When it comes to ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is an idealist and an activist. He’d like to see Jews develop moral imaginations as much as intellectual imaginations, parents praise children for their kind acts as much as for their academic achievements and individuals improve their track records in doing the right thing.
“God’s central demand of humans is to act ethically,” Telushkin writes in his latest book, “A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy” (Bell Tower). Too often, he says, the word religious is associated exclusively with ritual acts, measured by levels of observance. He’d like to associate holiness, leading an elevated life, with ethics. Telushkin quotes Rabbi Hillel’s advice as the essence of Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
The book is a landmark work, the beginning of a planned three-volume series — it’s the first major code of Jewish ethics to be written in English, compiling 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom. While this first volume focuses on issues of personal integrity and character, the next book will be on interpersonal issues and the third on family, friendship and community.
I meet Telushkin in his Upper West Side New York office that he shares with his wife, writer Dvorah Menashe Telushkin, a few floors above their apartment. He reclines in a comfortable ottoman and says he thinks of this series, which he has concentrated on for the last four years, as his life work. Mentioning the words, “life work,” the 57-year-old pauses and jokes about the danger of that term” “When I finish this, how will I describe the books I write then?”
Telushkin, who was named one of the 50 best public speakers in the United States by Talk magazine, is a skilled conversationalist. He’s thoughtful, learned, funny, down-to-earth and easily admits his own struggles.
Even before we get down to the business of discussing his new book, we talk about the problem faced by many New York writers: what to do with books when there’s neither shelf nor floor space. How does one dispose of unwanted review copies? Is it ethical to give them to someone who’ll resell them? Questions lead to more questions, but then we return to his book.
“You Shall Be Holy” is presented in the traditional format of Jewish legal codes that have been written since the Mishna, which dates back to the early third century. Each thematic chapter — whether about gratitude, the obligation to be cheerful, obstacles to repentance, cultivating humility, controlling anger, reducing envy, permissible lying, judging others fairly — features numbered paragraphs, each with a specific and distinct point, along with an example illustrating how laws are translated into everyday life.
Telushkin’s tone is engaging and accessible; his range of sources is broad, drawing on the Torah, the prophets, Talmud, Midrash, medieval codes of Jewish law, teachings of the Mussar and Chasidic movements and contemporary Jewish scholars. The most frequently quoted source is Maimonides, but Telushkin also cites the biblical Ruth, King David, Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, the Chafetz Chaim, Sholom Aleichem, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Manhattan psychiatrist Isaac Herschkopf, Yale professor Stephen Carter and many others. In conversation, too, Telushkin makes a habit of crediting the source of his teachings.
Is this a work of self-help?
“Definitely. It gives practical strategies through spiritual orientation. It would be disappointing if reading didn’t lead to action. I want people to become kinder,” he says.
He emphasizes that ethical teachings are not self-evident, not for simpletons as some might think. Some sections might require reading and re-reading in order to absorb the deep and practical life lessons.
As to whether some people are born compassionate, Telushkin says that “a certain percentage of people seem to be born with a strong predilection to kindness and others to cruelty. But most of us are born with a mix of both. That’s why the biggest job we face is working on ourselves. It’s an ongoing process throughout our lives.”
“Life is relentless,” he says, “and leading an ethical life is relentless. There are always challenges.” He adds, “We repent for the same sins year after year. Hopefully, each year we get a little better.”
Telushkin believes that cultivating gratitude can lead to happiness.
He writes, “Gratitude is rooted in remembrance,” suggesting that individuals make a conscious effort to recall how others have helped them. Indeed, as Telushkin agrees in conversation, memory plays a role in other ethical behavior, as well.
“To live ethically is not only to live in the current moment but to acknowledge a lot of past moments — things we could do better, things we have done well in the past,” he says. “The recollection of good we have done can inspire more good.”
Every other month, Telushkin leads the Synagogue for the Performing Arts. As the suitcase in the middle of his office attests, he’s on the road frequently, giving lectures and teaching. Among his many books are the best-selling “Jewish Literacy”; “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal”; the novel, “Heaven’s Witness,” written with Alan Estrin (the pair recently completed a screenplay for a television movie), and “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” written with Dennis Prager.
Telushkin cites Prager as one of his rebbes — the people he turns to with ethical questions. The two have been close friends since their sophomore year at Brooklyn’s Yeshivah of Flatbush. Additionally, he says that he is always moved by the writing of Rabbi Abraham Twerski and was affected early in life at Yeshiva University by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg’s vision of Judaism.
His spacious office is cheerfully cluttered and informal. The father of three daughters and a son, he keeps many of their notes and family photos above his desk. He pulls out boxes filled with multicolored index cards covered with handwritten notes that are the basic components of his work. As he does research, he jots down ideas on these cards — he has thousands of them — and then pieces them together to form his chapters.
How can someone get started on a more ethical path? Telushkin suggests a list of four warmup exercises: “I tell people that if they make personal prayers to God, they should also make personal prayers for someone else to help develop empathy. Also, they should start praying whenever they hear an ambulance siren,” he says, noting the shortest prayer is the one Moses made for his sister Miriam’s health: “Oh God, please heal her.”