Traditional Jewish Ethics

A recurrent theme here is the contrast between the moral universalism of the West versus Jewish moral particularism. Moral universalism is a corrollary of individualism: Groups have no moral standing. Stealing doesn’t become right depending on what group the victim belongs to.

But Jewish ethics is based fundamentally on the group status of perpetrator and victim. It’s okay if the victim is from a different group. And within the group, ethics is structured so that the group as a whole benefits: What’s good for the Jews.

Dennis Praeger has a nice column on traditional Jewish moral particularism (“Can Halachah ever be wrong?“).

Suppose you ordered an electric shaver from a store owned by non-Jews, and by accident the store sent you two shavers. Would you return the second shaver?

Nine said they would not. One said he would.

What is critical to understand is why they answered the way they did. The nine who would not return the second shaver were not crooks. They explained that halachah (Jewish law) forbade them from returning the other shaver. According to halachah, as they had been taught it, a Jew is forbidden to return a lost item to a non-Jew. The only exception is if the non-Jew knows a Jew found the item and not returning it would cause anti-Semitism or a Khilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). The one who said he would return it gave that very reason — that it would be a Khilul Hashem if he didn’t return it and could be a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) if he did. But he, too, did not believe he was halachically bound to return the shaver.

The nine were not wrong, and they were not taught wrong. That is the halachah. Rambam (Maimonides) ruled that a Jew is permitted to profit from a non-Jew’s business error.

Traditional Jewish law had different penalties for a variety of crimes—theft, taking advantage of business errors, rape, and murder (reviewed in Ch. 6 of A People That Shall Dwell Alone, p. 148ff). Even proselytes who had converted to Judaism had a lower moral standing than other Jews—a fact that has doubtless weighed heavily with prospective converts.

So now that we are living in an enlightened age in the Diaspora West, surely it’s time to change the law of the Talmud. But, as Praeger notes, even though the law on appropriating the results of a business error by a non-Jew seems immoral, “we have long been in a period in which rabbinic, that is, man-made, halachah just cannot change.”

Rabbinic law is set in stone. Contrast that to the teachings of the Catholic Church which were completely overhauled as a result of Vatican II, including traditional teachings on the Jews, and not without Jewish pressure.

In 2007 Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago had the courage to bring up the topic with a call of a more two-sided approach, mentioning as particularly offensive “descriptions of Jesus as a “bastard.”

It does work both ways. Maybe this is an opening to say, “Would you care to look at some of the Talmudic literature’s description of Jesus as a bastard, and so on, and maybe make a few changes in some of that?”

It didn’t happen, of course.

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