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.

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