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What are "Jewish Ethics"?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

Library » Jewish Identity » Love thy Neighbor | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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"Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly."

Thus begins The Ethics of our Fathers, the “Jewish Handbook of Ethics.” On the surface, it is difficult to grasp the link between the transmission of Torah and ethics, but in fact, by starting with these words, Rabbi Judah the Prince, compiler of The Ethics, is alluding to the core of Jewish ethics.

Man-made ethics are driven by (personal) experience and current understandings. Often the premise is: just about anything is allowed as long as it doesn’t interfere with another individual’s emotional and material security. "Interfering with another" is obviously very subjective. Today, for example, many contemporary ethicists condone abortion but protest capital punishment for a serial murderer; or they advocate euthanasia but condemn the consumption of meat.1

Torah ethics, on the other hand, are intended to raise a person above his or her natural limited vision and basic animalistic desires. For example, in the Torah it is not sufficient that we don't harm another, rather we are obligated to assist others, and not because it makes the benefactor feel good, but because that is our G-d given mission. Torah is also absolute in its mandates. The Torah prohibits murder regardless of the person's age or economic class.

At their worst, man-made ethics are simply misconstrued, and at their best they still do not take into consideration the higher mission and goal of the human being. Man-made ethics teaches: “Do it unless it’s destructive.” Torah ethics tells us: “Don’t do it unless it’s constructive.”

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua.” And our ethics, too, are part of that Torah.

Footnotes

  • 1. In fact, less than a century ago a civilized society, with their own code of ethics, justified the creation of gas chambers and crematoria, and the massacre of one and a half million Jewish children.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Mitzvot » Love thy Neighbor
Torah » Mishnah and Talmud
Philosophy » Character

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Joshua
1. Assumed the leadership of the Jewish people after Moses died in 1267 BCE. He split the Jordan River and led the Jewish people in their conquest of the Promised Land. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, which chronicles Joshua's leadership.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Men of the Great Assembly
An institution of 120 rabbis who led the Jewish people at the onset of the Second Temple Era. They canonized the 24 books of the Bible and composed most of the prayers we have today. This institution lasted approximately 200 years.
Judah
1. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He was blessed by Jacob to be the leader of the tribes. Consequently, the Davidic royal dynasty is from the tribe of Judah. 2. The southern part of Israel which was occupied by the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and always remained under the reign of the kings from the tribe of Judah.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.