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Character: A Discussion Guide

This study guide for the “Character” Focus section contains background information, questions for discussion, and additional resources.

A. Overview 
This "Focus" section tells us what character attributes to value and how to achieve them.

Mark this from The Random House Dictionary, 1987: char-ac-ter 1. the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing. 2. one such feature or trait; characteristic. 3. moral or ethical quality. 4. qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity. 5.reputation. 6. good repute.

Thus, your character is nothing more-–but also nothing less-–than the sum of traits that define your unique essence, with one significant addition: the term as defined above-–and as used in the "Character" section and in this guide-–always connotes positive, or morally desirable attributes. Further, and as the authors in this section stress, character is essentially an aspiration, a process that points to perfection but never quite gets there because humans are capable of failure and capable of evil. The task is to minimize the influence of your yetzer hara-–the evil inclination--and to maximize the expression of your yetzer tov-–the inclination to good.

Character development and achieving moral behavior, both deeply rooted in Jewish teaching, also concern parents and educators generally. In the United States, for example, achieving these goals became a national priority as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of the U. S. Congress (signed into law January 2002), which included "Skills for Life" among its educational targets. For educators, that means helping students internalize a host of values organized in "Six Pillars of Character" that accord well with Jewish expectations:

  • Trustworthiness: honesty, integrity, reliability (promise-keeping), loyalty
  • Respect: civility, courtesy, decency, dignity & autonomy, tolerance & acceptance
  • Responsibility: accountability, pursuit of excellence, self-restraint
  • Fairness: impartiality, equity 
  • Caring 
  • Citizenship

While the "Focus" articles approach character development from a variety of perspectives, the understandings they share suggest three "Big Ideas" to explore:

  1. Each person is alone responsible for his or her actions.
  2. Overcoming the evil inclination is a gradual process, requires diligence, and helps us approach the ideal set by God. 
  3. God demands proper (ethical) behavior down to the smallest detail of daily pursuit.

B. Summaries

1. '13 Ways to Become a Good Person' by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin 
Citing Torah's view that human nature is morally neutral, Rabbi Telushkin invokes Jewish sources that show us how to control the evil impulse and harness the good. Much of the success in this quest depends on practicing self-awareness, which empowers us to modify behavior appropriately so as to improve character --"the goal of life." 

Rabbi Telushkin provides thirteen practical ways, drawn from Jewish wisdom, to start on the path to becoming a good person. They emphasize repeating good deeds, surrounding yourself with people who practice goodness and wisdom, placing others before yourself, understanding your place in the larger scheme of things, and becoming aware of your motivations for acting one way or another. 

Recording your behaviors in a "character journal" can focus your efforts, help you avoid improper choices, and provide a framework for seeing God as the "ultimate biblical model for character building." 

2. Sidebar 1: '5 Common Character Weaknesses' by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Rabbi Telushkin warns that there is a flip side to building character: the negative character traits that get in the way of achieving the goal. These impediments are easy to recognize because we've often experienced each in some degree. Overcoming the obstacles to character development lies in being aware of your behaviors and in concerted effort to avoid the pitfalls.  

3. Sidebar 2: 'Questioning Your Character' by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin 
Knowing which behaviors are good and which ones are bad is only the beginning of the process of character development. Self-assessment is an essential ingredient. Rabbi Telushkin's 18-item check list challenges you to be honestly introspective about your shortcomings and is an action plan for the hard work needed to become a better person.  

4. Sidebar 3: 'Perfection is Not the Goal' by Rabbi Jan Katzew 
Drawing on Jewish teaching, Rabbi Katzew reminds us that while character development is an essential life goal, it is a never-ending process whose objectives we may never entirely achieve. However, although perfection may always be beyond reach, being good is not, and we are not at liberty to desist from the task of self-improvement. We are capable of change and are obligated to seek a life of ethical balance in which our better self becomes more active than our yetzer hara, a balance that can help us begin to realize our potential as human beings created in the Divine image. In this way we will do "what is right and good in the sight of God."  

5. 'I, Jacob' by Peter Pitzele 
In Pitzele's midrash (moral commentary) on the account of Jacob's encounter with God (Genesis 35:25-32), Jacob considers his troubled life, acknowledges his imperfection-–the limp imposed by his God-wrestling—and reflects on its impact on the rest of his life. Assessing the consequences of his visible handicap, Jacob rehearses his many failures. Never able to escape the sign of his infirmity, Jacob wonders whether his affliction is blessing or curse. Acknowledging that he is less than perfect, Jacob vacillates between bemoaning his fate and accepting his shortcomings. He comes to understand that while he can never achieve perfection, he is capable of struggling to achieve it, that he can redress failure through teshuvah (returning to God), that we are all God-limpers and God-wrestlers, that the ultimate question is, "How do you limp?"  

6. 'Whistleblowing in Washington' by Jesselyn Radack 
Radack's account of her personal crisis of character takes us beyond theoretical discussions about choice and doing the right thing and plunges us into her real world of uncertainty, fear, and God-wrestling. As a legal advisor to the U.S. Justice Department in 2001, she informed the FBI repeatedly that they could not question John Walker Lindh, the celebrated "American Taliban," in the absence of counsel retained by his father. The FBI nevertheless proceeded while assuring the public that it was protecting Lindh's rights. As Lindh's trial progressed, Radack realized that the FBI had not informed the court about Lindh's attorney or about her official opinion. 

Recalling a verse in her bat mitzvah portion, "You shall not follow the majority for evil, and you shall not follow many to pervert [justice]" (Exodus 22:3), Radack chose to blow the whistle and risk losing a career rather than remain silent and be partner to a miscarriage of justice. Drawing strength from teachers and the Jewish tradition, she steadfastly believes that she made the only choice. She continues to pay the price for choosing conscience over career.  

7. 'A Torah of the Heart' by Rabbi Eric Yoffie 
Rabbi Yoffie's parents helped shape his values, Yet, as a young rabbinical student, he was unable to find the spiritual guidance he sought, or answers to his questions about God, tradition, worship, and faith. He ultimately found support and sustenance in a personal bond forged with his Hebrew professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who understood the importance of listening with patience and sympathy to one struggling for the right path and who taught him that his challenge was to overcome doubt and define the Torah he would teach the Jewish people. This caring and engaged teacher helped him to understand that he was not alone in his quest, that he could not expect certainty while struggling with theology, and that only he could determine his religious goals. Most important among the many things he learned from his teacher is that while you can find love of Torah in the text itself, it is insufficient without "the care and embrace of those who teach Torah." Today, as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, he continues to measure his relationships with those who seek answers against the model his understanding teacher provided.  

8. Rabbi Bulman's Kiss & Other Lessons of a Newport News Childhood' by Rabbi David Ellenson 
Rabbi Ellenson reflects on the values imprinted on him by caring teachers and role models—values which guide his character to this day. The HUC-JIR president tries to bring to his students the passion and joy of Torah study that he learned from a childhood teacher. From another formative role model he learned to extend dignity to all, because each person, created in God's image and despite personal limitations, can be God's partner in repairing the world. 

Growing up in Virginia in the 1950s, Ellenson witnessed how an elected official suffered in the press and among his friends when he told his constituency to obey the law of the land and respect school integration. The experience presented the eleven-year old with a "profile in courage" that strengthens him to this day to speak out on moral issues; it also reminds him to behave with humanity even when no one else does. The moral anchors he learned in childhood help him define the virtues of character that he tries to exhibit: kindness, love of people, courage, leadership, gratitude, fairness, persistence, and love of learning.  

9. 'Still Trying to be a Mensch' by Rabbi Jack Stern 
A childhood life-threatening illness left Stern with a short leg and limited hip mobility. He recounts how he translated the care and concern he received from parents, friends, and medical personnel into a paradigm to see disabled people as "normal" and to appreciate the power of "constructive nurturing," a lesson that led him to an early life of social action. While old stereotypes sometimes intrude upon best intentions, Rabbi Stern is able to exorcise these stumbling blocks by recalling the humiliation of a Black childhood playmate who was forbidden by White adults to play with him and his friends. 

Learning how to be a mensch (Yiddish: person of high character, considerate, honest, upright) is never-ending and sometimes unexpected, but lessons abound if we are alert to them. Rabbi Stern learned moral responsibility from a mother who upbraided her son in court for not accepting responsibility; from his wife, who counseled him to be honestly introspective so as to react appropriately to criticism; and from a woman worse off than he, who put his own obstacles in perspective. Rabbi Stern concludes that character is "a work in progress."  

10. 'How to Become the Person You Want to Be' by Rabbi Edythe Mencher 
Rabbi Mencher's vignettes demonstrate that spiritual growth (i.e. character development) takes place not in a vacuum but in "the context of wholesome relationship to others." She also teaches that character-building usually happens in the context of problem-solving rather than from academic discussions about morality.

In beginning the process of character change, Rabbi Mencher explains that most changes take place slowly and incrementally, but nonetheless change is indeed possible. It was this insight—specifically the noting of systemic change in nature--that gave a young shepherd named Akiva the confidence to overcome his obstacles and become one of our great teachers. Similarly, she says, we can overcome roadblocks to character development if our desire to do so is coupled with an awareness of the lessons in the world around us and our acknowledging that change is part of life. Another story emphasizes that defensiveness and fear of change are barriers to character development; that sometimes personal qualities we tend to think of as “positive” can have adverse effects if taken to extremes; and that small changes in behavior can lead to character growth. A third story reminds us of the dangers of choosing business obligations over the needs of family; that family interactions present opportunities to change for the better; and we need to realize the essential value of others and respond to them accordingly. We remove stumbling blocks in our relationship with others "one small character trait at a time."

C. "Big Ideas" to Explore

1. Each person is responsible for his or her actions. 

The biblical prophets unambiguously championed personal responsibility. For example:

  • In those days, they shall no longer say, "Fathers have eaten unripe grapes, and the teeth of the children shall be set on edge." But each man shall die for his iniquity; whoever eats the unripe grapes - his teeth shall be set on edge. -Jeremiah 31:28,29
  • The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent's guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child's guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone. –Ezekiel 18:20
  • The righteous shall live by his faith. –Habakkuk 57:1
  • He answered, "Heave me overboard and the sea will calm down for you; for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on my account.” –Jonah 1:12

For Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, responsibility is a consequence of freedom: The root of Jewish teaching about human beings is that God "made" us free...Because we are free, we are responsible for our acts...that's why we feel so bad when we've broken something and lied about it or when we've told a secret we'd sworn to keep. Being responsible for our acts brings us our glory and our guilt. No wonder we keep wanting to blame other people for the evil we do. The Bible has Adam say, when God accuses him of eating from the forbidden tree, "That woman you gave me, she made me eat from it"(Gen. 3:12). Judaism knows there are many influences on us. Despite them, it insists that we are free and so, responsible. -Borowitz (1979), pg. 7

In my own liberal Jewish philosophy, personal autonomy has emerged as the most fundamental intellectual theme. Other thinkers believe that accommodating Judaism to science or the Holocaust or the State of Israel ought to be our major conceptual focus. For all their importance, I would argue that none of these issues deserves priority over the need to clarify the meaning and practice of personal self-determination within the people of Israel's continuing Covenant relationship with God. -Borowitz (1983), pg. 256

Freedom and choice are inescapable aspects of the human condition. Gough, for example, assumes that personal responsibility is primary, arguing that a good-person status is not only your major mission in life but is up to you to achieve.

Using your freedom to choose is the motif of Arendt's exposition of Adolph Eichmann's "I-was-just-following-orders" defense in his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 (see Hausner): What we have demanded in these trials...is that human beings be capable of telling right from wrong even when all they have to guide them is their own judgment, which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them….Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely....They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented. -Arendt, pgs. 294-5

That evil can become banal does not excuse its perpetrators, just as the banality of goodness does not diminish the imperative to be good. A society that tolerates evil makes it easier for evil to occur; a social authority that tolerates good facilitates doing good. "Legitimate social authority-–hierarchal or peer authority -–facilitates both antisocial and prosocial behavior." –Blumenthal, pg. 45. For this reason-–and because we are commanded--Judaism expects us to choose acts of mundane goodness that will repair the world.

Nevertheless, evil behaviors occur in "good" societies and people rise to goodness in "bad" societies. Elie Wiesel emphasizes: "One of the perplexing questions to emerge from the Holocaust is what led some people to reach out and help victims while others turned their backs or became perpetrators. [Blumenthal] challenges readers to confront their own behavior and ask whether they live their lives in a way that facilitates the doing of good." –Blumenthal, dust jacket

Blumenthal asserts that "Prosocial attitudes must be 'carefully taught.' No one is born with a prosocial orientation....What is the teaching of goodness? What is the ideology of caring? The social-scientific and historical evidence suggest five such teachings.

  • personal competence-–self-esteem, internal locus of control, certainty
  • commitment to intelligent moral judgment-–thinking through problems in a framework of moral categories
  • extensivity--inclusiveness, attachment, connectedness, openness, acceptance and diversity
  • empathy--variously defined, but generally emotional and/or cognitive compassion, sympathy, or pity for another
  • righteous anger-–also called moral outrage, the principle of justice, empathic anger”  –Blumenthal, pgs. 66ff

Questions for Discussion

  1. How does Rabbi Telushkin help you understand the twin ideas of choice and responsibility?
  2. Jesselyn Radack chose conscience over career, expressing Blumenthal's teaching about commitment to moral judgment. Where did she learn this? How can you improve the world by the choices you make?
  3. Rabbi Ellenson talks about "Hineini" and "be human." Explain what these have to do with free will and developing a good character.
  4. Rabbi Stern discusses avoiding the big pitfalls and minding the smaller potholes. Both are conscious decisions. List criteria that might help you tell the one from the other. Give examples of each from your own life.
  5. Rabbi Katzew says that a righteous person "is not holier than thou." Explain. To which of Blumenthal's "teachings" does this idea relate? How?
  6. Explain how both Rabbi Yoffie and Rabbi Stern's understandings of being a rabbi illustrate Blumenthal's idea of empathy. How have you expressed this teaching in your own interactions?
  7. Which of Rabbi Stern's experiences suggest episodes of what Blumenthal calls righteous anger? Which of Rabbi Ellenson's? Describe experiences in which you experienced moral outrage. How did you respond?

2. Overcoming the evil inclination is a gradual process, requires diligence and helps us approach the ideal set by God.

The No Child Left Behind Act (see above) triggered a massive effort by educators to produce a wide range of age-appropriate learning materials and led to the formation of the CHARACTER COUNTS! coalition, a project of the non-profit, non-sectarian Josephson Institute of Ethics (www.josephsoninstitute.org). Wes Hanson, editor of the Institute's basic primer, Making Ethical Decisions, notes in the introduction: Making ethical decisions requires the ability to make distinctions between competing choices. It requires training, in the home and beyond.

Yet however much the material is reworked, the real work remains with you. No one can simply read about ethics and become ethical. It's not that easy. People have to make many decisions under economic, professional and social pressure. Rationalization and laziness are constant temptations. But making ethical decisions is worth it if you want a better life and a better world. Keep in mind that whether for good or ill, change is always just a decision away.

Hanson's assumptions about character-development mirror Jewish teaching:

  • Character development must be a purposeful undertaking, as we learn: Justice, justice you will pursue. Deuteronomy 16:20.
  • The task has no end and knows no boundaries of place, as V'ahavta mandates: Teach your children diligently while in your house, on the road, at night and in the daytime. Deuteronomy 6:7.
  • Decision-making is integral to the process, as our ancestors knew: I have set before you this day life and good and death and evil...you shall choose life that you and your offspring will live. Deuteronomy 30:15,19.

Thus, the tradition-–based on the idea of One God--enforces what modern education knows about developing good character. Note Wurzburger: I believe that, based upon Maimonides' interpretation of the biblical text, the verse "thou shalt walk in His ways" 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."

Jewish monotheism represents a radically different approach to religion. Its novelty consisted not primarily in the substitution of the belief in one God for the plurality of gods worshiped in polytheism. What was even more revolutionary in the Jewish conception of monotheism was… the attribution of moral perfection to God. –Wurzburger, pgs. 3-4

Questions for Discussion

  1. Study paragraphs 1 – 9 in Rabbi Telushkin’s article (1). Explain how these apply to the idea of gradualism in character development.
  2. Explain what Rabbi Katzew means by "perpetual self-improvement." Why is this a Jewish pursuit?
  3. How can you begin the process of improving yourself? Which of the items in Rabbi Telushkin’s check list (3) can you work on to achieve a better character? Explain.
  4. Explain Rabbi Yoffie's assertion that you should not expect easy answers. What, then, is the point of struggling with hard issues?
  5. Rabbi Ellenson observes that limited and imperfect people can still be God's partners. How?
  6. Rabbi Ellenson believes that imperfect people can teach morality. Explain.
  7. Rabbi Stern learned to make the best of the not-so-good. Is that a valid goal? Explain. Describe times when you did this. How did you feel about your decision?
  8. Rabbi Mencher says that self-actualization is a slow process that requires awareness. Explain, drawing on your own experiences.
  9. Peter Pitzele's Jacob laments that his failings are evident to everybody. How does he respond inwardly to his faults? How do you respond to your faults?
  10. Explain Jacob's assertion, in Pitzele, that we are all God-wrestlers and God-limpers. Do you agree?

3. God demands proper (ethical) behavior down to the smallest detail of daily pursuit. 

That the Jewish goal of human behavior is to move the world closer to the ideal of perfection is clear from Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code. In this, and in other ways, Jews are different from other groups, a reality analyzed by Hertzberg & Hirt-Manheimer: Do the Jews make any contribution to anti-Semitism? The answer is, fundamentally and unavoidably, yes. Their contribution to Jew-hatred is that they insist on being Jews; by definition they challenge the dominant dogmas. From the very beginning, when Abraham broke the idols of his father, Terah, he insisted that the faith in the one God is true and paganism is false. He challenged the culture around him...So long as Jews cling to their own faith and their own values, they call into question the majority faith and culture.

Jews have the right to be different and to dissent from the majority culture. They have the right to demand that the majority culture accept them, and other people in the minority, for who they are. The test of a democratic society is its capacity to deal justly with people who are different, and especially those who question the majority's most deeply held assumptions. –Hertzberg & Hirt-Manheimer, pgs. 6-7

Questions for Discussion

  1. See "Healing the World" in Reform Judaism magazine, Winter 2005; and the discussion guide athttp://reformjudaismmag.org (access “Past Issues” and click on “Winter 2005”)
  2. In what ways did Jesselyn Radack defy prevailing wisdom?
  3. Which of these teachings from Pirkei Avot (paraphrased) appear to depart from conventional thinking or practice? Explain.
    • If I am only for myself, what am I? -1:14
    • Hating another removes you from this world. 2:16
    • Be part of your community. 2:4
    • A good heart is the best trait you can acquire. 2:9
    • Another person's property should be as precious to you as your own. 2:12
    • The person whose deeds exceed wisdom will have wisdom that endures. 3:9 
    • The wise person learns from others. The strong person controls the evil inclination. One who accepts his/her portion in life is rich. One who honors others deserves honor. 4:1
    • Be humble in the presence of others. 4:10

D. Resources 

Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, Penguin Books, 1994 edition).

David R. Blumenthal. The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Press, 1999).

Eugene B. Borowitz. Understanding Judaism (New York, UAHC Press, 1979).

Eugene B. Borowitz. Choices in Modern Jewish Thought (New York, Behrman House, 1983).

Russell W. Gough. Character is Destiny: The Value of Personal Ethics in Everyday Life (Rocklin, CA. Prima Publishing, 1998).

Gideon Hausner. Justice in Jerusalem (New York, Harper & Row, 1966).

Arthur Hertzberg & Aron Hirt-Manheimer. Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1998). 

Walter S. Wurzburger. Ethics of Responsibility (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1994).

See also: Seymour Rossel & Judy Dick. Sefer Ha-Aggadah: The Book of Legends for Young Readers (New York, UAHC Press, 1996): two volumes of selected gems of character instruction adapted from Sefer Ha-Aggadah, compiled by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky in 1908-1911, translated by William Braude, and published in one volume by Schocken Books in 1992.