Social Ethics and the Torah

Rabbi Simeon Ben Gamaliel stated that, “the world rests on three things, justice, truth, and peace”. This statement underpins Jewish social ethics.  

Jews believe that compassion and understanding are essential for the relationship between people, as “justice tempered with mercy” alone is not enough. The most distinguishing characteristics of the Jew and his way of life, the ancient rabbis stressed, were that s/he was merciful, modest and charitable. Unique ritual observances and disciplines are not spoken of. The Talmud states that the sanctification of God’s Name and the value of ritual observance and religious life are determined by the quality of the ethical and moral life of the Jew. Even if one was ritually observant and religiously learned, unethical or immoral behaviour would be seen as a desecration of the Divine Name (Hilul Hashem). It is said that the first question asked at the Last Judgement is whether one has “dealt justly with his neighbour” (Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a).

Hillel’s Golden Rule of Jewish ethics, “what is hateful to you, do not do to others” complements the law, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This law is almost unanimously seen as the basic pillar upon which the entire Torah is built. Some examples of the good deeds performed when observing this law are visiting the sick, arranging for the burial of the dead, comforting the bereaved, providing dowries for poor brides, and protecting the possessions of another as if they were his own. Nachmanides interprets this law to mean that we should pray that our fellow man should receive all those blessings we hope to receive ourselves, and that we should not allow ourselves to envy another for their good fortune, since envy and jealousy breed hatred.

Following from this, we learn of the prohibition against taking revenge. “You shall not take vengeance” (Leviticus 19:18):”Nor bear any grudge against the children of your people” (Leviticus). The Torah forbids us to bear a grudge or to desire revenge even though it is part of human nature to seek revenge, as both these attitudes are conducive to vindictiveness and malice.

Giving charity kindly and generously is our inescapable duty as Jews. “You shall not harden your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:7), “but you shall surely open wide your hand unto him” (Deuteronomy 15:8). A sense of charity is the distinguishing psychological feature of the Jew, being stamped into the very essence of his make-up. It is inconceivable to be a Jew and not be charitable. Jewish law states that the highest form of charity is to ensure that the recipient will need it only for a limited time. It is our responsibility to allow the poor to develop as much independence as possible.

As taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Noahide laws make us aware that we are all responsible for each other, both Jew and non-Jew. The rabbinic sages stressed that every human being is equal in worth to the whole world. From this we learn that we must think globally as well as adhere to our tradition, because we are all enmeshed. Globalisation has created a situation where there can no longer be such a thing as other people’s problems because they are all ours, but the development of our own culture and spirit is also our responsibility.

“Love thy neighbour”; “Hate not thy brother”; Avenge not”; “Bear no grudge”; “Love thy stranger” are interpreted by the rabbinic sages as revealing that the wellspring of all moral values is love. This is a love of all people from all nations, with no one excluded.

With love comes forgiveness and as stated in the Talmud Tractate (Megillah 28a), “a person who forgives others, heaven in turn forgives all his transgressions”. This explains why on Yom Kippur we need to seek forgiveness from our fellow man, to then be forgiven for the sins committed that were between us and God.

The Torah was given for the purpose of creating peaceful relationships among people as we read, “Its ways are the ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peaceful” (Mishle 3:17) (Talmud Tractate: Gittin 59b). Hatred, quarrelling and anger are condemned as unethical and potentially leading to murder (Talmud: Pesachim). Friendships, peace and reverence for all life, not just Jewish life, are considered to the highest benefit of man.

The reputation of a fellow man is sacred (Ex. xxiii. 1). From this we learn not to shame someone in public, and that a revengeful, relentless disposition is unethical. The opinion is given in the Talmud that shaming your fellow man is akin to murder. The spreading of evil reports, even if true, is forbidden, as is even listening to slanderous gossip. The prophetic appeal is to learn to do good deeds. 

Inequality of access to justice is not to be countenanced, and is stressed repeatedly in the Torah. Our decision-making always needs to consider the ethical component. It is a Torah violation to be a bystander when someone needs help, especially when a life is in danger. Mercy and kindness should be the defining qualities of every Jew, as we learn from the Talmud. “A person who refuses to practice kindness denies the fundamental belief of Judaism” (Midrash Kohelet: Rabbah 7). Related to this is the virtue of hospitality, “so great is hospitality that the Divine Presence rests even upon the false prophets” (when they are hospitable) (Rashi on Kings1:13:20).

Honesty and truthfulness are fundamental to Judaism. Forbidden are stealing, flattery, falsehood, perjury and false swearing, oppression, even if only in holding back overnight the hired man’s earnings.

In conclusion, Judaism teaches us:

  • Respect every human being
  • Do not gossip (lashon hora) because truth or lies can both be hurtful
  • Humility is a sign of confidence, essential for righteousness
  • Do not be a bystander when aid is necessary for survival
  • Gentleness creates benevolence
  • Compassion requires us to give of ourselves, not only materially
  • A charitable spirit engenders understanding, patience and love
  • Forgiveness shows moral restraint and strength, and is a necessary ingredient for love
  • Good manners show good morals