Before attempting to answer these questions, we need to consider the methodology by which we derive and discern values in Jewish texts. We will see that, in articulating values, Jewish thinkers have used two major approaches.
Narrative and Aggadah
Many scholars have drawn on the narrative portions of the Torah and the aggadic (i.e. non-halakhic) statements in the Talmud to develop Jewish values. The Talmud itself (Sotah 14a) makes use of the Biblical narrative in elucidation of the mitzvah of walking in the path of God:
R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What does the text mean by ‘You shall walk after the Lord your God? … [The meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, for it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them, so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, for it is written: And the Lord appeared unto him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son, so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, for it is written: And He buried him in the valley, so do you also bury the dead. (Emphasis added)
The highlighted verses are all quotations from the Biblical narrative. In using the Bible’s description of Divine action, Rabbi Hama articulates imperatives for the Jewish ethical life. (Indeed, the emulation of Divine Attributes was later to take a central place in the ethical system of major Jewish thinkers, most notably Maimonides- see this chapter which explains the prominence of this principle in the thought of Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik.
Another example of the Sage’s usage of Biblical narrative as a basis for Jewish values is found in Tractate Bava Metzia (87a):
Great is peace because even the Holy One blessed be He altered [His report to Abraham of Sarah’s words] for its sake.
Based on a biblical story in which God avoids telling Abraham that Sarah had said that he was old, the Sages teach that white lies can be condoned if the goal is to promote peace.
In the middle ages, the use of Biblical narrative as a source of ethics was championed in particular by Nachmanides. In his commentary to Leviticus 19:2, Nachmanides notes that, according to technical halachic boundaries, it may be acceptable to be a drunkard. However, such excessive behaviour would be deplorable in the eyes of the Torah. In substantiation of his position, Nachmanides refers to the stories of Noah and Lot who became inebriated with regrettable consequences.
In more recent times, the 19th century scholar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin (Netziv) argues in his introduction to the Book of Genesis that the patriarchs set an example to readers of the Bible of what it is to be an upright individual. Even when they deal with despicable people (the inhabitants of Sodom, Ephron, Abimelech, Laban), they still behave with respect and compassion.
Scholars have also made use of prophetic literature in articulating Jewish values. For example, Meir Tamari refers to Amos chapters 1-5 in substantiation of his claim that it is important to give charity to non-Jews as well as to Jews.
Rabbinic thinkers have similarly used the teachings and personal examples of righteous behaviour recorded in the aggadic portions of the Talmud and Midrash in their articulation of Jewish values.
Although there is great emphasis in Judaism on halakhic obedience, the practice of in depth halakhic analysis in order to understand the concepts underlying halakhic observance is an important endeavour of Torah learning. Even with regard to Biblical commands, there is a long tradition of taamei mitzvot – the attempt to discern the ideas expressed by certain commandments, even with the caveat that a full understanding of the reason for a given mitzvah may lie beyond human intellectual understanding.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broide explained the words of Nachmanides in this regard:
And do the right and the good” is not a specific mitzva but a general mitzva: to delve deeply into the understanding of mitzvot and the reasons behind them; to comprehend and contemplate and appreciate, through the mitzvot that we are commanded to perform, also those obligations that are not explicit. We must develop an understanding of what is really God’s desire from us, and what is good and right in His eyes. (Emphasis added)
In other words, it is necessary to understand the values underlying halakhic practice in order to apply them to other areas of behaviour.
One example of this, explained by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, relates to the value of gratitude. The verse in Deuteronomy 23:8 teaches: You shall not abhor an Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land. As Rabbi Amital notes, one derives the value of gratitude from this commandment even though gratitude isn’t a mitzvah per se.
In other instances, values are derived from ethical principles employed by the Sages in their halakhic rulings. In Proverbs 3:17, we read: [The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. The Talmud and halakhic authorities make use of this principle in several places. For example, in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Chanukah 4:14), Maimonides rules that if a poor man needs oil for Shabbat candles or wine for Kiddush, the Shabbat candles should take priority because their purpose is promote peace in the home. Great indeed is peace, writes Maimonides, as it is said: Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.
In this post, we have discussed how both the narrative and legal portions of the Torah and rabbinic literature form the basis for Jewish values. In our next post, we will consider how different thinkers have thought it appropriate to use these different genres of Jewish literature in their presentation of Judaic ethics.
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