Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Unlike Christianity, which rejected the continued validity of the "ritual laws" (or "works") of the Hebrew scriptures, Judaism affirms the eternally binding validity of the covenant of law contained in the Torah. Moreover, the rabbis never distinguished between moral/ethical and ritual/sacral commandments.  Rabbinical Judaism thus takes a holistic view of the halakhic system, according to which no greater importance is place on any one mitzvah, or commandment, over the other.

The complex legal methodology of Midrash Halakha, whereby the rabbis have, over the course of almost two millennia, derived current law from ancient biblical principles, is based on thirteen hermeneutical, or exegetical, principles of scriptural interpretation, combined with a strong commitment to precedent. As a consequence, halakha derives from an ongoing process of biblical exegesis that is tempered by the rulings of earlier generations of rabbis and a strong commitment to traditional common practice, known as minhag.

In rabbinic Judaism there is  no independent source—to say nothing of any official or normative code—of moral and ethical thought and behavior, outside of the halakha. Even medieval rationalist efforts to explain halakha in moral or ethical terms were deemed by religiously conservative rabbis as potentially subversive, and they insisted that laws of the Torah must be obeyed for no reason beyond the fact that they reflect the will of God. This positivist approach to halakha, which has dominated rabbinical thought for most of Jewish history and is akin to classical Islam's posture of submission to Shariah (Muslim law) did not, however, prevent the emergence of certain obvious ethical principles from a plain understanding of the Torah's prohibitions. These include sanctions against killing, stealing, coveting, adultery, cruelty to animals, and interfering with nature's course; they also include the positive injunctions to love God, love the stranger, love your neighbor as yourself, pursue justice, feed and clothe the needy, show kindness to the stranger or foreigner, etc.

Such biblical laws led the rabbis to an overarching affirmation of the sanctity and dignity of human life, the respect for and kindness to all of God's creatures, and a general deference to natural law as a reflection of the Divine plan. The dietary laws, and the special regulations pertaining to ritual slaughtering, resulted in particular Jewish sensibilities about what is "clean and unclean" in the natural world, just as the special regulations governing the ritual slaughtering of animals led the rabbis to formulate a prohibition against causing needless, or unnatural, suffering to any of God's creatures.

Key principles of Jewish dietary laws (kashrut)
Forbidden to consume:
1. Mammals that do not both chew their cud and have cloven hooves, such as pigs, camels, and hares

2. Shellfish and any fish without both scales and fins

3. Mixing meat products and dairy products

4. Birds and mammals that have not been slaughtered according to specific rules (shechita)

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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