From Nishma Update, November 2014
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Many years ago, we raised the question, in INQUIRY: Is There A Distinctive Jewish Ethical Perspective?, Nishma Update 5755-2,
of whether there is a uniqueness to Jewish ethics. At the core of the
question would be the justifiable perception that ethics – our
understanding of what is proper in interpersonal behaviour – would seem
to be of a universal nature.. How can we, then, call an ethic ‘Jewish’?
Is there, thus, even a Jewish ethic? It would seem that ethics are
universal. Are there, then, no uniquely Jewish ethics?
In the article, we laid out some important areas for further
investigation in regard to this matter. The distinction in directives
between the Torah standard for Jews and the Noachide standard for
Non-Jews, for example, immediately raises a question in regard to the
universal nature of ethics. Such a distinction in itself, though, does
not inherently challenge the concept of a universal base to ethics. The
article also raised other debatable issues.
Over the years, we have often returned to this study, further
articulating what may be unique to the Torah presentation of ethical
concerns and directives. During this time, though, what we have also
further observed is a continuing absence of the in depth study of ethics
(and its consequences) within many segments of the Torah world. We are
not the only ones who have noticed this. The idea has even been
presented that this may be the result of the overriding concern for
Jewish identity within the community. If ethical behaviour does not
distinguish someone as a Jew, it will simply, as such, not be a focus of
education and discussion in that it is not seen as necessarily
fostering Jewish distinction (such as kashrut). Showing a
uniqueness to the Jewish ethical perspective thus may have additional
significance. Yet, despite this issue, it is still most important that
ethics, even if defined universally, is -- and is constantly recognized
as -- essential within Jewishness and within any understanding and
application of the Jewish legal system.
Nishma will be devoting much of its investigative and analytic efforts
this year to this topic of Jewish ethics. This is not to say that every
article we will write and/or every shiur we will present this
year will circle this subject but this consideration will be a focus of
which we will be conscious. Ethics is not simply a personal, solely
intuitive, perspective of right and wrong. Proper ethical conclusions
are the result of thought. It is important that such thought be part of
our Torah studies.