Jew the Right Thing

Reviewed: \"To Do Right and the Good: Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics,\" by Elliot N. Dorff (Jewish Publication Society, $34.95.) \"Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics,\" by Elliot N. Dorff (Jewish Publication Society, $25). \"Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics,\" by Elliot N. Dorff (Jewish Publication Society, $34.95).
November 13, 2003

Reviewed: “To Do Right and the Good: Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics,” by Elliot N. Dorff (Jewish Publication Society, $34.95.)

“Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics,” by Elliot N. Dorff (Jewish Publication Society, $25).

“Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics,” by Elliot N. Dorff (Jewish Publication Society, $34.95).


We live, as the old saying goes, in interesting times. After almost a decade of prosperity and peace, the United States has been flung by circumstance and governance into a period of increased economic uncertainty and geopolitical turmoil: more Americans live in poverty now than just three years ago; no one can ignore the continued news of military deaths in Iraq.

Even with this week’s announcement of a better economic outlook and the undoubtedly positive end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the quick pace of change in our country’s internal and external stability calls for a reevaluation of our own ethical universe.

Every age must formulate a moral response to the situations it faces, and the questions that our ancestors faced are not our own. The rabbis of the Talmud or medieval period never had to address issues such as whether to endorse or reject — as Congress and president did last week — partial birth abortion, or how to maintain ethnic and religious integrity while living in a pluralistic democracy. The challenges we face can be daunting and deserve serious and thoughtful attention.

We still have to ask, though, what goes into defining that response? Formulating an ethical code is not easy. It’s not even necessarily intuitive. We bring all sorts of assumptions to the table without even knowing it, which is what makes the field of ethics so strange.

On the one hand, it reacts to specific events — do we, for example, have a right to privacy on the Internet, or can companies and bosses fairly lay claim to employees’ correspondence? On the other hand, it is entirely theoretical, based in philosophical precepts, such as “how do we value the individual?”; “what does it mean, at this moment and in this place, to lead a moral life?”

The truth, of course, is that the answer will vary from person to person, community to community. Evangelical Christians will propose vastly different criteria than Berkeley liberals.

To use the example already mentioned, Evangelicals by and large support the ban on partial-birth abortions, while many liberals reject the notion that this medical procedure represents a partial birth or that the government should step in to decide questions that are more appropriately addressed by individual consciences.

These two opinions are so far apart that those who passionately defend one or the other cannot even acknowledge that both are valid, ethical viewpoints. The diametrically opposed results are almost inevitable, because they each use different sets of criteria to make their judgments.

What, though, should Jews think? Answering that question is no doubt as tricky as formulating an ethical system in the first place, because Jews are a notoriously unruly, argumentative bunch that rarely agrees among itself.

In light of that tendency, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff’s effort to articulate “a Jewish response” to modern ethical dilemmas is admirable. He has written three books: “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics,” “Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics” and “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics,” which was recently awarded the National Jewish Book Award.

In the course of these three volumes, Dorff, who is both a rabbi and ethical philosopher, takes on a gamut of issues that confront both individuals and the community at large, from in vitro fertilization to caring for elderly parents to pluralism and interfaith relations, making him a Jewish authority — at least for some Jews — on the ethical landscape in the United States.

In fact, Dorff mainly addresses those subjects pertinent to American Jews, even if some of those questions will also be relevant for Jews and non-Jews elsewhere. But since he knows that particulars of time and place change the outcomes of moral questioning, he usually stays close to home, but he will stray when the topic calls for it, as when he discusses relations between Jews and Catholics, which is, presumably, not bound by geography.

Dorff’s range is ambitious, which can be a strength and weakness. This is especially true in “To Do the Right and the Good,” where poverty, war and communal forgiveness (by the Jews of the Catholics and others) all appear.

There are always many important challenges facing any community, and each one deserves careful consideration, but they do not necessarily all belong in one book. Even though all of these topics are questions of modern social ethics, the effect of seeing them all in the same place can be somewhat disconcerting.

For all that, Dorff is not afraid to take on some of the knottier questions that plague our body politic right now. He does not shy away from hot-button issues such as foreign intervention or the status of gays and lesbians within Judaism and American society. In particular, he presents a clear, cogent defense of pluralism that is based in Jewish sources and pertinent to the secular environment in which American Jews live.

While pluralism is an abstract idea rather than a concrete condition, its success or failure determines how different groups relate to one another. Our moment in history is marked by the fact that people are willing to kill and die in an effort to reject plurality, and so the attempt to tackle it — and to endorse it as crucial in as diverse a country as the United States — is both timely and important.

Dorff’s philosophy is grounded in the unquestionable truth of human fallibility. We are limited, mortal beings and our perspectives must therefore be partial. We can know only so much, and to think that our notions represent absolute truth is fantastic, at best.

As Dorff puts it, “I believe that there are objective truths and norms, but no human being can know what they are because no person shares in God’s omniscience. To claim that some person has such omniscience is to make an idol of him or her, for it is to assert that a human being knows what God knows.”

All we can do is interpret God’s words — in the Torah, Christian Bible, Koran, etc. — to the best of our abilities, all the while knowing that our understanding is incomplete and open to new interpretation. He even goes so far as to claim that absolutism is “tantamount to idolatry.”

The justification for this view of human limitations is taken from no less a source than the rabbinic tradition. Even in the Talmud, Jewish law is not presented as a list of “dos” and “don’ts.” Instead, it is the written history of disputes between various rabbis, and both the accepted and rejected arguments are included.

As Dorff explains it, the rabbis include those dissenting judgments, because the court may revise the law at some future point in their favor. In other words, even the accepted legal opinion is not seen as infallible but open to further revision, when and if the need comes up.

Dorff does not bring up talmudic precedent for its own sake but to show its applicability in our own time, especially when he gets into the potentially dangerous area of interfaith relations:

“We must either resort to vacuous and disingenuous debates like those of the Middle Ages about whose tradition is right, or we must finally confront the fact that none of us can know God’s nature or will with absolute certainty.

“At the same time, just as historical considerations like the interactions of nations and cultures do not make all faiths the same or spoil the significance of living by one specific faith, so, too, philosophical factors like the relativity of human knowledge do not undermine faith altogether. We may think that our particular understanding of God and all other religious topics is the correct one for all people, as far as we can tell. We may also advance arguments toward convincing others of its truth and worth and even of its preeminence over other faith claims.

“We must do so, however, knowing ahead of time that no human argument on these matters can be conclusive, for no person is omniscient and no human vantage point can claim inherent superiority over all others.”

In a world in which religious dogma has long been the excuse for widespread slaughter, this is an important, measured and ethical stance. It neither denies the power of faith nor the strength of convictions, nor does it condone righteous hatred and bigotry.

With this idea as a base, people on opposing sides of issues — whether Christian or Jewish, conservative or liberal, rich or poor — can no longer use their own definition of the “right” or the “good” as justification for its actions, especially when that would lead them to act in defiance of their own ethical principles. Maybe life would be less interesting — and less dangerous — were we to find a way to maintain our own moral integrity without feeling the need to denigrate those of others.

"Even though Judaism permits war under certain circumstances and requires it under others, one must read these sources in the light of four factors that make Jews reticent to engage in war even when Jewish law declares it legitimate.

[Dorff lays out the first three factors and then ends with:]

"And finally, the strong emphasis within Judaism on the importance of peace, discussed earlier, also serves to slake the thirst for war. This is especially so in our own time, because of the possibility of nuclear escalation. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement within Judaism, claimed that the standard political sanctions for war, based on the tenet that national states should be independent and sovereign, is meaningless in an interdependent, nuclear age. We must, therefore, modify our idea of national sovereignty so that we no longer sanction the right of national states to engage in ‘competition for national aggrandizement, in imperialist adventures for the acquisition of territory or of spheres of influence, for markets and raw materials, and in many economic and military activities during peace times, all of which are bound to lead to conflicts of interest between national states and ultimately to end up in war.’

"Similarly, according to Kaplan, we can no longer tolerate the philosophic acquiescence to war as it appears in the philosophies of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel and others who asserted that human beings are by nature bellicose. Rather, we must reembrace the fundamental tenets of the three Western religions that human beings are created in God’s image and that God owns the world, thus contradicting both the assertion that people must inevitably engage in war and that national sovereignty is paramount. In a world in which war can lead to universal annihilation, humanity must no longer merely pray and hope for peace; it must transform the world’s entire pattern of political and economic organization to, effectively, ‘wage peace.’

"Sentiments such as these have not engendered a significant pacifist movement in contemporary Judaism; Jews are generally prepared to go to war if attacked. There is indeed a pacifist stand in talmudic literature, but it never became the dominant Jewish position. Because of the impact of the Holocaust and the model of the strong Israeli fighter, one doubts that contemporary Jews in any number would adopt absolute pacifism. Nevertheless, the traditional reticence to go to war continues, and it serves as another deterrent to military intervention in another country."

Excerpt from "To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Response to Modern Social Ethics."

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