Digest of terms

Jewish Ethics

Judaism in its modern forms - Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform - derives, via the rabbinic Judaism which developed in the early Christian era, from the religion of the ancient Israelites, from whom key ethical sources and resources were inherited. Centrally authoritative is the Torah, an elastic term but in its narrowest sense referring to the first five books of the Hebrew bible (Tanak), the Christian Old Testament. It is held to be revelation from the one God for his chosen people, providing them with God-given guidance, including the famous Ten Commandments (Decalogue).

As in Islam, there is here no clear-cut distinction between religion, morality and law. Many of the duties set out in 613 commandments in Tanakh would be regarded as religious rather than ethical in modern terms - e.g. the strict ban on idolatry, or a range of dietary laws - but are held, certainly by the Orthodox, as morally binding. A prominent moral theme is special concern for the poor and disadvantaged.

The designation 'Torah' (teaching) can be expanded to include the prophetic and other writings of Tanakh (known as the law and the prophets), containing important teachings about the importance of social justice over routine religious observance. God's justice and mercy are to be emulated. By the time of Jesus the complexities of Torah could be summarised as loving God, and one's neighbour as oneself.

The religious focus on the 'chosen people' raises questions as to the extent to which Gentiles, non-Jews, should be bound by the moral teachings of Torah. In effect there seems to be a development from an ethnic to a universal ethic, although the universalism is perhaps only fully realisable at the envisaged consummation of history. Meanwhile Gentiles are held to be subject to seven divinely prescribed Noachic Laws (allegedly given to Noah): not to blaspheme, practise idolatry, steal, murder, commit sexual offences, or cut limbs off living animals, while positively they should establish courts of justice. Opinion has been divided over whether these laws represent a kind of natural morality discernible by reason (see natural law), or should be construed as being based solely on divine commands.

In rabbinic Judaism the written Torah was believed to have been supplemented by revelation handed down in oral traditions. This oral Torah itself came to be written down in the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds, study of which led to the development of religious law, halakha, akin to sharia in Islam. Despite a belief in resurrection and future judgment, the focus was strongly this-worldly. Basic moral values were emphasised with injunctions against lying, stealing, murder, or sexual immorality, while a positive ethos of justice, charity, forgiveness, piety and humility was promoted. Echoes of biblical teaching are clear. Preservation of life was made a priority even at the expense of contravening the laws of Torah, with three exceptions: idolatry, murder, and sexual offenses.

The emancipation of the Jews in nineteenth century Europe brought fresh challenges as Jews became full citizens of wider society, giving rise to the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions (and others) prominent today. Predictably, a wide spectrum of views on ethical issues has emerged. Traditional Jewish patriarchy has been challenged by Jewish feminists (women rabbis are now permitted among Reform Jews), although in medical ethics there is agreement that abortion in order to save a mother's life is not merely permitted but is indeed obligatory. At the same time Zionist nationalism in respect of the State of Israel has bred what critics regard as religio-ethnic intolerance of Arabs. Perhaps a proper balance still remains to be struck in the long-standing tension between an inward-looking community ethic and an outward-looking universal ethic, although in principle the former is held to be in the service of the latter.

This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By using the site, you agree to our use of cookies. For more information about how we use cookies click here.