Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?
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Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?

July 31, 2018 09:34PM
Since starting, I have grappled with the question of why the Orthodox community doesn’t live up to its calling to be an ethical exemplar to the world. In doing so, I’ve taken pains to point out that there are many outstanding ethical features in the Orthodox community, some of which are corroborated by research linked to in my first article. My writing is not fueled by a sense that Orthodoxy is in some moral crisis – this is not my perception. It is rather that our aspiration is to be a benchmark of ethical conduct and our conviction is that a life of devotion to Torah can and should lead to moral excellence. 1 My research and reflection has led me to the conclusion that commitment to learning Torah and keeping halakha is not enough to cultivate the character refinement to which we aspire. What is needed is a focused, comprehensive commitment to middot improvement in the Orthodox community.

In several of my previous articles, I discussed different facets of this challenge. Based primarily on those analyses, I outline below what I think it would take to elevate moral standards in the Orthodox community. In future articles, I intend to elaborate on each of these, explain why they are needed and how they might be attained. In the meantime, I would greatly appreciate any critique or comments, either on the website or at

1. We Need to Teach Torah Ethics
The Orthodox community should be proud of its fealty to halakha. The halakhic lens that is the linchpin of our worldview connects us to the previous generations of Jews in seeking to follow God’s will as understood through our mesorah.

This notwithstanding, a preoccupation with technical halakhic compliance often overshadows other essential features of moral life. For example, one who is only motivated by obedience to Jewish law, will not relate Torah to an ethical worldview, will lack an understanding of the purpose of Torah life and will fail to appreciate Torah perspectives on values and virtues.
What is needed is a conscious effort to develop, articulate and teach ethical perspectives based on Torah scholarship.

This includes:

• Torah understandings of the purpose, mission and vision for the Jewish People which ground and contextualise our moral ideals. This would include approaches to concepts such as vehalachta b’drachav, lifnim mishurat hadin and kedusha. There needs to be a clear appreciation of how fundamental ethics are to Jewish religious commitment.

• Distinctive Torah understandings of different middot and values, including an appreciation for how Torah guides us in navigating between competing concerns when faced with moral questions.

• Torah must never be taught in a way that undervalues, ignores or distorts Torah values. For example, whatever specific approach one adopts in understanding the story of Shimon and Levi in Shekhem or of David and Batsheva, the student must not be given the impression that Judaism approves of wanton killing or harming other people for personal benefit. Similarly, technical halakhic analysis relating to moral issues needs to be supplemented or contextualised by an emphasis on ethical principles which are not necessarily satisfied by technical halakhic compliance.

• Torah ethics must include a vision of ethical life at its best – to what kind of behaviour should those who are committed to Torah aspire? Efforts should be made, based on both halakha and Aggada, to clarify the kind of behaviour that should be aspired to by those who are not only committed to halakhic compliance but also to a life characterised by kedusha and refined middot.

2. We Need to Find Ways to Help Community Members Internalise Torah Values

Middot refinement requires more than a cognitive understanding of Torah ethics. As much as Jewish teaching ascribes great value to the world of the mind, it also regards the world of the soul, emotions and human experience to be of the utmost significance. A Jew must not only know the good but also love the good. Our vision is that Torah ethical values become central to the life of a Jew and that they take precedence when conflicting with other values such as comfort, pleasure, ego and greed.

3. We Need to Teach Approaches and Methods of Dealing with the Yetzer Hara
A person can have a thorough understanding of Torah values and genuinely care about them but still struggle to behave in a way that is aligned with those values. The yetzer hara, often bolstered by the contemporary zeitgeist, impels each of us toward destructive middot and behaviour. Each of us has his own nisayon but it is rare to find the person who does not struggle with such challenges as egotism, aggressiveness, selfishness, the quest for power, sensual satisfaction or consumerism.

To know that these behaviours are wrong and to value a life of altruism, derech eretz and kedusha are rarely sufficient. Members of our communities must be taught methods of dealing with these destructive dispositions and challenges in order that they can succeed in aligning their behaviour with their values.

4. We Need to Cultivate an Ethical Culture in Which Communal Standards Accord with Our Values and there are Multiple Communal Opportunities to Put Values into Action

All the above strategies will be ineffective if they exist in an educational vacuum, detached from the broader Orthodox culture. Members of the community should not only study about ethics in an Orthodox framework but should see those ethics practiced in the Orthodox community. Torah ethical norms must be reinforced and implemented in the home, school, shul, youth groups and summer camps. As developmental psychologist Thomas Lickona has argued, “Communal norms can only be transmitted when the study, practice and celebration of goodness is valued as highly by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours as it is expected to be valued by their children.”

I believe that these are the four areas our community must concentrate on in order to reach the high standing which is our calling. I intend to write about each of them in forthcoming posts – both elaborating on the problem but also, more importantly, outlining ways in which our community can take concrete, impactful steps toward improvement in each of these areas.
In the meantime, I invite people to give me feedback (either on the website or, if you feel more comfortable, to me in person). I believe there are several wonderful initiatives which do some of what I am suggesting but creating a sea-change in the Orthodox community will require a meeting of minds toward the goal of collaborative ventures to give ethics and derech eretz the distinguished place in our value system which are their due.


To be clear, my goal is not only to impact on the Orthodox community. It is the entire Jewish People who are called upon to exhibit exemplary values and character traits. My vision is that those who are committed to halakha should become a beacon of good character to others. To reach that goal, we need to identify what must be done in the community to cultivate middot more successfully.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/31/2018 09:35PM by mlb.
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Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?

Anthony Knopf July 31, 2018 09:34PM

Re: Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?

Shmuel Silberman July 31, 2018 09:37PM

Re: Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?

Daniel Rothner July 31, 2018 09:42PM

Re: Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?

Barry Kislowicz July 31, 2018 09:46PM

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Norman Meskin July 31, 2018 09:51PM

Re: Jewish ethical wisdom - Where Do We Go From Here?

Seymour Epstein August 02, 2018 02:21AM

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Anthony Knopf August 03, 2018 12:13AM


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