- LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0087
- LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0087
Jewish ethics investigates both theoretical and practical questions of what Jews can and should do in the world. It involves weaving together theology, philosophy, and law—the classic triumvirate for religious ethics—as well as lore, history, science, and sociology, among other facets of human knowledge and experience. With these tools in hand, some Jewish ethicists have wrestled with such questions as the relationship between law and ethics; the role of external, non-Jewish influences and thinkers; and the relationship between science, medicine, and revelation. Others contend with theories of the good and the right, with theology and ethics. And still other Jewish ethicists hone in on the minutiae of lived life, such as the pragmatics of behavior and policy. Though both ethics and morality can certainly be extracted from biblical and early rabbinic materials, it was not until the 9th century that Saadia Gaon discussed ethics as a subject matter worthy of distinct and extended consideration. For the next thousand years, only a few handfuls of volumes were exclusively devoted to ethics and morality, usually embedded in legal, philosophical, and theological texts. Increasing intellectual exposure to Western thinkers and society, especially to Immanuel Kant’s universal rationalistic philosophy and ethics, challenged and inspired Jews to clarify and explain Jewish ethics and morality. Hermann Cohen’s fin-de-siècle neo-Kantian revisioning of Judaism as ethical monotheism catapulted 20th-century Jewish ethical and moral thought from occasional meditations to central conversations across the streams of modern Jewry. Indeed, the last century’s incomprehensible tragedies and awesome technological advancements provided much fodder for Jewish ethical and moral consideration. Jewish bioethical discourse budded and bloomed after World War II; tracts on social, environmental, warfare, and political moral issues exploded in the 1960s and 1970s; first generations of feminist and covenantal ethics emerged in the 1980s and 1990s; a return to virtue ethics took root in the 1990s and early 2000s; and a renewed concern with business morality responded to embarrassing scandals and economic turmoil in the 2000s. Historically, Jewish ethics has been dominated by male voices and by contributors from North America and Israel, but the field is becoming increasingly diverse, as evidenced by the membership and leadership in the Society of Jewish Ethics, the premier, if not only, independent academic society devoted to this field. To be sure, Jewish ethicists will continue to wrestle with the most perplexing and enduring questions of human civility and creativity.
General Overviews and Anthologies
The first wave of anthologies in this field, comprising Fox 1975 and Kellner 1978, included both theoretical and practical issues, and each focused on the ethics of military power—an understandable theme given the recent wars in Vietnam and Israel. The second generation is perhaps best exemplified by Dorff and Newman 1995, which broadened the voices contributing to both methodological and practical debates. The third generation divides into the more pragmatic volumes of Dorff, et al. 2008–2010, and the more comprehensive dual focused (theoretical and pragmatic) collection Dorff and Crane 2013. Kolatch 1985 and Sherwin and Cohen 2001 reflect the emerging self-help ethos with a collection of short answers to or instructional essays on questions of ethical and moral concern. Newman 1998 surveys the breadth of the field and offers a taxonomy of its features.
Dorff, Elliot N., and Jonathan K. Crane, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
The most comprehensive anthology to date, complete with original essays from scholars throughout the Jewish world. The volume covers historical, thematic, denominational, and practical issues. Each essay includes suggested readings, and the index identifies classic texts, themes, and figures.
Dorff, Elliot N., and Louis E. Newman, eds. Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
A diverse collection of previously published—and classic—essays (many edited for length) addressing metaethical concerns, methodological issues, virtue ethics, and sexuality and gender, as well as social, economic, and ecological issues, medical ethics, and the political exercise of power.
Dorff, Elliot N., Louis E. Newman, and Danya Rutenberg, eds. Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices. 6 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2008–2010.
This series of slim volumes, designed for college students, integrates case studies and questions with classic sources and contemporary essays. Each volume includes suggested readings. Volumes address Body; Sex and Intimacy; Power; Social Justice; War and National Security; and Money.
Fox, Marvin, ed. Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1975.
Now considered a classic, the volume includes presentations and responses from a 1971 conference in Israel that wrestle with the legal and philosophical bases of Jewish ethics, in addition to essays on the political exercise of power. The index points to traditional sources as well as themes and names.
Kellner, Menachem M., ed. Contemporary Jewish Ethics. New York: Sanhedrin, 1978.
Perhaps the first collected edition in this field, its essays confront the questions of whether Kantian autonomy can countenance religious ethics, and whether Judaism and its legalism can countenance ethics beyond law. The volume includes classic pieces on political and medical ethics, capital punishment, business ethics, sexual ethics, and the Holocaust. Includes suggested readings and a brief glossary.
Kolatch, Alfred J. The Second Jewish Book of Why. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David, 1985.
The second volume in this series is an introductory book using a Socratic method to cover social, personal, bioethical, gender, and dietary issues. The index is helpful.
Newman, Louis E. Past Imperatives: Studies in the History and Theory of Jewish Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Perhaps the best overall descriptive survey of the field of Jewish ethics, examining the tensions between ethics and law, ethics and theology, and methodological issues. One of the chapters, “Woodchoppers and Respirators: The Problem of Interpretation in Contemporary Jewish Ethics,” is now a classic in the field, especially for bioethics and euthanasia.
Sherwin, Byron L., and Seymour J. Cohen. Creating an Ethical Jewish Life: A Practical Introduction to Classic Teaching on How to Be a Jew. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001.
A creative “how-to” book integrating classic sources on the three fundamental relationships of Judaism: relations with God, relations to the self, and relations with others. Helpful notes, bibliography, and index.
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