The search for ethical—moral—behavior requires us to assess everything we do to make sure not to interfere with “bringing Torah into the world.” To do otherwise denies Torah’s mandates; our relationship to God; and God’s blueprint for a just, humane, compassionate society based on the rule of law. As author Rabbi Walter S. Wurzberger puts it, “Halakhah represents not merely ‘the Way of God’…it also functions as a way to God…to a life dedicated to responding to Him through obedience to His commandments and imitation of His ways….The verse ‘Thou shalt walk in His ways’ (Deuteronomy 28:9) challenges us to cultivate an ‘ethics of responsibility.’ More is required than mere compliance with the explicit rules prescribed by Halakhah. We are commanded to engage in a never-ending quest for moral perfection, which transcends the requirements of an ‘ethics of obedience.’”
God’s demand for right living set ancient Israel apart from the other nations. Wurzberger notes, “Jewish monotheism represents a radically different approach to religion…not primarily in the substitution of the belief in one God for…polytheism. What was even more revolutionary…was, as against the pagan emphasis upon divine power, the attribution of moral perfection to God.”
What makes this Jewish position a “higher ethical mandate”?
Psalm 8:5-6 says that humans are “little less than the divine (or, the angels).” The tradition also says we are imperfect: although we are given a soul—God’s “breath of life”—we are also formed from the “dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7). We call our inherent opposing forces the good inclinations (yetzer tov) and the evil inclinations (yetzer hara). As Rabbi Jack Stern says, “The ‘good instinct’ [is the capacity] to rise above our own animal selves and to set limits and to tame our own primal urges….[This] constitutes the basis of the ethical dimension of human experience.”
How do we find wholeness? In Reform Judaism Summer 1999, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin says, ”We must first make peace with that dark side, with what Carl Jung called ‘the shadow.’ We must understand it, know it, even embrace it. As our sages said, without the yetzer hara, the world could not exist. The disgruntled royal author of the Book of Ecclesiastes muses: ‘And I saw that all labor, and every skill in work, comes from a man’s envy of his neighbor.’ And we read in Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7): ‘Without the evil inclination, no one would father a child, build a house, or make a career.’…The question is not how do we reach moral perfection. The question is: How do we take the conflicting urges within us and make of them a ladder that can lift us up to something higher?…When we wrestle with our dark sides, we come home to ourselves. This is the Jewish path to virtue.”
Judaism regards improving character as the goal of life, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says. “As the Midrash teaches, ‘The Torah’s commandments were not given to humankind for any purpose other than to refine people’” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1). In Reform Judaism Spring 2006, Rabbi Telushkin recommends 13 paths toward becoming a person of goodness:
- Do good deeds often.
- Cultivate the friendship of people who are both good and wise.
- Avoid people with bad character and unkind disposition.
- Live up to the reputation to which you aspire.
- See every act you do as one of great significance.
- If you offer personal prayers to God for your own well-being and success, pray for others before you pray for yourself.
- Cultivate and develop your moral strengths.
- Keep a daily “character journal” focusing exclusively on the area in which you wish to improve yourself.
- When trying to correct a bad trait, temporarily embrace the opposite extreme.
- Avoid even sins that seem minor, because, as a rabbinic maxim teaches, “One sin will lead to another” (Pirkei Avot 4:2).
- When confronted with a situation that leaves you uncertain as to whether you are taking the right action, ask yourself one question: “What is motivating me to act in this way, my yetzer tov or my yetzer hara?”
- Look at your life from the future. Strive to leave a legacy of goodness.
- Emulate God. Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21), so should we clothe those who lack adequate clothing; just as God visited Abraham when he was weak (Genesis 18:1), so should we visit the sick.
Still, when it comes to character, says Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of the URJ Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, “perfection is neither an expectation nor a goal in Jewish tradition….Maimonides taught that a tzaddik, a righteous person, is someone whose merits exceed his or her demands, someone who makes the world measurably better….Even when we err, Talmud informs us, good can result: ‘Out of doing good for an ulterior motive, a person will eventually do good for its own sake’” (BT Pesachim 50b).
A less known but authentic Jewish path toward holiness emerged in the form of the Mussar movement founded in 19th-century Lithuania by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810–1883). Mussar, at its core a method of drawing oneself closer to God, focuses on the inner soul traits (such as patience, trust, truthfulness, humility) called middot that are “in our own personal spiritual curriculum—those that need some improvement if we are to be embodiments of the virtues Jewish tradition has set for us,” says Alan Morinis, founding director of The Mussar Institute. There are 3 stages of practice: 1) learning about the traits in one’s inner world that are at varying degrees of balance and wholeness; 2) making behavioral changes; 3) aiming to transform the impulse itself and thereby reach our highest spiritual potential. Today, an estimated 2 dozen Reform congregations and hundreds of Reform Jews are practicing Mussar.
How do we apply ethical Jewish principles to weighty issues like end-of-life decisions and stem cell research? “The key is to get specific…to apply an ethical ingredient that deserves to be factored into the final decision,” says Rabbi Jack Stern. Take, for example, the resolution on “Compassionate and Comfort Care Decisions at the End of Life” passed at the 1995 Union for Reform Judaism’s Atlanta Biennial: “There are those who, nearing the end of life’s journey, would choose [not] to live…those who cannot be cured of their disease but whose future promises nothing but pain and suffering. While acknowledging that many would choose not to endure such a life, most such choices do not need to be made when adequate palliative care and support can be provided. Guided by the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, we must strive toward an achievable goal, to provide a quality of life that is at least tolerable…Our effort must ensure that only rarely will that choice be beyond human strength. We assert that most of the tragic choices to end life can be avoided through the combined efforts of caring doctors, clergy, providers, family, and community” (see resolution).
And on the question of stem cell research, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, observes that its “opponents maintain that stem cell research as well as cloning are always ‘morally wrong’ because such research and cloning—in their opinion—diminish respect for human life by reducing human life ‘to a mere commodity.’” On the other hand, “Jewish religious tradition teaches that God sanctions medical science and applauds…efforts to ameliorate the physical condition…to manipulate the natural order for human ends…Jewish religious tradition applauds this as a good” (see article).
To guide discussion in the biomedical arena, the Union for Reform Judaism has prepared 14 Bio-Ethics Study Guides, relating Reform Judaism to key issues in emerging medical technology, from organ donation and cloning to genetic testing and the spiritual challenges of living with chronic illness.
Overview Questions for Discussion
- What’s the purpose of “ethical mandates”? How does fulfilling them bring Torah into the world?
- How can you know whether an intended action represents the highest ethical position?
- What does “imitation of God’s ways” mean to you? How can you do it?
- What qualities would you identify as your yetzer hara? Your yetzer tov? What helps you overcome your yetzer hara? What lessons above might you apply to your own life?
- Which of Rabbi Telushkin’s 13 steps do you practice? Which are most challenging? What might you work on?
- In making ethical decisions, does it help to know that Judaism doesn’t expect human beings to achieve moral perfection? What other ways does our tradition acknowledge human imperfection?
- Do you agree with Rabbi Yisrael Salanter that “ethical conduct based on Torah values is the essential goal of the Jewish people”? Explain.
- What is your position on stem cell research? Physician-assisted suicide? Cloning? What Jewish-based “ethical ingredients” do you apply in deriving your positions?
Section VIII Questions for Discussion
Are ethics central to your identity? Do you believe being a Reform Jew has made you a more ethical person?
1. Reform Judaism as a Source of Ethics: For Mike Sims, ethics and Reform are “inextricably bound.” Abbey Shepard-Smith’s ethics were shaped by At Camp Kee Tov (a Union-published religious school textbook by Helen Fine) because it helped her “put herself in the other person’s shoes.” Laurence Kaufman believes Reform Judaism does not make him more ethical but has given him resources to support “what I probably would have done anyway.” John Planer is guided by “compassionate altruism,” which he understands to be life’s purpose.
Does the source of your ethics matter? Do you believe being a Reform Jew, or being a Jew for that matter, has made you a more ethical person? Explain. Can you call yourself a Reform Jew without striving to live an ethical life?
How is “putting oneself in the other person’s shoes” a Jewish principle?
What do you believe is life’s purpose? What do you do about that commitment?
2. The Mussar Path: In her quest to become a better person, Barbara K. Shuman studies Mussar, a biblical term for “moral instruction,“ to help her balance traits such as humility, generosity, and trust. What traits would you say might be out of balance in your life? Does the Mussar path appeal to you?
3. Judaism & Values: Finding that “the critical dimension of values was overlooked” by psychology and philosophy, William Berkson turned to Jewish texts, where he found “all of the Jewish values and attitudes that I had always treasured.” He says the values he encountered—like chesed (kindness), rachamim (compassion), tzedek (justice) promote strong relationships. In what ways might each of these values “increase the sanctity of daily life?” Do you practice them? What might you do to bring them into your daily life?
4. Avoiding Misdeeds: Dawn Mollenkopf tries especially hard to behave appropriately because she considers herself an exemplar of Judaism in her community. She tries not to act hastily, to guard her tongue, to avoid hurting others. Do you regard yourself as an exemplar of Judaism in your community? What are other reasons for acting ethically regardless of where you live? Isaiah, 42:5 teaches, “I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.” Discuss 6 acts that will help you bring light to others.
Sims evokes the Enron collapse (a failure of business ethics) to demonstrate how “small misdeeds” can eventually lead to great calamities. Have you seen this happen in your own life or in the lives of friends or relatives? What went wrong? How can you guard against committing “minor” infractions?
Mollenkopf, Marzy Bauer, and Steve Arnold find it’s not always easy to do the right thing. Bauer talks of trying to find balance, Mollenkopf of teshuvah (repentance, or turning in a new direction). Arnold fights his habit of making excuses for his failings. What small misdeeds do you find hardest to avoid? What do you do when you’ve had an ethical lapse?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 things to avoid and 6 to do to make yourself a better person.
5. Forgiveness: Judy Fisher wants to treat others as she would like them to treat her. Her biggest problem is “forgiving myself and forgiving others.” Leviticus 19:18 teaches, “Love your fellow as yourself.” Some take the Hebrew to read, “as if he is yourself.” How does the teaching help you forgive those who wrong you—and forgive yourself—as a step in teshuvah?
How have Jewish ethical teachings and actions informed and enriched your life?
What Jewish ethical teachings do you think are important and should be passed on?
1. A Good Name, A Good Heart: John Planer suggests two teachings from Pirkei Avot: Strive to merit a good name, and have a good heart. Author R. Travers Herford, commenting on the phrase “good name,” says, “Crowns of Torah, priesthood and royalty are conferred on you, but a good name is the tribute paid to personal worth and upright character…it alone is indispensable.” On “good heart,” he says, “unselfish love in thought, feeling and act…it includes all the others.” Do you have a good name? Do you know others who do? How will you recognize such people? How can you acquire a good name? Discuss similar questions for “good heart.”
2. An Ethical Will: Judy Fisher and Laurence Kaufman want to convey their teachings in ethical wills. According to author Israel Abrahams, “writing testamentary directions for the religious and secular guidance of children …reflect the phases of Jewish experience and the literary and moral reactions to it through many centuries,“ but “the Jewish code of morality remains essentially the same throughout…a most effective vindication of the Jewish character.”
Judy Fisher’s ethical will includes family, Judaism, and community. Laurence Kaufman wants his children to do good without expecting reward, respond when called to action, and maintain ties to the community.
Guided by Reform Judaism’s Focus on Ethical Wills, Winter 1998 (for a copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org), compose an ethical will that discusses the values most important to your life which you’d like to pass on to your children, nieces, nephews, etc. Invite family members to react, add, change. Are Fisher’s and Kaufman’s teachings among those you would wish to pass on?