Mar 17, 2010: Jewish Ethics - Present and Future

In this final session of our course, we will examine two ethical issues that are currently in the news, and can be expected to continue to play a role in our national discourse in the coming decade.

The handout for this session can be found here.  The online chat transcript of the class can be found here.  Click below for the audio recording of this class:

We'll begin by discussing the Jewish ethics of eating.  We'll want to semantically distinguish, here, the difference between the traditional Jewish dietary laws (known as kashrut), and Jewish ethical eating in the more contemporary context.  As far as kashrut is concerned, you might consider perusing my own writing on the subject (my Rabbinical School thesis) found here, especially the first one and a half chapters.

Ethical eating begins with a certain mentality - a certain intentionality that what we eat, and how we eat, matters in some bigger sense of the word: matters to God (if we believe in God), and matters to the animals that are involved in our food chain.

We'll also talk about eating mindfully, including an awareness of where our food comes from, and who is involved in its production.  Included in this part of our conversation will be a discussion about how food production workers are treated.

It would also be important in this discussion to step back and reflect on our consumption of meat.  What are the Jewish ethics of meat-eating?  What is the unique environmental impact of meat-eating?  What does it mean to kill other organisms so that we can eat them? 

In the context of that last question, I strongly encourage you to check out this book.

For more information on Judaism and vegetarianism, click here.

Click here for a copy of Rabbi Eric Yoffie's recent Biennial Sermon to the Reform Movement which incorporated many of these issues.

You should also check out the website of Hazon, the of-the-moment gurus on Jewish ethical eating.  Check out this material, which Hazon published in partnership with the Reform Movement.

Now, let's turn our attention to a second ethical issue that is dominating public policy conversation right now, and is sure to persist as an area of interest in the decade to come.

Within the swirling debate surrounding health care and health insurance reform in our country right now, a small part of that conversation continues to revolve around the question of reforming our country's laws concerning medical malpractice.

Republicans, in particular, have pushed for the limiting of physician liability in malpractice lawsuits as a way of lowering health care costs.  Check out this material for a basic summary of this position.

At the moment, this issue tends be regarded as a partisan one.

For our purposes, I would suggest that we leave our secular partisan identities aside for a moment - as we consider that our own Jewish tradition has quite a lot to say about the limits of physician liability.  As a subsection of a larger Jewish conversation on bioethics, this discussion is an important one...It will inform us of the Jewish perspective on the role of the doctor; and, in doing so, it will hopefully broaden our own ideas about the larger secular debate about the state of health care and health insurance in our country today.

For an introduction to Jewish Bioethics in general, you might consider Dr Fred Rosner's "Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law."  For an introductory text that specifically addresses the issue of physician liability in malpractice suits, check out Rosner's "Contemporary Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law."  Much of that book is available free online here.  As you will see from the presentation handout, I have also made extensive use "Jewish Living" by my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Mark Washofsky.

We'll see, in our discussion, that in the context of this discussion, Jewish law interprets the notion of "tikkun olam" - of bettering the world - in two radically different ways.  One of those readings is connected to the notion that doctors are to be held to a so-called "higher standard" when it comes to that which they should be held responsible.  For more on this, click here for a copy of a responsum (a Jewish legal ruling) on these questions from around 2003.

We will conclude, humbled by the notion that our sources don't always give us the clear cut answers that we are hoping to find: a fundamental realization during any study of Jewish ethics.

Feb 17, 2010: Jewish Ethics in the Bedroom

So...let's just deal with this right off the top.  There is a horrible, stereotype-inducing rumor out there, which imagines Jewish sex as a loveless and pleasure-less act in which the two partners "do it" through a hole in a sheet.  Such rumors are disgusting in general, and do the extra-disservice of being utterly factually wrong about Judaism and its attitudes toward physical intimacy between two loving partners.

So - what does Judaism really think about matters of intimacy?  That's what this session is all about.

The handout for this session can be found here.  The transcript of the online chat for the class can be found here.  An audio recording of the session can be found here:

We'll begin with the quote featured on the title slide, from Ramban (aka Nachmanides, who lived from 1194-1270): "One should know that sexual union is holy and pure when it is done as it should be, at the time it should be, and with proper intent."

From there, we'll introduce the subject by talking about the ancient conception of sex.  (You'll excuse the pun - but "conception" was really what it was all about!)

Interestingly, our ancestors didn't just use sex for means of procreation, in terms of creating more people (Jews).  Sexuality (and specifically the having of children) provided the basis for ancient Israelite society to function economically.  This is well illustrated by the shocking story found in Genesis 38, which will also give us the chance to touch on the Torah's attitudes toward prostitution and masturbation.  For your enjoyment, here's Marc Chagall's artistic rendition of Judah and Tamar (from Genesis 38):

We'll then turn our attention to more modern Jewish attitudes toward sexuality.  We'll discuss whether the ancient theme of procreation plays a role in contemporary Jewish life.  We'll examine both the "pro" side (because of Jewish population concerns post-Holocaust AND because of demographic concerns related to the shrinking Jewish birthrate).  Re the shrinking Jewish birthrate, see p. 13 of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

From there, we'll discuss the Jewish value of monogamy/exclusivity.

We'll address the Jewish distinction between "having sex" and "making love."  The philosophy of Martin Buber will be especially useful in this regard.

We'll also explore the obligations of Jewish partners, when it comes to both "quality" of our intimacy and "quantity" (i.e. frequency) of our intimacy.

We'll conclude by touching on:

  • the "double mitzvah"

  • the mystical theology of Jewish sexuality

  • (Liberal) Jewish attitudes toward homosexuality

  • Rabbi Elliott Dorff's criteria for non-marital sex

  • the question of whether or not YOU have/practice your own Jewish sex ethic
With regards to this last bullet point, I am a huge fan of Rabbi Arthur Waskow's "Down to Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life."

Jan 20, 2010: Jewish Ethics in Our Family Lives

The handout for this session can be found here. The transcript of the online chat for the class can be found here. You can listen to a recording of the class by clicking below:

Just for the fun of it, click on the link below to listen to Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" to help get you into the mood for this class!

We Are Family / Easier To Love [Digital 45] album by Sister Sledge

Today's class will explore the complex web of values surrounding our obligations to:
  • Our Parents
  • Our Children
  • Our Siblings
We'll begin by discussing the Jewish obligation to honor our parents.  Where does that come from?  And, more importantly: are there limits to that obligation?  To explore the latter question, we'll do two brief "case studies" utilizing the ever-relevant and entertaining "Ethicist" columns from the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

We'll then move on to consider some of the ethical obligations of parenthood, and of child-rearing.  Well known is the Jewish obligation to be "fruitful and multiply."  Far less well known is the potential Jewish argument to be made AGAINST having children - surely an unpopular position to be taken, in a time in which the horrific losses of the Holocaust are still personally remembered.

Finally, we'll conclude by briefly exploring what our tradition has to say about the way that we interact with our siblings.  How are our relationships with friends different from the relationships we share with our siblings?  And is there anything at all that we can apply to our own relationships from the way that siblings treat one another in the Torah?

Dec 9, 2009: Jewish Ethics in the Neighborhood

First and foremost, we should acknowledge that this week's class comes just as we are gearing up for Hanukkah!  Click here for a copy of the Hanukkah candlelighting blessings.  Click here for some great Hanukkah recipes.  And check out this irreverent (and informative!) video for a reminder on how to light the menorah: down to the business of our third installment in the Ethics course.

Click here for a copy of the class handout.  Click here for a transcript of the session's online chat.

You can listen to an audio recording of this class session by clicking on the icon below:

Given our subject, it somehow seems appropriate to invite you to click here for audio and video of Mr. Rogers singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor."  :o)

More seriously: our class will consider two paradoxical elements of living in a neighborhood: the Jewish right to privacy (within our own domains), and the Jewish obligation to not close ourselves off - to be sensitive, aware, and responsive of the needs of others (particularly through the giving of tzedakah).  The paradox is best expressed by Judaism's competing claims of when we are, and are not, supposed to mind our own business.

We'll begin with a close reading of Robert Frost's famous poem "Mending Fences."

Then we'll look at a number of sources that establish the Jewish right to privacy.

From a very contemporary perspective, check out the Conservative Movement's important responsum (Jewish legal ruling) on issues relating to computer privacy (especially at the workplace)

We'll also touch on when Jewish law allows for our privacy to be violated.  (In this regard, we'll look at a text from Menachem Elon, former Deputy President of the Israeli Supreme Court.  Elon is an expert on Jewish law and its application to secular Israeli law today.We'll also look at the Reform rabbinate's response to 9/11.  Note the concluding clause about civil liberties.

After a survey of Jewish sources concerning the giving of tzedakah, we'll wrap up by seeking, once again, to place this section of Jewish Ethics into the context of our Hanukkah observance.

November 18, 2009: Jewish Ethics in the Workplace

The handout for our second installment in the ethics course can be found here. The chat transcript from the class can be found here. You can click on the icon below for the full audio recording of the class:

Workplace ethics is such a vast topic. With only an hour together, it would be impossible to even survey the issue in its entirety. Thus, choices have to be made.

Reluctantly, our discussion will not include issues of gender discrimination/sexual harassment in the workplace. Indeed, we will skip almost entirely the ethical issues surrounding the power differential that inevitably exists between supervisor and supervisee.

We will skip, as well, the ethics of financial propriety and transparency, which are really better situated under the heading of Jewish business ethics.

What then will we talk about?

It seems to me that the biggest (ethical) challenge in spending time in the dealing with our co-workers and customers: the people that we are obliged to interact with on a daily basis, as we go about the business of simply doing our jobs.

Think about it: in most of the other realms of our lives, we have some kind of choice about who we spend are time with (for example, there's no rule that requires us to spend Thanksgiving with our nutty relatives!). But, with our jobs, we're kind of stuck with the people that we're surrounded by. Unless we are willing to quit our jobs(an unlikely scenario in this economy - especially given that there's no guarantee that our next job will be an "annoyance-free zone") just to avoid certain annoying or difficult people, we have to figure out a way to deal wtih them.

On a humorous level, there's no better exploration of these issues than on the TV show "The Office" (I'm a huge fan!). Check out this clip for just a small example of the kind of antics that these co-workers engage in as a strategy for dealing with each other's personalities.

In our class, we'll discuss the Jewish sources surrounding the notion of tolerance, and of pluralism.  Will it be a challenge for us to buy into these age-old Jewish ideas?  Our secular society, at the moment, isn't particularly pluralistic, at least when it comes to politics and our consumption of political news

We will come to see that Judaism celebrates the notion of the minority opinion.  As an illustration, we'll be discussing the landmark Supreme Court rulings of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Do take the time to read the Harlan minority opinion in Plessy (we'll look at one excerpt during class).  It's remarkable (for its time anyway).

We'll conclude by exploring some of the theological implications of pluralism, including a remarkably progressive piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  I'm a big fan of Sacks' writing.  Check it out here and here.

October 28, 2009: What are Jewish Ethics?

The presentation materials for this class can be found here.  A transcript of the online public chat from the class can be found here.

Click on the icon below for an audio recording of the class:

Our first class will introduce us to the topic of Ethics in general, and to Jewish Ethics more particularly.  In terms of Ethics in general, one of the classic foundational texts would be Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" written around 350 BCE .  In far more contemporary terms, John Rawls (a philosopher of liberalism) articulates his sense of "the good" in "A Theory of Justice."  Some have described it as a work that specifically addresses political ethics, but it seems to me that it (at least the parts in the book that I was able to understand!) can easily be applied to our personal lives as well.

In its broadest possible terms, Jewish Ethics is concerned with the way that we treat one another.  We will touch in the class on Heschel's reminder that God cares about the way that we treat one another.  But, there's a humanistic element to Jewish Ethics also.  We should want to do "the good" because it will benefit humanity as a whole (theoretically, anyway). 

This gets lived out in the realm of interpersonal ethics (the way that we treat our friends, neighbors, and family) and in the realm of political ethics (the way that we treat each other as societies-as-a-whole).  Regarding the latter, Jewish social action organizations like the Reform movement's own Religious Action Center and the non-denominational Jewish Funds for Justice become so important: these organizations become our Jewish ethical values writ large - for all the world to see, and hopefully to be moved.

We concluded our discussion by touching on mussar, the Jewish ethical practice of mindfulness (especially in relationships with others). 

An online introduction to Jewish Ethics can be found here.

Suggested reading on this first session's themes, in no particular order:
  • "The Prophets" - by Abraham Joshua Heschel, maybe the greatest rabbi of the 20th century!  The first half of the book reviews the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  The second half talks about his "theology of pathos" and its connection to social justice.
  • "Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism" by Michael Walzer - an academic (but mostly accessible) volume that explores Jewish ethics (particularly in the political realm).
  • "A Code of Jewish Ethics" (Volumes 1 and 2, with a 3rd possibly forthcoming) by Joseph Telushkin - if you are interested in Jewish Ethics, these are a must-read.  A lovely combination of thought-provoking substance with plenty of entertaining vignettes thrown in.
  • "Judaism and Ethics" by Daniel Jeremy Silver.  Published in 1970, but I like it because it combines an academic approach to ethics with Jewish values, an interfaith perspective, and material on Israel.
The following titles direct relate to, or were inspired by, our mussar tradition:
Of course, many of these titles are available at the Temple Solel Library.