The Uniqueness Of Jewish Ethics

Ethics is what distinguishes the symphonic world of order from the cacophonous world  of chaos. Whatever ethical system one follows, its objective is to introduce order and harmony into one’s life and into one’s world.

But, ethical systems, similarities notwithstanding, have different foundations. It is important that we understand the foundational basis of Jewish ethics and how it distinguishes itself from other forms of ethics.

Let us begin with a discussion of the foundation of all ethical systems. They are invariably based on one of three premises: intuition, mutual self-preservation or Outside authority. To put it in somewhat original terms and to coin some new terminology: In-tuition, co-tuition or Out-tuition. 

Systems that are based on intuition believe that ethics are innate to the human condition and the universe. Some describe this as “Natural Law.” Accordingly, all one has to do is to probe beneath the surface and block out all of the static and unwarranted distractions to find the inner message that tells us how to live our lives harmoniously and morally. Eastern religions and modern New-Age philosophies are known for their adherence to this “looking inside” to find meaning, system of harmonious life.

The beauty of this system of ethics is that it involves the individual. It is not superficial and despotic. Ethics do not command but are in complete harmony with one’s most inner self. Ethical life liberates the person rather than overwhelms the person. Moral behavior is redeeming rather than suffocating.

The inherent deficiency of this system, however, is that it is subjective, and cannot be validated by any outside criteria.

But the most disconcerting aspect of this system of ethics is that it is almost impossible to discern between the inner voice of one’s conscience, or the viewpoints that have been absorbed as a result of an insidious indoctrination process. When we express an opinion about a moral issue, we must be very cautious when we think our opinion is based on some innate sense of right and wrong. It is possible that it is a product of a message from the popular media that was integrated into our system consciously and subliminally. How many hours of exposure to Television, and other media outlets that indoctrinate as much as they educate, have we been exposed to, that may shape and mold our way of thinking that is absolutely not connected to any inner truth or consciousness?

The second foundation of some ethical systems is the sense that only when we behave ethically can we all survive on this planet. Ethics is thus defined as the way to behave that will ensure mutual existence and well being. This “co-tuition” approach to ethics, is what spawned word and concepts like “cooperation” and “co-existence,” both of which suggest respect for the existence of the other, which, in turn, ensures that others respect us. The strength of this approach is that it guarantees proper conduct even when individuals are not in touch with their inner selves, their conscience. One does not have to be spiritual to want to live and prosper. It takes but my self-preservation instinct combined with simple logic to realize that if I steal and kill for my selfish interests, the other people can also do the same to me, in their pursuit of their selfish interests. Thus, for our collective good we must have an ethical system that will ensure all of our survivability.

But, this system has its own flaws. Selfish interests are often blinding. They often distort our judgment and make us think that our destructive behavior will not be detected or will go unpunished. In addition, the mere knowledge that a certain act is wrong because it is self-destructive does not guarantee that the individual imbued with this knowledge will not act immorally. In Kabbalah we are told that the narrow passage between the mind and the heart called the neck represents the natural occlusion that does not allow the mind’s perceptions of reality “descend” or translate into one’s emotions and actions.

Many will therefore point to the absolute necessity for the third foundation of ethics, which is the Outside authority. In simple language this refers to a G-d given system of ethics that comes from a source that is impeccable and absolute, that imposes itself on our minds, hearts and actions.

But even this third system cannot guarantee complete success. Even within a system that bases itself on the belief in a G-d and revelation, as is the premise of virtually every religious ethical system, there can still be a serious lacuna in this system’s efficacy.

The Talmud cites the irony in the case of the thief who prays to G-d as he stands on the threshold of the house he is about to break into and enter. Why would a person who believes in G-d – as is evident by the fact that he stopped to pray – act contrarily? Is he a hypocrite? Obviously not. There are no observers to his act of piety that he might be trying to impress. The only explanation for this anomalous behavior is that faith – and even sincere, profound faith – does not necessarily translate into action. Faith exists on the periphery of our psyche, while understanding, emotion and action constitute its inner substance. In mystical terminology we can put it this way: Faith rests in the core of our souls; it will not necessarily express itself onto the outer layers of our personalities which govern our actions.

And here is where the eclectic nature of Judaism’s ethical system manifests itself. Jewish ethics are predicated on all three premises. Judaism does not allow its ethical message to be directed towards us through the channel of G-d’s authority alone. To be sure, Judaism is based on the belief that the Torah – the embodiment of Judaism’s ethics – was given to us by G-d Himself at the revelation at Mount Sinai. Judaism does ask of us to surrender our minds to G-d and accept the Torah even when it appears to go against our intellect. But Judaism also asks of us to nurture our soul’s appreciation for the Mitzvot. Moreover, Judaism – especially its mystical dimension – asserts that our soul has a natural propensity and proclivity towards the Mitzvot. They are not only derived from a Supra-Rational G-dly source, but that G-dly source is also internalized within us at the core of our soul.  We must therefor perform the Mitzvot with every fiber of our being.

But Jewish ethics provides us with the third system as well. Judaism demands of us to develop a social consciousness, one that will compel us to act ethically even when we are not receptive to the voice of Sinai, when our soul’s inspiration is stifled and we cannot consciously feel our soul’s cry for more moral and G-dly behavior. Judaism does not give up on us. It has provided us with the skills to live ethically, even when our ethical antennae do not pick up the signals from without or within. We have been conditioned to act morally and responsibly, because Judaism has also conditioned us to be socially conscious.

These three ethical engines of Judaism can perhaps be represented by the three categories of commandments we find in the Torah: The Chukim (Supra rational commandments) Eidot (testimonials) and Mishpatim (rational civil laws).

While the Chukim jolt us into obedience, the sentimental and spiritually oriented Edot nurture and arouse our soul and the Mishpatim mold our social consciousness. Together they form a “threefold bond that will not unravel quickly.”

Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

Published in Judaism

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