For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law
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We also aspire to moral ideals, in part, because we crave the esteem of other people, especially those near and dear to us. Nevertheless, communities still function to provide a shared life, including experiences and vocabulary that shape moral vision and behavior. Just as children learn morality first from their parents, so too adults learn to discern what is moral and gain the motivation to work for moral goals from their leaders and their other moral models.
Nobody is perfect, of course, and part of the task in seeking moral leadership is to understand that specific people may be ideal in certain ways and not in others. When political and religious leaders are shown to have moral faults, this sometimes unfairly and unrealistically undermines our appreciation of their real moral leadership in other matters. Thus the leadership in civil rights shown by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson should not be forgotten just because they were each involved in morally questionable behavior in other aspects of their lives.
Similarly, Judaism uses leaders like the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses, other biblical people, and rabbinic figures throughout the ages as models of ideal behavior and, importantly, also as models of what happens when you do something morally wrong. It is not only people with specific offices in society who influence us morally. Teachers, counselors, friends, and even our children and students can show us how to behave.
General Values, Maxims, and Theories. The Torah announces some general moral values that should inform all our actions—values like formal and substantive justice, saving lives, caring for the needy, respect for parents and elders, honesty in business and in personal relations, truth telling, and education of children and adults.
The biblical Book of Proverbs and the tractate of the Mishnah c. Some medieval and modern Jewish thinkers formulated complete theories of morality, depicting a full conception of the good person and the good community, together with justifications for seeing them in that particular way and the modes of educating people to follow the right path.
As in other Western religions, for Judaism God is central not only to defining the good and the right, but also to creating the moral person. God does that in several ways. Nothing can be hidden from God, and God cannot be deceived. Moreover, God holds the power of ultimate reward and punishment. To do the right thing just to avoid punishment or to gain reward is clearly not acting out of a high moral motive, but such actions may nevertheless produce good results.
Moreover, the Rabbis state many times over that even doing the right thing for the wrong reason has its merit, for eventually correct moral habits may create a moral person who does the right thing for the right reason. God also contributes to the creation of moral character in serving as a model for us. Secret things belong to the Lord, our God, but that which has been revealed is for us and for our children forever to carry out the words of this Torah. Ultimately, though, God serves to shape moral character by entering into a loving relationship with us. That is, the Covenant is not only a legal document, with provisions for those who abide by it and those who do not; the Covenant announces formal recognition of a relationship that has existed for a long while and that is intended to last, much as a covenant of marriage does.
Relationships, especially intense ones like marriage, create mutual obligations that are fulfilled by the partners sometimes grudgingly but often lovingly, with no thought of a quid pro quo return. In moral terms, we then become the kind of people who seek to do both the right and the good, not out of hope for reward, but simply because that is the kind of people we are and the kind of relationships we have.
Maimonides’ Appreciation for Medicine
Along with theology comes a life of prayer. Jews are commanded to pray three times each day, with four services on Sabbaths, Festivals, and the New Year, and five on the Day of Atonement. Aside from the spiritual nourishment, intellectual stimulation, aesthetic experience, and communal contact that Jewish prayer brings, it also serves several significant moral functions.
One of these is moral education.
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Until the twentieth century, most Jews could not afford to attend formal schooling beyond ten years of age. Since the printing press was not invented until or so, Jews could not learn about the Jewish tradition through reading books either. As a result, the Rabbis created a framework of three biblical paragraphs constituting the Shema and twenty-two single-line blessings surrounding the Shema and constituting the Amidah , so that Jews would have an easily memorized formula to teach them the essence of Jewish belief.
In fact, that outline is as close as Judaism ever got to a creed, an official statement of Jewish beliefs. That alone should help them focus on the important things in life rather than the partial goods to which they may devote too much energy. Prayer also serves as a way for people to confront what they have done wrong and to muster the courage to go through the process of teshuvah , return to the proper path and to the good graces of God and the community. People sometimes are stymied by their sins and by the guilt they feel.
Jewish liturgy has Jews asking God to forgive our sins three times each day. Such confessional prayers enable people to relieve the guilt involved in sin so that they can repair whatever harm they have done and take steps to act better in the future. While family, community, authority figures, and even God are used by other societies to create moral character, albeit in different ways and degrees than Judaism uses those elements, study is one Jewish method for creating moral people that few other societies use.
Moreover, this is an ancient Jewish method, stemming from the Torah itself. The Torah was not given to a group of elders who alone would know it; it was rather given to the entire People Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. By the Second Temple period the Torah was actually read much more often than that, with small sections read on Saturday afternoons and on the mornings of the market days, Mondays and Thursdays, and larger sections read every Sabbath and Festival morning. These selections were arranged so that the entire Torah would be read once each year—or, for some communities, every three years.
The reading would commonly include a translation into the vernacular and, on the Sabbath and Festivals, a lesson or homily based on the section chanted that day. This helped to ensure that the reading was not merely a mechanical act, but rather a truly educational experience. All of these public readings were part of the regular service, and so Jewish worship is characterized by the combination of prayer and study. Moreover, the Pharisees made study an end in itself. These are the deeds for which there is no prescribed measure: leaving crops at the corner of the field for the poor…doing deeds of lovingkindness, and studying Torah.
These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; attending the house of study punctually, morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife.
And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all. Which one of them is most beloved before You? The relationship between study and morality goes in both directions: study can refine moral sensitivity and buttress the drive to act morally; conversely, morality is a prerequisite for appropriate teaching and study.
Maimonides expresses this latter point explicitly:. We teach Torah only to a student who is morally fit and pleasant in his ways, or to a student who knows nothing [and therefore may become such a person with learning]. But if the student goes in ways that are not good, we bring him back to the good path and lead him to the right way, and then we check him and [if he has corrected his ways] we bring him in to the school and teach him.
The Sages said: p. The most obvious goal of text study is to inform students about what is right and wrong, good and bad. In real life situations, values often clash, and so good judgment in resolving moral conflicts is a necessary asset of a moral person.
Two types of text study aid the development of moral judgment: dialectic texts e. Text study can also help to motivate people to act morally by teaching them specifically what to do and what to avoid, by creating a community of learners who care about each other and the tradition they are studying and are thus willing to forego what they would like to do and do what they would prefer not to do in order to remain part of their community, and by presenting ideals and moral models to which to aspire.
Study can teach students such values as self-discipline, the value and pleasure of work, modesty, sociability, team spirit, caution, and exactitude. Depending on how the study is done, it can also teach students either to accept authority or to question it. Law is the other methodology to shape moral thinking and action that is employed by Judaism in ways that differ at least in degree, if not in kind, from other traditons. Judaism puts a great deal of emphasis on law as a moral tool—more than most other traditions, but with close parallels to Islam and Confucianism.
Moreover, while classical Christian texts have a very negative view of law, in Judaism law is both important and sweet—indeed, as Jewish liturgy portrays it, a gift from God. Here are some of the ways that Jewish law aids in defining and motivating morality: Law defines and enforces minimal standards. The most obvious contribution is simply that Jewish law establishes a minimum standard of practice. This is important from a moral standpoint because many moral values can only be realized through the mutual action of a group of people, and a minimum moral standard that is enforced as law enables the society to secure the cooperation necessary for such moral attainment.
Furthermore, there is an objective value to a beneficent act, whether it is done for the right reason or not. Consequently, establishing a minimum standard of moral practice through legislation provides for at least some concrete manifestations of conduct in tune with the dictates of morality, even if that conduct is not moral in the full sense of the word for lack of proper intention. That, however, would involve a serious blindness to the realm of morality that would probably not be cured by removing the legal trappings from the minimum standards.
Moreover, Judaism guards against such an abuse through its requirements of public and private study of the Bible and other morally enriching literature, through liturgy and sermons, and through making the minimal requirements of action rather demanding in the first place! Law helps to actualize moral ideals. But it is not just on a minimal level that law is important for morality; law is crucial at every level of moral aspiration in order to translate moral values into concrete modes of behavior.
The prophets enunciated lofty values, and we rightly feel edified and uplifted when we read their words or those of other great moral teachers in each generation. But the vast majority of life is lived between these two extremes of moral awareness as we pursue our daily tasks.
Consequently, if that edification and chastening are going to contribute to a better world in any significant way, they must be translated into the realm of day-to-day activities. We ordinarily do not have sufficient time or self-awareness to think seriously about what we are doing, and hence a regimen of concrete laws that articulate what we should do in a variety of circumstances can often enable us to act morally when we would not ordinarily do so. Rabbi Morris Adler has articulated this point well:.
That is for the saint and the mystic. More fundamentally, religion must mean transposing to a higher level of spiritual awareness and ethical sensitivity the entire plateau of daily living by the generality of men. Idolatry is defeated not by recognition of its intellectual absurdity alone, but by a life that expresses itself in service to God. Selfishness and greed are overcome not by professions of a larger view but by disciplines that direct our energies, our wills, and our actions outward and upward. Law provides a forum for weighing conflicting moral values and setting moral priorities.
Until now we have spoken about areas in which the moral norm is more or less clear and the problem is one of realizing those norms. Many situations, however, present a conflict of moral values, and it must be determined which value will take precedence over which, and under what circumstances. Nonlegal moral systems usually offer some mechanism for treating moral conflicts, but they often depend on the sensitivity and analytic ability of an authority figure or each individual.
By contrast, the law provides a format for deciding such issues publicly , thus ensuring that many minds of varying convictions will be brought to bear on the issue.
This does not guarantee wisdom, but it does at least provide a greater measure of objectivity and hence a more thorough consideration of the relevant elements. Law gives moral norms a sense of the immediate and the real. Issues are often joined more clearly in court than they are in moral treatises or announcements of policy because the realities with which the decision deals are dramatically evident p. In contrast, a court ruling is specific and addressed to a real situation.
In fact, much of the sheer wisdom of the Rabbinic tradition can be attributed to the fact that the Rabbis served as judges as well as scholars and teachers. Of course, how to apply a precedent to a new case is not always clear, but the legal context adds a sense of immediacy and reality to moral deliberation.