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Religion Library: Judaism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Allan Nadler

Jewish ethicists today vary widely in their approaches to handling thorny moral issues, such as birth control, abortion, euthanasia, attitudes to women and homosexuals, and political questions such as the morality of warfare and the religious significance of the State of Israel. Orthodox, Conservative, and other traditionalist ethicists tend to rely almost entirely on rabbinic legal precedent as the authoritative source for deciding controversial moral and ethical questions. In this, they differ dramatically both from Christian ethicists whose approach to the same questions is far more theologically rooted, and Reform Jewish ethicists, who do not feel constrained or bound by classical rabbinic halakha.  

For example, when discussing abortion, Jewish ethicists do not refer to theological questions about the nature and origins of the human soul or to when it is first conceived. Rather they turn to rabbinic codes and responses that discuss, in a much more legal and medically practical vein, issues of the autonomous viability of a fetus. Like Islam, and in sharp contrast to Christianity, Judaism is far less concerned with abstract theological questions of belief, and focuses on pragmatic questions of how practically to fulfill the law of God. This has had a profound impact on the way Jewish thinkers, including the non-Orthodox, "do ethics."

Doctrinal questions are usually deemed irrelevant, or at most tangential, in pondering ethical dilemmas such as the permissibility of human stem-cell research. Since the rabbis acknowledge that there is no way they can determine when a soul enters or departs from the human body, the big ethical questions about life's domain, ranging from the termination of the pregnancy of a woman who might not survive the birthing process, to the removal of life support for a patient who will almost certainly never regain consciousness, are referred by rabbis and Jewish ethicists to the appropriate medical experts, on the basis of whose opinions they apply the general principles regarding life's dignity. 

Study Questions:
1.     What is minhag? Why is it important to consider when discussing the correlation between ritual and ethics?
2.     What is the Halakha? How does it help shape daily life?
3.     How are ethical questions answered within contemporary Jewish society?


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