found in the fantastic stories of the Talmud, which when learned in depth can be just as complex as the laws. All the important issues of the day regarding identity, autonomy, morality and more can be found in Talmud, Midrash and Bible commentary. Invariably, these values emerge from Jewish texts — treated with reverence and authority — to inform how we view ourselves and the world.

Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: The greatest Jewish value is the sanctity of the individual human being, each one of us, created in the image of God, with infinite potential and worth. This is reflected in Jewish law, where saving a human life trumps nearly every other law and even burying a dead human being preempts all positive commandments. There is focus on God, on peoplehood, the Land of Israel, the Sabbath, and the sanctity of time and family, but as described in Bereishit, from God’s own perspective, everything revolves around God’s creation of the human being.

Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: I can only speak for myself. Without a hierarchy or any overarching ecclesiastical authority, it is not possible to speak of a unified set of values. Maimonides tried it with the 13 articles of faith, and even he could not succeed completely. Our Jewish community is much more fragmented and diverse than ever before. Therefore the quest for unity or even consensus simply is not possible. From my perspective, ethical monotheism and the peoplehood of the Jews are paramount. I do believe that most Jews would agree with these values, at the very least. However, I am unwilling to say that unless one subscribes to these values, he/she is not authentically Jewish.

Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: There is a unified set of specifically Jewish values. It would be beyond the scope of these brief answers to provide all of them, but I wrote a book called Renewal which lists seven: 1. Destiny as opposed to fate. 2. Redemption as opposed to salvation. 3. Enlightenment as opposed to education. 4. Action as opposed to creed. 5. Marriage as the synthesis of the masculine and feminine and the amelioration of the masculine through exposure to the feminine. This applies not only to marriage, but to all aspects of creation. 6. Sabbath as a day of sanctity and spiritual renewal 7. Struggle as opposed to perfection. Together this spells DREAMSS.

Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: There are many values that Jews and Christians share in common, but what makes Judaism and Christianity unique are the values we do not share. A fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity is the emphasis Christianity places on the salvation of the individual. The central story of the Jewish experience is the exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. It was there that redemption came to a people — to a nation. Naaseh V’Nishmah: “We shall do and we shall listen.” We, collectively, were redeemed and we – collectively – will be redeemed.

Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: V’ahavta l’reacha kamocha. V’ahavta et ha ger. V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chol levavecha u’v’chol nafshecha u’v’chol me’odecha.

Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: The values of the Jewish people are those found in the Torah and explained by our Sages throughout their many writings.


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