Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jewish Ethics by Menachem Kellner

I'm blogging every article in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, the essay on Jewish Ethics by Menachem Kellner is my muse.

1. What is Jewish Ethics?
When looking at ethical traditions such as Judaism, one is always confronted with the question: what is distinctively "Jewish" about a strand of ethical thought? There is always a tendency for particular traditions to either (a) reflect secular thought or (b) become absorbed into secular thought.

This is certainly a problem encountered when looking at modern Jewish scholarship. Modern Jewish scholarship has become predominantly secular, so it is not really worthwhile considering it as a separate branch of thought.

If we wish to locate a distinctively Jewish brand of ethics we must look, instead, to the Rabbinic and Biblical tradition. There, we find the Halakha, which is a highly ritualised set of behavioural restrictions encompassing diet, hygiene, dress, and also civil, criminal and moral laws. It is the Halakha that most clearly embodies "Jewish" ethical thinking.

2. The Biblical Roots
The Jewish Bible (roughly equivalent to the Christian Old Testament) is the foundational document for Judaism. And the ten commandments, handed-down to Moses at Mt. Sinai, are the foundation of biblical ethics.

A couple of things need to be said about these ten commandments. First, is that there are many many more commandments in the Bible. Indeed, there are many more within the book of Exodus. These tend to be overlooked. Second, of the ten commandments, six deal with what we might call "conventional moral matters", i.e. prohibitions against murder, theft, perjury and so forth. The other four commandments deal more explicitly with worship and respect, both of God and of one's parents.

It is with these worship-based commandments that Kellner thinks we find two of Judaism's major contributions to ethical thought: the Divine Command metaethics and the doctrine of Imitatio Dei.

The Divine Command metaethics makes God the source and origin of ethical truth. Kellner suggests that this follows from the idea of God creating us in his image. And it is this "creation in his image" that supports the doctrine of Imitatio Dei (imitation of God).

3. Imitatio Dei and the Golden Rule
One of the central messages in traditional Jewish thought is that the good and moral life is one in which we observe God's commands. It is through this observance that we imitate God and gain salvation.

The observance in question is not limited to what we are calling conventional morality, i.e. it is not just about killing, lying, thieving or fornicating. It involves observance of all the practical commands and edicts laid down in the Halakha. This includes the dietary prohibitions (Kosher), the restrictions on dress, the keeping of the sabbath and the guidelines for rearing livestock.

Thus, for Judaism, the imitation of God is worldly, pragmatic and quite precise. This can be contrasted with Christian and Platonic ideas of imitatio dei. For Platonists, we must try to abandon the worldly for it is impure, impermanent and imperfect. For Christians, God has become man in the body of Christ and this switches the goal from one of imitating God to one of imitating Christ.

One noteworthy development of the imitatio dei doctrine comes from the Rabbinic tradition. The story is told that Rabbi Hillel, when asked by a gentile to be taught the entire Torah, replied with admirable brevity:
What you dislike don't do to others; that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.
What we have here is a version of the Golden Rule. Arguably this is superior to the Christian variation because it is formulated in the negative, i.e. in terms of non-interference. It is suggested that this rule is an outgrowth of the imitatio dei doctrine: because we are all made in God's image, we all deserve equal moral respect.

There is, of course, much more to be said about Jewish history and the Jewish contribution to the intellectual world. However, once we move beyond the Biblical and Rabbinic foundation, we get a fractured and increasingly secularised picture.

The most important thing about traditional Jewish ethics is that it encompasses the pragmatic aspects of everyday life (diet, dress etc.) and does not separate this practical element from what we call morality.


  1. John D., this is my first comment on your blog. I enjoy reading your posts very much and I hope you won't stop any time soon. The reason I write this is because I don't really understand the following: "Arguably this is superior to the Christian variation because it is formulated in the negative, i.e. in terms of non-inference." Could you please be more explicit. I am not a philosopher, but I want to understand as much as I can about this domain. Thank you.

    P.S. I look foreward to seeing more on The Non-Existence of God series :)

  2. Actually, I was just repeating what Kellner says in his essay. He describes it as a personal idiosyncrasy because he doesn't like to be nagged.

    Maybe, this could be better justified by reference to liberal theories such as Mill's (i.e. those based on the harm principle). The idea is that (a) it is best to leave people discover their own path to personal fulfillment and (b) utopian ideologies -- such as, say, communism -- which try to actively interfere and change people for the better are nearly always disastrous.

    So, the Christian version of the Golden rule, with its positive "do unto others" formulation seems to allow for active interference; whereas Hillel's version, with its negative "do not do unto others" formulation, seems to be based on the idea of "let well alone".

    I seem to recall Karl Popper reached a similar conclusion in his two-volume work: The Open Society and Its Enemies.