Audio Roundup Special: Dimensions of Jewish Ethics

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by Joel Rich

Dimensions of Jewish Ethics with Dr. David Shatz

Divine Command and Human Decision making

We believe that “ethics” were revealed at Sinai (as in pirkei avot = ethics of the fathers – given to Moshe at Sina). How do we respond to Euthyphro’s dilemma (“Is the pious to be loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?)? Do we hold like Dostoevsky?If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

If we don’t believe there is an ethic outside of halacha, how do we engage the outside world in discussions of “general” ethics?

Certainly, tanach narratives imply that people think for themselves ethically and it’s not cut and dry “halacha” (eg Yaakov w/Shimon and Levi). Similarly, how did chazal determine approaches where there’s indeterminacy or the halachic algorithm yield a poor result. Is halacha a floor or the final word?

In any event, don’t treat others as a cheftza shel mitzva.

Ethics and the Problem of Evil

The question of theodicy can be broken down into a number of questions including why does so much evil seem to exist? Why so much? And why do specific evil events occur? Why the righteous suffer is just a subset of a broader issue. A number of approaches to these questions discussed. R YBS and R Sacks point to the existence of evil as making morality possible. If we didn’t question/feel it, would we fight it?

Sacrificing oneself for others

How are we to understand altruism? Some thinkers are on the cynical side and believe seeming altruism is still driven by self-interest. R Shatz believes that holocaust saviors’ studies refute this position.

Why might one do a moral act? 1. Divine command 2. Self-interest (reward/punishment) 3. Rational humanistic thinking 4. Sympathy 5. Imitato dei.

Jewish thinkers have differed over which of these (or combination) are our drivers. Case in point – sharing water in the desert – is it permissible to give your water to someone else at the cost of your life?

For some mitzvot we’re more focused on the result than the motivation. One approach is that human nature is such that there’s no shame in feeling good about doing mitzvot. There are other approaches.


About Joel Rich

Joel Rich is a frequent wannabee cyberspace lecturer on various Torah topics. A Yerushalmi formerly temporarily living in West Orange, NJ, his former employer and the Social Security administration support his Torah listening habits. He is a recovering consulting actuary.

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