Judaism is much more than just a religion: it is a way of life. There is a correct Jewish way of doing everything, and Judaism has an attitude and response to every moral issue.

Ethics are concerned with human values and behaviour, and Jewish ethics define correct Jewish behaviour. There is a continual interaction between ethics and Halachah (Jewish law) because it is through the study of ethics that we come to discussions about the morals and principles of that law. From Biblical times, the Halachah strove to raise the moral conscience of the people through prescription and exhortation.

The question arises: To truly be an ethical Jew, is it sufficient to follow Halachah, or is it necessary in addition to subscribe to purely ethical principles, which may also be secular? There are different answers:

  • Rabbi Karelitz believed that the only way to become a truly ethical person was to strictly observe the law.
  • Maimonides believed that secular principles or morality may be useful, but they are only a set of social conventions. Only a divine law such as Halachah can bring a person to perfection in both body and soul.
  • Another view sees large areas of human behaviour as beyond the strict purview of Halachah. It states that there are certain rules or moral perceptions that cannot be explained by Halachah, but this does not mean that they are inferior or invalid.
Ethical personalities

According to Maimonides, there are four types of people:

  • The Natural Man, who has good intentions and acts instinctively towards others. He does not, however, follow any formal moral code of action.
  • The Functional Ethicist, who seeks correct behaviour by avoiding extreme situations and controlling his passions. He does not refer to any divine source of guidance.
  • The Imitator of God, who adopts God as his model. He makes careful decisions based on the rules of Halachah.
  • The Chassid, who is concerned with imitating God, but whose main concern is personal holiness. According to Maimonides, this person is a chacham, meaning a very wise person. This person gives selflessly and completely, acting lifnim mishurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law).

With advances in electronics, computers, nuclear physics and other scientific fields impacting on medical science, many changes have occurred that have lead to new and complex problems. We now have the means to change, modify and tamper with life, but to what extent should we?

The ethical questions surrounding the taking, giving or altering of human life are dealt with in bioethics. As Judaism was and is a life-affirming, life-oriented religion which holds each life to be of precious value, bioethics are of prime Jewish concern. The issues remain the same even if the medical options increase.

For Jews, the ultimate question relating to all bioethical issues is how much we are able to tamper with life, the sacred gift granted to us. Judaism does not have all the answers to these questions, and interpretations of Jewish teachings often differ, but our tradition offers moral and ethical insights which can be utilised in dealing with them.

Social Ethics

Judaism has an all-enveloping and passionate dedication to the ideal of justice. The moral imperative of justice was taught by the Jewish prophets. Moses taught the ideal of justice for the elimination of social inequities and for the moral guidance of the conduct of the individual. Personal and moral conscience are awakened by the indoctrination of the ethical values of justice, truth and peace.

Judaism also addresses in depth the obligations of the individual to other individuals. A Jew has a legal obligation to help someone in need, and to be a bystander in such a case is a Torah violation. Tradition states that every Jew should exhibit the characteristic of chesed, the ability to go beyond the requirement of the law to help others. That is why Jews are so often at the forefront of human rights movements and generally helping others. The Talmud states that mercy and kindness should be the defining qualities of every Jew.

Personal Relationship Ethics

Maimonides stated that “all moral principles concern the relationship of man to his neighbour”, being “given to man for the benefit of mankind”. Therefore it can be said that the practice of these principles by each Jew is mandatory. The rabbis claimed that the wellspring of all moral values was love, keeping to the same theme of “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “hate not thy brother”, “avenge not”, “bear no grudge” and “love the stranger”. Hillel urged Jews to “let the honour of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own”, meaning that every person should be his “brother’s keeper”. In keeping with this is the warning by the Talmudic sages about the destructive consequences of slander.

The rabbis stressed the necessity for people to help each other. In order to survive, all human beings must practice mutual aid. Rabbi Akiva argued that the prior duty of every person is to him/herself in order that s/he be able to care for others.

The ideal Jew should be gentle in thought, word, outlook, feeling and action; not merely in manner. In traditional Jewish thought the opposite of gentle is angry. The Bible tells us that “He who gives way to his anger shall be considered in thine eyes as an idolater.” Gentleness in response to provocation and insult is another ideal. This is illustrated by the Talmudic saying “If others speak evil of you, make no answer.”

Compassion, humility, a charitable spirit, forgiveness and good manners are also desirable qualities of the Jew in personal relationships.

Work and Business Ethics

Being ethical in business is an essential value in Judaism. Dealing honestly in business is considered more important by the Talmud than Shabbat observance, kashrut observance, or how much charity you give. The Talmud also states that the path to Jewish wisdom can be through the business world. The Midrash states that to be honest in business is considered as if you were to fulfil the entire Torah. Maimonides understood that being ethical in business is a vital component in being a Torah scholar. In fact, the punishment for not dealing fairly in business is equal to the punishment for adultery.

Environmental Ethics

From Bereishit (Genesis 1:28), the first chapter in the Torah, we see that God wants human beings to both use the natural world for their needs but at the same time to preserve the world and prevent its destruction. We need to work out how to achieve both. Destroying anything in the world needlessly is called ‘Bal tashchit’ in Hebrew and Jews are commanded “not to cause any damage or loss”.

Any use of the natural world or its resources that satisfies a legitimate human need is not considered destructive. A monetary benefit is considered a human need. This was agreed to and codified as law by Maimonides. Also, when the environment would be harmed without destruction taking place, it becomes legitimate. If when performing a mitzvah destruction occurs, it is considered legitimate. Two examples of this are the tearing of one’s shirt as a sign of mourning, and the burning of chametz before Passover.

Judaism has a heightened sensitivity to the environment, reflected by the Torah, and the Rabbis and their later rulings. Judaism created specific laws that are more sophisticated than most of the environmental laws that exist today.

The laws of sh’mittah, where the land must lie fallow every seven years, are to preserve the earth and make it more fertile. It is dictated that there must remain distance between city and rural areas to create a healthy ecological balance. Garbage must not pollute public property. Maimonides states that damage causing air pollution through smoke, dust, and noxious smells is not permitted even if no one protests. Water must not cause damage or pollution. Noise cannot create a hazard to the human environment.

The Midrash states that once the world is destroyed, the damage is irreparable. It is our ethical responsibility to prevent this happening.

  • BJE: Ethics section (contains several pages dealing with various aspects of Jewish ethics)
  • BPJE (Board of Progressive Jewish Education): Ethics
  • Ohr Somayach: Ethics (answers to a large range of practical ethical questions)
Recommended Reference:

The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues by Rabbi Dr Nachum Amsel. This book is an excellent reference and  provides short, pithy explanations of 71 areas of moral or ethical interest and carefully notes the sources of Jewish values in each area.