As Peter Berger noted (see earlier post), religious traditions often present a range of values, many of which lie at tension with one another. In order to develop a genuine Judaic ethic, it is not sufficient to scan Jewish texts to see which values are expressed. Our analysis must be far more nuanced. Some guidance in this direction is provided by Louis Jacobs in his book, The Jewish Religion: A Companion. Jacobs notes that many traditions – religious and secular – extol values such as humility, truth, love and compassion. Given this, what room is there for a unique Judaic ethic?
Jacobs’ answer is two-fold. His first answer is ‘that these values receive a special kind of emphasis in the Jewish tradition, a Jewish way of looking at them.’ This leads us to the second principle of our methodology. It is not enough to identify values within traditional texts. It is necessary to ask how exactly these values are presented in those texts. This question is partly addressed by asking another: in Judaism, which values take priority over others?
According to world religions expert, Huston Smith, this question is key when distinguishing between the essence of the different faiths. Arguing against the position that the religions are all basically alike, Smith asserts that ‘the religions differ in what they consider essential and what negotiable. Hinduism and Buddhism split over this issue, as did Judaism, Christianity and Islam’ (The World’s Religions, p.385). In the same vein, it is important to discuss the significance of minority views within Jewish tradition. Some values are fundamental to the Judaic system (see R Yitzchak Blau, Meorot 7:1, p.7 argues against those who deny the existence of an essential Jewish tradition on the basis of the centuries for which Jews have viewed honouring parents and giving charity as halakhic obligations and believed that a singular God created the world. Blau writes that ‘Examples of such ongoing continuity could be multiplied greatly’.). Other views have not been accepted as mainstream tradition but still maintain their status as legitimate positions in the tradition, albeit as minority positions.
In an article for Seforim blog, Marc Shapiro discusses various non-mainstream positions in Jewish tradition. According to Shapiro, the litmus test as to whether a particular belief that is articulated by a segment of the Jewish community can be considered a Jewish teaching is whether or not rabbinic leaders tolerate it. Based on this principle, Shapiro opines that the belief that the Lubavitcher Rebbe will return to the world as the Messiah is a Jewish teaching – though certainly one which the overwhelming majority of religious Jewry will regard as deeply misguided. Shapiro also offers astrology as an example of a system that many modern religious Jews reject but which, nevertheless, has an illustrious pedigree in Jewish tradition.
More interesting for our purposes, however, is the example of the Jewish attitude toward divorce. Shapiro writes that many involved in Jewish apologetics claim that Judaism has a more realistic attitude to divorce than Catholicism as Judaism permits divorce if people don’t get along.
Shapiro argues that this is fine until the apologists denigrate any approach which opposes ‘Judaism’s position’. This, he writes, is unacceptable as the opinion of Beit Shammai is that ‘a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found in her some unseemly conduct’ (Gittin 9:10), i.e. unchastity.
Shapiro seems to strike the correct balance. It is quite correct to present the accepted position as the mainstream traditional position but, to develop a proper understanding of Jewish tradition, one also needs to keep minority views in the picture.
Not all non-mainstream positions carry equal force in the tradition.
When it comes to Jewish values, Beit Shammai’s positions are far more important than Chabad Messianism because, as noted by Shapiro, there are traditional sources that talk about how in Messianic days the halacha will follow Beit Shammai in this and in all other disputes. Moreover, there are (non-mainstream) opinions to the effect that the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel only concerns a second marriage and that Beit Hillel would agree with Beit Shammai with regard to a first marriage. This discussion illustrates how careful we must be in extrapolating Judaic values from the traditional texts.
Louis Jacobs provides a second way in which we can develop a specifically Jewish ethic, despite the fact that many of our values are shared by other religious systems. This is through understanding that Jewish values are not ‘remote ideals but are a real, vital force in the lives of Jews.’ In order to understand these values, we need to do more than study texts. We need to observe and experience how these values are expressed in our lives and in the lives of our fellow Jews. At this point, let’s summarise the methodology that we have developed thus far.
(i) We begin by looking to Jewish sources to learn what needs to be repaired in the world from a Jewish perspective.
(ii) Having identified the values and aspirations expressed in the texts, we take a closer look at those values and the place they take in Jewish traditional thought and law. This involves asking the question as to what is the hierarchy of values in Jewish tradition and why certain values take precedence over others. It also involves an honest search to find minority positions so that we do not come to understand Judaism as rejecting positions which are promoted in its own texts.
(iii) Having analysed the sources, our eyes turn away from the texts towards their application and implementation in Jewish life. (iv) Having developed our understanding of these values, the time comes to apply them to the dilemmas of contemporary society. How are contemporary social issues properly understood from a perspective in which Judaic values are paramount and how would they be seen differently by one who has less regard for such values? Have these specific issues been addressed in Jewish texts and, if not, are there any discussions in the traditional writing s on topics which bear a significant similarity to the issue at hand?
Thus far, we have discussed analysis of Judaic teachings. But this process is about a dialogue between Jewish tradition and the issues of today’s world so, in the next post, we will discuss how I intend to use secular sources to develop the project.
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