Category Archives: ethics

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz on avoiding harm

I am teaching Jewish ethics next semester and am now on the lookout for all things pertaining to the topic. So be prepared for some of the recent books on the topic to show up here- Elliott Dorff, Jonathan Sacks, Jill Jacobs and adaptations of Levinas. I am finding little meta-ethical discussion that has been written since the early 1980s. Everything has been denominational biased professional topics like medical “ethics”. There was no response to Rawls and Sandel the way there was a response to Kant, Gustafson, and Hare in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. So expect me to discuss, time permitting, some Hilary Putnam, Appiah, and Zygmunt Bauman.
In the mean time, here is another op-ed by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. This time he has a nice use of WD Ross on pluralistic deontology (Wurzburger would be proud) and a nice understanding of rule deontology, which make a nice rubric for dealing with Rabbinic ethics. I wish the article had been titled Jewish ethics and not Jewish law because the supply side and libertarian readings of halakhah are not rule-deontology. The op-ed gets in a nice swipe at ascribing teleology to situations that call for responsibility and there is a virtue ethic yearning for articulation between the lines of the op-ed. Thoughts? more successful than last week? And interconnectedness of all beings is a different line of thought than deontology-are they able to be combined?

The BP Oil Spill, Personal Responsibility and Jewish Law
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

The Jewish concept relating to a case of mass public damage is “harkhakat nezikin” – the requirement that one not partake in any activities that might cause damage to other people or their property. A primary argument that emerges from the halakhic commentators (Shulkhan Arukh 155:33) is whether one is culpable when he or she indirectly causes a single accident (gerama) after following the correct safety procedures in the same way that one who continuously causes direct damage is liable.

Religion, at its worst, can be used to eliminate human agency and responsibility. Texas Governor Rick Perry invoked a morally deficient appeal to religious language last month when he called the Gulf oil spill “an act of G-d.” While we can debate G-d’s presence in the world, we need not debate the issue of human responsibility and culpability.

A primary charge of the Jewish social justice tradition is the demand that we learn both how to limit our damage and how to hold ourselves and others who cause damage accountable. Religious life, lived at its best, shapes a discourse of public responsibility and calls on us to pay close attention to public policy as well as our everyday spills.

Prior to our question of maximizing the good, we must be concerned with avoiding harm. “Sur mei’rah v’aseh tov” – the Jewish antidote is to turn from evil and then do good. This is what the philosopher W.D. Ross in his “pluralistic deontology” calls a “duty of beneficence” (to help others) and a “duty of non-maleficence” (to avoid harming others). These duties to prevent indirect damage are also present in everyday activities that we might not contextualize as being moral issues.

The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that anyone who can protest a wrong in one’s home, one’s city, or in the world and does not do so is held accountable for that wrong as well.

Full version Here.

Shmuly Yanklowitz: Reincarnation and a Moral Conscience

This week Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Founder of Uri L’Tzedek,, published an op-ed using reincarnation as a means to create a metaphysical basis for an ethical Judaism. Reincarnation shows the interconnectedness of all life.

My first thought was that it was nice to hear about God from the pulpit. Especially, since Orthodox rabbinical students at both seminaries are taught not to preach about God, in contrast to HUC-NY where they are encouraged to raise a consciousness of God. So my first reaction was that the op-ed was a good start now onto God, revelation, and prophecy.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and thought that if Rabbi Yanklowitz’s stated goal (email June 11) was to ground ethics in a metaphysics, then was reincarnation the best way to go? Rabbi Wurzbuger used the intuitionism of Saadyah. Maimonides, and Rabbi SR Hirsch combined with a Maimonidean virtue ethic. Shouldn’t one used a more mainstream ethical approach that does not require rereading.

Which reminded me that Lawrence Kushner, noted Reform rabbi and author of Honey from the Rock and God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know tells a story of gnat that flew into his windshield and died leaving a black speck on the glass, Kusher named the gnat Isaac Luria because the death of the gnat shows the cycle of life and the interconnectedness of all life. I never liked that highly metaphoric and flippant use of R. Isaac Luria and his teachings.

Then I was annoyed that the op-ed relied on the very bad modern orthodox attempts to understand gilgul by reading second hand Scholem and then thinking about it without seeing the Hebrew inside.The language is more the neshamah and its return.
The article did not get that the tradition of the Ramban and that of R. Hayyim Vital are different. The former as it became developed by the 16th century was that everyone has two reincarnations and sometimes a need for a third, while the latter tradition assumes that each person has NRN”CY, with a top and bottom, an inner and an outer, and multiplied by 10 sefirot and five partzufim- yielding 1000’s of soul parts which keep getting returned to the hopper and rearranged without a continuity of personal identity. In addition, for Vital gentiles and women have a lower soul, the protagonist of history the soul of Adam Kadmon as shattered into the souls of Israel. For the classic attempts are harmonization see Menashe Israel’s Nishmat Hayyim and for the basic 24 parts of the soul ranging from nervous system to astral bodies see Rama Mifano’s Asarah Maamarot. As a side note, current thinking that follows Idel does not see gilgul in the Bahir as stated by Nahmanides; rather they follow the interpretive tradition of the circle of the Rashba.

Then I was happy that he unknowingly correctly used the traditional divisions of Jewish thought into principles and details. As stated by R. Hasdai Crescas in his Or Adonai. (1) There are three universal principles about God (2) There are six pillars on which the Torah rests. (3) Eight true beliefs of Torah but without them the Torah does not fall and three beliefs needed for mizvot. (4) Finally, there are thirteen principles in which one’s reason can be the arbiter- such as demons and reincarnation. (Crescas accepts the former and rejects the latter). Reincarnation is subject to debate.

Finally, I liked the article because it sought to ground ethics in a metaphysics, but would you ground a religious ethic on the interconnectedness of all beings? Will this resonate to justify fighting for worker’s rights or fair labor practices? Is there another place to ground an ethos of the interconenctedness of all things.

Reincarnation is believed to occur when the neshama, human soul, returns to earth in a new body after death and separation from a previous body.
I would add that a theology of the interconnectedness of our souls offers great potential for our moral lives suggesting a spiritual paradigm for universal love and solidarity. When we encounter another, we can see how our existences are intertwined. One can cultivate greater empathy for another of a different body type, gender, race, or age through the realization that we may have experienced everything in a past life or are yet to in a future life. In a sense, we are all multi-racial beings.

Acquiring this belief offers the potential to enhance the cultivation of a certain moral consciousness. Perhaps we can return to be better parents, more ethical consumers, more spiritually minded, or more giving to the poor? The return to this world is perhaps not a punishment but a vote of confidence that we all can ultimately succeed in the game of life!

If we love life, we must seek and crave its eternal perpetuation. What seems compelling about a theology of afterlife qua reincarnation is not an avoidance of living in this world like some models of heaven may be. Rather this belief is concerned with taking ownership of our complete existence. The moral enterprise of gilgulim is concerned with our taking responsibility for the cultivation of the past, present, and future of our souls for our full transcendental ontological existence, our core being and deeper self. It is taking ownership for eternity and responsibility for all of creation. Global warming is not the problem for my grandchildren rather it is the problem for my own life as well. This is perhaps the highest moral and spiritual challenge: we are asked to take responsibility of our full existence! We are spiritually connected not just in the here and now but in an ongoing way as well.
Read the whole op-ed here

Pregnancy Ethics in Israel and Japan—Updated by AS

I have heard from both rabbis and doctors about the different approaches in America and Israel on the view of the fetus and the role of therapeutic abortion. But the contrasts were always framed as US versus Israel or different schools of halakhah neither of which provided a useful focal point to articulate the differences, since America is diverse and halakhhah is ideal-not reality.

Here is a book on Israel compared to Japan that offers much to think about. What is the role of the medical model in the construction of modern Judaism? How is Israeli medical ethics very different than American medical ethics? Is it practice or ideal? (From what I hear, American MO are aggressive in feeding tubes in a way that Israelis are not.) How Jewish views of birth and death may at this point be less in harmony with nature than other cultures. How do views of secular Israel and religious America effect Orthodox practice. How did Centrism halakhah and ideology has adapt the views of the evangelical era? How and why do the actual ethics in the community not follow the rabbis- Modern Orthodox Jews do not usually take pride in and raise severe birth defect children, but American Catholics do. [And American MO HS girls do indeed get pregnant out of wedlock but we dont see corresponding numbers of unwed mothers- practice is not matching theory.] Or I am told by OBGYNs that Hungarian Hasidim in the US take an Israeli approach and rebbitzens can and do decide on ad-hoc terminations of fetuses. I know this introductory paragraph is over-generalized and needs breakdown by demographics and era.

Nevertheless, read this review and ask: what it imply about Israel or Judaism?

The Meaning of (Gestating) Life -Pregnancy in Israel and Japan.
Elrena Evans | posted 4/23/2010

“What’s the book about?” “It’s about pregnancy,” I’d say. “In Japan and Israel.”
This impression in turn led to a developing interest in the lived experience of pregnancy and how it is socially and culturally constructed in different societies.

Although both Israeli and Japanese women experience pregnancy as a highly medicalized event, much as in the United States, the forms that medicalization take differ greatly. And these differences, Ivry argues, are deeply rooted in distinctive cultural contexts: in Israel, a struggle to stay alive amidst constant military conflict; in Japan, an emphasis on the betterment of society through the long-term maternal efforts of child-raising.

If we think of each culture’s implicit understanding of pregnancy as a narrative, Ivry contends, we’ll find that the “protagonist” of the Japanese narrative differs sharply from the protagonist of the Israeli narrative:

In the Japanese arena the protagonist of pregnancy is the interconnected entity of the mother-baby, whereas in the Israeli case the protagonists are the pregnant woman and her suspect fetus.

Pregnancy is conceptualized as an early stage of parenting in Japan and is all about the interdependence of mother and baby and their ongoing relationships. The Israeli model defines pregnancy as a state “in limbo” that involves two separate individuals (of whom only one is a person).

Japanese pregnancies are understood through a lens Ivry refers to as “environmentalism,” by which she means the notion that the mother’s body (and thus her actions, both physical and mental) are responsible for the outcome of the pregnancy—in other words, the baby. To this end, Japanese ob/gyns place strict boundaries on the body of the pregnant woman: she must not gain too much weight, nor allow herself to become chilled, nor submit herself to the bumps and jerks of public transportation.

This assumption that a woman seeking prenatal care intends to keep her pregnancy does not hold true for the Israeli experience. Israeli pregnancies, Ivry argues, are understood through the lens of “geneticism,” whereby the random assemblage of genetic material is the dominant factor in determining pregnancy outcome. The role of the Israeli mother is to try and determine the fetus’s genetic makeup through a battery of prenatal diagnostic tests, and then to act according to the information she receives. Prenatal diagnosis is both widespread and aggressive, and in the event of an “abnormal” diagnosis, abortion is expected.

Ivry categorizes pregnancy for Israeli women as a “risky business.” Unlike the mother-baby dyad of Japanese pregnancies, Israeli pregnancies are strictly woman (not mother) and fetus. “When a woman walks into my office and says ‘I’m pregnant,'” Ivry quotes an Israeli ultrasound expert as saying, “I don’t touch her. I don’t say anything to her, I open a new card, and I write that I recommend an abortion. Then I sign her up on a paper that says that she is aware of all the testing that exists. Now we can begin to talk.”

When pregnant Israeli women contemplate amniocentesis, a diagnostic test that can identify chromosomal abnormalities but carries with it the risk of miscarriage, Israeli ob/gyns routinely frame the decision thus, Ivry tells us: women must weigh the grief of losing a healthy child against the grief of bearing a child with a disability. Nowhere is the grief over losing a disabled child so much as even mentioned; it is taken for granted that a disabled child is unwanted. As for the disabled community in Israel, Ivry notes that “Israelis with disabilities are often quoted in the media as supporting the diagnostic endeavor to prevent the birth of other people who would suffer the kind of life that they endure.”

Update – Serious and Thoughtful Comment by AS

First, I tend to bristle at the term therapeutic abortion when applied to cases where the only risk involved is having a child with a disability. We generally refer to this as selective abortion because it fits in the general category of abortion based on the projected traits of the child. The term is either a deliberate euphemism or a projection of the mistaken idea that anything done in a medical context on the basis of medical information is therapeutic.

In any event, to understand the relevance to Orthodoxy in Israel and America this study should probably be put into the context of three other books:
1) The Tentative Pregnancy by Barbara Katz Rothman
2) Testing Women, Testing the Fetus by Rayna Rapp
3) Reproducing Jews by Susan Martha Kahn
The first two describe how prenatal testing has changed pregnancy in America, the last how technically mediated reproduction in Israel reflects a preoccupation with the need to increase the population of Jews and a reflection of how the fraught “who is a Jew” question gets translated into medical culture. I believe that what the abortion data from israel show is that there is not just a concern with producing Jews, but producing healthy able bodied Jews, and this likely reflects some of the ideals of the halutzim and the like.

Talking with Israeli midwives and doctors as well as other anecdotal evidence (and somewhat confirmed here at the blog a mother in israel is that in the religious Zionist community selective abortion for disability occurs at a pretty high rate. It is also likely that Both R. Waldenberg’s and R. Aviner’s positions contribute to this phenomena.

When we come to American Orthodox communities I can offer the following observations/theories:
The uptake of preconception genetic testing is quite high. and the overall medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth is high as well
While ACOGS pushes for prenatal testing to be offered as a matter of course for younger and younger women, their is widespread recognition among doctors that there are many people who will not abort fetuses with chromosomal abnormalities on principle and therefore refusal of amnio is not completely out of the ordinary. Refusal of ultrasound is unusual.

Medical ethics in America is an established discipline with widely accepted ideas of patient autonomy and “non-directedness” on the part of genetic counselors. Medical ethics in Israel as a distinct discipline is pretty inchoate.

The disability rights critique of routinized testing and selective abortion is unknown to most orthodox Jews, and this reflects the fact that to my knowledge, adult orthodox Jews with disabilities may be reluctant to bring disability rights identity politics into the dialogues they have within their religious communities (the orthodox deaf community is not surprisingly a bit of an exception to this rule)

As far as raising children with disabilities: Modern Orthodox Jews like their larger socioeconomic cohort, have fewer children and tend to share concerns that a disabled child will disrupt their family in various ways and create a situation that is unfair to their other children and that impinges on their lifestyle. American Hareidim have more children but their concern is that a disabled child – especially if it is a genetic trait – will harm their other children’s ability to marry well.
As this is an area that I study I could say more, but don’t have too much time.

One thing I read recently that was interesting and perhaps relevant is Shalom Carmy’s review in the inaugural Jewish Review of Books. I recall the article ending with a claim that while Orthodox Halakha tends to ignore larger ethical motifs (like human dignity/created in God’s image) the way that Christians do, becuase its casuistic approach is more sensitive to the needs of people in particular situations. I take issue to this claim given the actual data on abortion. In short, without a larger conversation about how society views the disabled and how the medical model of disability tends to point toward the elimination of disability by eliminating people with disabilities, one fails to see how the supposed case-by case analysis of Halakhah that ignores larger social questions ends up simply reflecting whatever values tend to dominate. This is especially true when those values become invisible components of what is passed as objective medical information.

Tzvia Greenfield and Judith Butler

Tzvia Greenfield, our haredi Meretz Keneset member, just published an appreciation of Judith Butler, the feminist literary critic, on Israel/Palestine.

My first reaction was one of treating it as an extreme posture. I mean, come on, one could not get almost any rabbi or Jewish communal figure anywhere on the spectrum to read Judith Butler. I thought of Leib Weisfish, who was on the speaking circuit in the 1980’s as a Mea Shearim dwelling Haredi Neturai Karta who was a passionate admirer of Nietzsche. Weisfish maintained a correspondence with Walter Kaufman, the translator and wanted the grave of Nietzsche to be transferred to Israel.

But my second thought was back to Greenfield’s haredism, which is not a sectarian culturally limited Haredism of Meah Shearim and probably should not be called Haredism. Her view seems to be closer to the older Rabbi Isaac Breuer influence world of Agudah from Germany where one can have a PhD in literature or biochemistry. But one holds that the Torah is above any politics, beyond any this worldly referent, and not subject to any personal choice- a radical separation of Torah and Derekh Eretz. Rabbi Breuer could discuss the secular world based on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer because the Torah was pure and entirely above society. He could also say that the Torah from a this-worldly perspective is biased against women but that is OK since Torah is to be considered from the eternal perspective. A few decades ago, there were still academics from the Poalai Agudah world that had such views.

(In 1990, Rav Shakh basically dissolved Poalai Agudah, telling them that “Torah only” was the only acceptable career, source of ideas, or worldview. The approach of Torah and a sharply bifurcated derekh eretz was no longer to be tolerated.)

So here is Greenfield’s article praising Judith Butler that the occupation needs to end because it would be the collapse of Israel as a democracy and as source of knowledge and talent. I am less interested in the political details as much as the synthesis of Meretz and Orthodoxy played out through Judith Butler. The reason for the sudden interest in Butler is because she passed through Israel a few months ago and obviously met with Meretz. In addition, Butler seems to at work on a monograph on Judaism, human rights, and Hannah Arendt.

Greenfield From Haaretz

Yet another terrifying possibility, of course, is that Israel would consciously renounce its own self-definition as a Western democracy. It would then gradually turn into a dictatorship that defines itself as Jewish. It would use armed force to continue to control all the territory west of the Jordan River, and would continue to deny the Palestinians’ right to either freedom or equality. A choice of that kind would destroy Israel as a modern state, and accordingly also its ability to defend itself and to develop as a secure, flourishing, 21st-century society.

In this case as well, it is clear that most of the country’s intelligentsia, and indeed anyone with initiative, would leave Israel. Israel would remain with its religious population and its rightists – some of whom are capable of defending it, but most of whom are devoid of high-level development and management skills. The Israeli-Jewish dictatorship would thus suffer from a substantive weakness that would eventually lead to its defeat at the hands of its Muslim enemies.

It is sad to think that this process has apparently already started: The collapse of education and higher learning, together with the political corruption and the tremendous growth of those sectors that are not prepared to share the social, economic and military burden, is encouraging the more talented and diligent Israelis to leave the sinking Jewish ship.

Even if treating Israel as the country that embodies the ultimate evil in fact expresses a new and ugly incarnation of traditional anti-Semitism, which always viewed the Jews as the representative of all the world’s ills, the truth is still simple, but difficult to face: An Israel that does not allow the Palestinian situation to be resolved has effectively announced its own inexorable death, via the gradual destruction of the resources of knowledge and talent that have enabled it to develop and defend itself until now. In order to save Israel, we must immediately separate from the territories and their inhabitants.

Butler in her own words
Judith Butler: As a Jew, I was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up 24/02/2010

Part one Part two

Philosopher, professor and author Judith Butler arrived in Israel this month, en route to the West Bank, where she was to give a seminar at Bir Zeit University, visit the theater in Jenin, and meet privately with friends and students.
Why Israel-Palestine? Is this directly connected to your Jewishness?

As a Jew, I was taught that it was ethically imperative to speak up and to speak out against arbitrary state violence. That was part of what I learned when I learned about the Second World War and the concentration camps. There were those who would and could speak out against state racism and state violence, and it was imperative that we be able to speak out. Not just for Jews, but for any number of people. There was an entire idea of social justice that emerged for me from the consideration of the Nazi genocide.

I would also say that what became really hard for me is that if one wanted to criticize Israeli state violence – precisely because that as a Jew one is under obligation to criticize excessive state violence and state racism – then one is in a bind, because one is told that one is either self-hating as a Jew or engaging anti-Semitism. And yet for me, it comes out of a certain Jewish value of social justice. So how can I fulfill my obligation as a Jew to speak out against an injustice when, in speaking out against Israeli state and military injustice, I am accused of not being a good enough Jew or of being a self-hating Jew? This is the bind of my current situation.

Let me say one other thing about Jewish values. There are two things I took from Jewish philosophy and my Jewish formation that were really important for me… well there are many. There are many. Sitting shiva, for instance, explicit grieving. I thought it was the one of the most beautiful rituals of my youth. There were several people who died in my youth, and there were several moments when whole communities gathered in order to make sure that those who had suffered terrible losses were taken up and brought back into the community and given a way to affirm life again.
So I agree with you. But I think we have to get over the idea that a state has to express a nation. And if we have a bi-national state, it’s expressing two nations. Only when bi-nationalism deconstructs the idea of a nation can we hope to think about what a state, what a polity might look like that would actually extend equality. It is no longer the question of “two peoples,” as Martin Buber put it. There is extraordinary complexity and intermixing among both the Jewish and the Palestinian populations. There will be those who say, “Ok, a state that expresses two cultural identities.” No. State should not be in the business of expressing cultural identity.
I think that the BDS movement has taken several forms, and it is probably important to distinguish among them

More Butler from this Spring

Lastly, let me say this. You may feel fear in voting for this resolution. I was frightened coming here this evening. You may fear that you will seem anti-Semitic, that you cannot handle the appearance of being insensitive to Israel’s needs for self-defense, insensitive to the history of Jewish suffering. Perhaps it is best to remember the words of Primo Levi who survived a brutal internment at Auschwitz when he had the courage to oppose the Israeli bombings of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. He openly criticized Menachem Begin, who directed the bombing of civilian centers, and he received letters asking him whether he cared at all about the spilling of Jewish blood. He wrote:
I reply that the blood spilled pains me just as much as the blood spilled by all other human beings. But there are still harrowing letters. And I am tormented by them, because I know that Israel was founded by people like me, only less fortunate than me. Men with a number from Auschwitz tattooed on their arms, with no home nor homeland, escaping from the horrors of the Second World War who found in Israel a home and a homeland. I know all this. But I also know that this is Begin’s favorite defense. And I deny any validity to this defense.
As the Israeli historian Idith Zertal makes clear, do not use this most atrocious historical suffering to legitimate military destructiveness–it is a cruel and twisted use of the history of suffering to defend the affliction of suffering on others.

Here is a video of further musing of Butler about on Hannah Arendt And Israel delivered this past fall.
For those interested, here is also an online discussion between her and Agamben on human rights.

I am less interested in the politics and more interested in the cultural weave. Haredi religion as entirely a choice of the heart without any social, cultural, or political ramifications. Rabbi Isaac Breuer influence? Prof Yeshaya Leibowitz? In the 1950’s Orthodox Rabbis separated between Torah and American democracy- keeping them apart. Greenfield claims to be following a diaspora model. Can it it be reformulated for a half century later?

The Business of Ethics

from a Mechon Hartman Symposium

What are the responsibilities of the Jewish community to its members who are in need? Do such obligations extend to non-Jews as well? At a time of belt-tightening, how should donors and fund-raisers properly react? How do Jewish leaders recalibrate priorities to ensure the perpetuation of traditional values? In what ways will the next generation of leadership differ from its predecessors? Our seven respondents, leaders and thinkers from Israel and overseas, represent a broad mix of backgrounds and expertise, but share one aim: to strive toward a brighter day.

Robert Aronson:

The way I look at it, we’re like a field hospital in the Civil War, in a situation where we have to practice triage: what takes priority, whose needs are greatest, what stays and what is cut? What’s more important – your own community, or Israel? It boils down to the old Jewish idea: the poor of your own city come first.

In my community of southeastern Michigan, there is an overall unemployment rate of 20 percent, and underemployment is another 25 percent. The economic crisis is broad and deep, and affects the middle class too. We are still sending 40 percent of the money we raise to Israel, where we have always had a deep commitment, but that proportion is lower than last year. In other communities, such as Washington D.C. and Boca Raton, the share for Israel has suffered even more greatly.

Our ethical quandary is that we are really down to basics – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked – a situation not faced in many years. We have put together a large fund to buy houses whose owners, members of our Jewish community, are faced with foreclosure.

Amotz Asa-El: Testing Generosity

Throughout history, wealth was rare. So unusual was it for people to own more than they needed for minimal subsistence that modern economics initially assumed that shortage was a predetermined part of the human condition. Then, when wealth became common, economic and social thought rose to a new challenge: what do with surplus labor, goods and leisure. Now, affluence has arrived in Israel, too, but rather than generate public discussion of the potential utility of private wealth, it has mainly prompted an attack on the wealthy.

In the newly established Jewish state, poverty was both an economic given and a moral virtue. The country may have lacked natural resources, but was inspired by ascetic leaders who were happy dwelling in desert shacks or basement apartments. Even in the mid-1960s, I as a child in Jerusalem had no idea what a restaurant, a new car or a hotel lobby looked like from within. Everything we ate and wore was locally made, except for the occasional box of Kellogg’s cereal, which in Jerusalem you could only buy at the Agron supermarket.

That culture of ascetism is now history. With Israel’s exports, employment and inflow of investment among the West’s highest, and its currency among the world’s strongest – and with foreign aid hardly 2 percent of GDP as opposed to 20 percent in the 1970s – Israel is no longer poor. A rapidly broadening middle class drives quality cars, vacations abroad, packs glitzy malls and frequents gourmet restaurants, most of which, like Tel Aviv’s skyscraping skyline, barely existed two decades ago.

Wealth was tolerated, but it never became a religious value, the way it did for Calvinism, which defined profit as a sign of divine blessing. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz (ca. 1550–1619), a leading halachic moralist, scolded the prosperous Jewish elite of Poland, claiming they were “mostly violent and out to impose themselves on the Diaspora,” and that they had “no mercy or concern for the oppressed masses.” To him, wealth was not the result of one’s merit, nor a sign of divine favor, but a divine deposit, devised to test one’s generosity.

Seeking a contemporary economic blueprint in Jewish sources can indeed be frustrating. Judaism’s foundational texts were written in pre-modern economic settings, where credit was needed not as a means of development, but as compensation for crops lost unexpectedly to drought, plague or war; the emergence of credit, investment and banking as tools of progress occurred only in modern times. A rare biblical source that briefly visits macro-economics, Joseph’s handling of a regional famine, takes place where all are farmers, the Egyptian state is omnipotent, and trade is so uncommon that to feed their families, hungry shepherds move from one country to another.

Still, Judaism is economically relevant. It can’t help us choose between monetarism and Keynesianism, but it draws boundaries for economic decision-making. The Bible made no mention of subprime mortgages, but it forbade “putting obstacles before the blind,” which is exactly what happened in the American housing market before its collapse. The Torah was written before the emergence of CFOs, but it declared what is so frequently lost on them, that “the wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” And ages before the modern welfare state, farmers were commanded to leave their fallen fruit for the poor, and all were warned not to “harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”

Such rules, which make charity a personal rather than a national act, and a civic rather than a political duty, must now be revived in the Israeli consciousness.

Peter Joseph: Creating New Norms

Accumulation of wealth, in and of itself, is not antithetical to Jewish values. We do not have an ascetic tradition that expects us to renounce the material comforts we wish for our families and which are the just fruits of our labor. After all, put to inspired and visionary purposes, wealth has enabled the creation and support of virtually all of our significant communal institutions. We want to encourage our children to be successful in their pursuits, which we often measure in financial terms. Many of the leading figures in our history were enabled to make their mark by virtue of their financial station. Yet it is all too easy, particularly in times like the present, to reject those positive aspects of our capitalist inclinations.

The other side of wealth accumulation, however, is that it imposes very serious demands which the communal norm should define. At its basic level, accumulation of wealth without tzedakah or social responsibility is greed. Yet it is a gross over-simplification to say that those with means should just give more away in tzedakah. After all, when measured by the standards of American society, American

Isaac Herzog: A Legacy of Compassion

Perhaps my strongest childhood memory is of my grandmother, Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, who founded a leading hospital in Jerusalem that bears her name. I remember very well how every Friday, needy people would come to her home in Jerusalem, and she would speak to each one of them. She would try to help them with their problems, and she would give them money. I learned from my family, my grandparents and my parents, that Judaism is a very compassionate religion.

My grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. He died in 1959, the year before I was born, and I am named for him. I see myself as a traditional Jew, not Orthodox as he was, but mesorati in the Israeli sense. And I definitely see myself, in my personal life as well as my capacity as a member of Knesset and government minister, as someone who carries a long tradition of commitment to Jewish religious values.

Formally, public officials in Israel are supposed to be committed to the full equality of our citizens. But in fact, within the Knesset, the innate fear of the non-Jewish minority runs very deep. It’s a reflection of the attitude of the Israeli public at large, which views the minorities in the country as one anti-Zionist bloc. On the other hand, because Arab and Jewish MKs get to know one another in their daily work as parliamentarians, some of these walls, at least on some level, fall down.

A century ago, when he was starting his political career in Manchester, Winston Churchill wrote admiringly of the “corporate nature” of Jewish communities that took care of people’s needs by establishing soup kitchens, old age homes, and so on. This Diaspora model of social responsibility was absorbed into the State of Israel, but to implement it we need not just the mechanics, but the heart. The good news is that many of our young people, religious and secular alike, are rising to the challenge by spending a volunteer year in deprived areas in cities and development towns, working to help needy families. These volunteers also include young religious Zionists from the settlements who work in communities in Israel proper. For them, such idealism can function as an alternative to the settler ideology that drove their parents.

A recent survey found that 46% of Israelis were afraid of slipping below the poverty line. Such fears are certainly understandable, especially in light of the overall economic crisis in the world.

Micha Odenheimer: Global Justice

Should the Jewish people and Israel, despite all of our own critical issues and problems, be involved in healing extreme poverty in the developing world?

As the founder of a Jewish-Israeli NGO whose raison d’etre is to create just such involvement, I often encounter people who argue that we should not. “The poor of your own city take precedence,” they say, quoting a Talmudic dictum, usually with some degree of indignation. If they are from the political Left, they will add, “There are plenty of Palestinians you should be helping first.” If they are from the Right, replace the word Palestinians with Jews; the rest of the formula can remain.

The use of this quotation would be problematic even if our reality were the same as in the days of the Talmudic sages. The Talmud says to give precedence to the local population only when all else is equal, not if the poor of your city, for example, are hungry, but the foreign poor are starving.

In Israel, as elsewhere, globalization takes myriad forms: most of the food being grown in Israel is exported to Europe, while the workers on these farms are from Thailand or China. Our elderly and sick are being taken care of by Filipino, Nepalese or Sri Lankan caregivers. Many of Israel’s largest companies are now subsidiaries of multi-national corporations – the Swiss food giant Nestlé, for example, owns a controlling interest in Osem – while Israeli corporations have themselves gone multinational, and own companies in Europe, Asia or South America. And of course most of the products and resources we use are farmed or mined or manufactured or assembled in the developing world – often in places whose indifference to the rights of workers to a living wage or a safe work environment is what makes them so attractive as production sites.

Rather than assume that economic growth will lead to prosperity for all, Jews have been taught the opposite: create a just society that cares for the poor and the marginalized and prosperity will follow. Specifically, the Torah commands us to create a system in which the poor have access to interest-free loans, and benefit from the periodic forgiving of debts as well as ongoing cycles of land reform. The price of basic foods (she’yesh bo chayei nefesh), according to the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, should not be subject to financial speculation. Others examining the tradition might place more emphasis on the Torah’s respect for private property or belief in markets. What is important at this stage are not the specifics, but participation in the discourse – putting the subject of global economic justice on the Jewish agenda.

I often think about the day when our volunteers in Nepal woke up to discover the whole city paralyzed by a massive strike. As a result of commodities speculation in the United States and the globalization of the food market, the price of basic necessities had shot up so high that the majority of Nepalese would no longer be able to afford even two meals a day.

Levinas: Mature Jewish faith and Conference on Difficult Freedom

This week I had the opportunity to teach this wonderful passage of Levinas again. Levinas exhorts his reader to have a mature faith and get rid of one’s primitive and childish views of God. A person needs to understand that God does not promise anything or follow one’s magical thinking about God. He asks: “What kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven.” Only an empty heaven allows one to take on the responsibilities of justice in this world. Only a heaven empty of childish perceptions allow an adult’s God can have an inner sense to fight evil and seek good. The eternal covenant is a Divine demand for goodness and justice, the deepest significance of the covenant between God and Israel.

What is the meaning of the suffering of the innocent? Does it not witness to a world without God, to an earth where only man determines the measure of good and evil? The simplest, most ordinary response would indeed be to draw the conclusion that there is no God. This would also be the healthiest response for all those who until now have believed in a rather primitive God who awards prizes, imposes sanctions, or pardons mistakes, and who, in His goodness, treats people like perpetual children. But what kind of limited spirit, what kind of strange magician did you project as the inhabitant of your heaven – you who today state that heaven is deserted? And why are you still looking, beneath an empty heaven, for a world that makes sense and is good?

Yossel son of Yossel experiences, with renewed vigor, beneath an empty heaven, certainty about God. For his finding himself thus alone allows him to feel, on his shoulders, all of God’s responsibilities. On the road that leads to the one and only God, there is a way station without God. True monotheism must frame answers to the legitimate demands of atheism. An adult’s God reveals Himself precisely in the emptiness of the child’s heaven. That is the moment when God withdraws Himself from the world and veils His countenance. “He has sacrificed humankind to its wild instincts,” says our text. “And because those instincts dominate the world, it is natural that those who preserve the divine and the pure should be the first victims of this domination.”

But by the same token, this God who veils His countenance and abandons the just person, un-victorious, to his own justice – this faraway God – comes from inside. That is the intimacy that coincides, in one’s conscience, with the pride of being Jewish, of being concretely, historically, altogether mindlessly, a part of the Jewish people. “To be a Jew means… to be an everlasting swimmer against the turbulent, criminal human current… I am happy to belong to the unhappiest people in the world, to the people whose Torah represents the loftiest and most beautiful of all laws and moralities.” Intimacy with this virile God is attained in passing an ultimate test. Because I belong to the suffering Jewish people, the faraway God becomes my God. “Now I know that you are truly my God, for you cannot possibly be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of a militant absence of God.” The just person’s suffering for the sake of a justice that fails to triumph is concretely lived out in the form of Judaism.

Translation from the VBM shiur of Tamir Granot- Read full Version Here

This coincided with the web announcement of a great conference on Difficult Freedom, Levinas’ early Jewish writings. First published in 1963, with a second edition appearing in 1976, Difficile Liberté is considered Levinas’ most accessible book and constitutes an excellent introduction to his work: philosophy, Biblical and Talmudic commentary, a traditional yet new approach to Judaism, and an educational mission.
« Readings of Difficult Freedom» is the largest international conference ever devoted to Levinas and his work. For an entire week, more than 180 speakers from 41 countries will present and discuss the ideas presented in Difficult Freedom. In addition, during the entire conference week there will be lectures and debates in a number of cultural centers in Toulouse as well as screenings of movies and documentaries. The conference and events are all open to the public.

Here are the plenary sessions.
Here are the concurrent sessions.

Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis

An important booklet on social justice and religious social justice just came out in the UK, called Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crisis.
Authors include Michael Sandel, Rowen Williams, John Milbank, and many others. Many of the articles are snippets from other speeches and books but collectively they are the start of the new values and justice movement of sustainable economics and will sure to be copied and quoted by Jewish authors (think Jonathan Sacks 2011).

I will post more about it after I work my way through it.
Here is the full down-loadable text. If this does not work, then it is available from several other sites. Make sure it prints in a large enough font for reading.

Here is their website.

Blurb from movement website.

How do we decide our values?
How can we do economics as if ethics matters?
What kind of politics do we want?
What sort of common life can we share?
There is a widespread concern that the winner takes all mentality of the
banker, and the corrupted values of the politician, have replaced a common
sense ethics of fairness and integrity. Many worry that an emphasis on a
shallow individualism has damaged personal relationships and weakened
important social bonds.

What’s required is a vigorous debate about who deserves what, and the
ethics required for humans to reach their full potential.
The Citizen Ethics Network exists to promote this debate and to renew
the ethical underpinnings of economic, political and daily life.

Moshe Halbertal on Amartya Sen

Moshe Halbertal has a review in TNR of  The Idea of Justice By Amartya Sen (Harvard University Press) He summarizes Sen as claiming that there is no one principle of justice and that there is no overarching ethical principle, we deal with the situation at hand. In this, Sen is against Rawl’s grand egalitarian system. Halbertal thinks that if Sen means that no grand theory that we cannot decide between theories then he is incorrect. But if he means that there should be no grand overall theory then he has a point. Halbertal thinks Sen shows too much sympathy for the libertarian position. Halbertal showing his own sympathies frames Sen as a pluralist.

Once upon a time, not that long ago a book like this would have received book reviews from Rabbis like Walter Wurzburger. They would discuss where the ideas in the book fit into various halakhic thinkers and how to formulate a Jewish version. Now we have a orthodox halakhic libertarianism facing a liberal non-philosophic egalitarianism. People use the term “values” as a way of moving beyond halakhic formalism, but there needs to be the prior discussion consisting of: which ethics?

As I said before, we lost out by not producing in the 1990’s a Jewish reading of Rawls, Nozick, Sandel, and Waltzer.  I believe at this point, it would still be well received. In addition, it is a shame that after the culture wars, Halbertal has to defend academic discourse on ethics from the charge of relativism. Not long ago, the introductory course in ethics taught Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, intuitionism, and prudence in equal measure and instructed the students that you need to know all of them for reasoned discourse.

In his introduction to The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks the reader to imagine a scenario that will figure prominently throughout the book. Three children are arguing among themselves about which one of them should have a flute. The first child, Anne, is a trained musician who can make the best use of the flute. The second child, Bob, is the poorest of the three and owns no other toys or instruments. Clara, the third contender, happens to be the one who, with hard sustained labor, made the flute. Since philosophers try to reason about such distributive problems, each of the children can enlist support from a grand theory of justice that originated in what seems to be an impartial position in moral philosophy.

Utilitarians will opt for giving the flute to Anne, since their criteria for distribution is to give preference to the scheme that will maximize overall utility, thus granting the instrument to the individual who can derive the most pleasure out of it. Bob, the poorest child among the three, will be chosen by egalitarians, since the main concern of their distributive approach is to narrow social and economic gaps as much as possible. And libertarians, who emphasize rights-based ownership entitlements, will claim that Clara deserves the flute as the producer of the object, and that no other distributive concerns–egalitarian or utilitarian–can supersede her entitlement to what she naturally owns.

.Rawls himself defended an egalitarian position. According to Rawls, perfect equality should have been the rule, but rewarding capable people with differential income will create an incentive for them to raise the production of the sum total of goods, which in a system of fair distribution might end up benefiting the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.The ultimate merit of Rawls’s work did not lie only in his own theory, but in the extraordinarily broad discussion that it generated

G.A. Cohen’s in Rescuing Justice and Equality, which challenged Rawls from the left and advocated a stricter egalitarianism; and Robert Nozick’s sophisticated libertarian response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia; and Michael Walzer’s development, in Spheres of Justice, of a communitarian approach to the problem.

Sen rejects, as a matter of principle, the nature of Rawls’s project…According to Sen, a sustained and reasoned argument about justice should focus on a result-oriented comparative approach among different conditions, rather than on an attempt to formulate the philosophical conditions of a perfectly just society…. Injustices are altogether easier to identify than the conditions of perfect justice. And injustices can be identified on the basis of various and competing grand theories, which may overlap in such actual comparative judgments.

Grand theories become perverse when they postulate themselves as exclusive, when they wish to solve all the complex issues with one decisive and final principle.

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make.. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions….It is important to note also that Sen’s acceptance of the limited and relative force of each grand theory does not deteriorate into any kind of moral relativism. Pluralism is not relativism. Choosing between different approaches and policies is not an expression of taste or prejudice, a purely subjective effusion of passion.

Avot, Ibn Ezra, and Being a Mentch

This year Haaretz did not translate their 2009 Rosh Hashanah Jewish culture supplement with its book reviews. The Hebrew edition had some interesting articles, including one by Etkes and a funky one by Haviva Pedaya. But this week they did translate their November 2009 literary supplement. There was a certain gentleness to all their choices. Here are three of the reviews.

The first review is on the new edition of Pirkei Avot that has been a runaway bestseller this Fall. It reminds us of the Israeli project of creating a Jewish cultural heritage, when the books by Dvir and Bialek Presses: Sefer HaAgadah, Sefer HaZemanin on the holidays, Mishnat HaZohar Sifrei Dorot, were on every shelf. They let the Jewish reader approach the Jewish classics outside of yeshiva, orthodoxy, and authority, the way we approach penguin paperback classics. So it is nice to know that the Pirkei Avot is a best seller. Dinur, creator of the Israeli educational curriculum, Beit Hatefuzot, and Yad VaShem, created the older edition. The review has a nice sense of the role of Avot and rabbinic literature on our proverbs and wisdom.

The art of succinct statements By Zvia Walden

Pirkei Avot: Perush Yisraeli Hadash , edited and annotated by Avigdor Shinan Yedioth Ahronoth Books and the Avi Chai Foundation,

“A fundamental challenge facing our generation — living in a country that also happens to be our ances­tral homeland — is figuring out the proper ways to preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel.” Does this not sound very contemporary and disturbingly relevant? Yet these words were written in 1972 by Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, who served as Israel’s third minister of education (1951-1955 ) and who initiated the draft­ing of the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Law in 1953, which officially established Yad Vashem. That same year, Dinur was also responsible for the law that established public education in Israel, in the wake of which the various ideological streams were united into a single school system.

Dinur made the preceding observation in the introduction to his annotated and explicated edition of Tractate Avot of the Mishna, that is, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers ). He noted that he had begun work on the edition back in 1917-18, when he was teaching at the Tarbut teachers training college in Kiev. He continued his efforts when he served as a lecturer at the Hebrew teachers seminar in Jerusalem (today the David Yellin Teachers College). Which is to say that Israel once had a liberal-minded education minis­ter, one who had actually taught (for years ) in teachers training schools. He diligently prepared his commentaries from a his­torical perspective, because he believed that knowledge of their context was crucial for under­standing their content. Imagine if we had cabinet ministers like that today.

Shinan’s new commentary on Pirkei Avot has featured prom­inently on the Israeli bestseller lists for weeks.

How can one explain the suc­cess of a volume such as Shinan’s? Is it due to the ever-growing thirst to “preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel,” as Dinur had it? Or is it due to the acces­sible writing style of the editor, a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University? Or, per­haps native Hebrew speakers are attracted to this edition because Shinan chose to devote much at­tention to the Hebrew text and to connecting the tractate to names, places and landscapes in Israel, while sufficing with only a brief survey of Pirkei Avot’s tradi­tional commentators?

Phrases from Pirkei Avot have penetrated deep into modern Hebrew, even if many of those doing the quoting are unaware of where they first appeared.. Many Hebrew speakers in Israel might quote the phrase, “Love work, and hate lordship,” but few know its continuation, “and make not thyself known to the government” (chapter 1:10 )

The late Levi Eshkol be­longed to the generation that was familiar with the phrase, “The ledger is open and the hand is writing,” but many of the Young Turks working at the Finance Ministry today, who may well believe that “the workmen are sluggish,” have no idea that “the master of the house is urgent” (2:18). We are part of a generation that has become cut off from its cultural roots; we must carry out the difficult work to amend the situation.

The second book reviewed is the Yesod Mora, a perennial Jewish classic on the need to have a broad education and the nature of mizvot. The book has fallen out of fashion in our era. Science, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy were integrated into Torah. Ibn Ezra rejects the number 613 for the mizvot. He also criticizes the various Biblical and Talmudic scholars of his era for a too provincial education and worldview. Hananel Mack offers us the hypothetical of conjuring up the book that Ibn Ezra would write against the scholars of 2009.

Thirteen gates to infinity By Hananel Mack

Yesod Mora Abraham Ibn Ezra, edited by Uriel Simon Bar-Ilan University Press (Hebrew ), 272 pages, NIS 115

One of Ibn Ezra’s late works is “Yesod Mora Vesod Hatorah” (“Foundation of Awe and the Secret of the Torah” ), commonly called by the first two words of its name, a book dedicated to examining the essence of the commandments and their place in religious thought and at the foundation of Jewish belief.

According to the editor, Prof. Uriel Simon, an expert in research of the Bible and its com­mentaries, particularly the works of Ibn Ezra: ” His thinking is disjointed and jumpy, his arguments emotional, argumentative and associative, and his phrasing too abbrevi­ated, tending toward suggestion.”

According to him, a wise per­son’s approach to the holy writings and to religious philosophy requires a broad edu­cation encompassing all the branches of science, and must reject narrow-minded expertise in specific fields at the expense of others. This cosmopolitan position pre­vents those who do not share the breadth of Ibn Ezra’s perspective from properly understanding his writings, particularly those pertaining to philosophy and sci­ence.

According to Simon, “The first chapter is dedicated to a detailed proof of the re­ligious need for multidisciplinary educa­tion.” Toward that end, Ibn Ezra describes four types of “learned men of Israel” who specialize in narrow and defined fields of Torah and wisdom study but are unable to see the whole ensemble, and for whom, for this reason, even their fields of specializa­tion are found wanting.

Most of the remaining chapters deal with the Jewish religious mitzvot and their place in the system of belief and knowledge. Unlike other medieval books on the commandments, such as those of Rabbis Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Nachmanides, here there is no discussion of halakha — religious law — and its minu­tiae; rather, the discussion is entirely on a theoretical level. Chapter two deals with the numbering of the commandments, wherein the scholar presents and criti­cizes the systems of several earlier “com­mandment-counters.”

Especially interesting is the status of the number 613, the traditional total number of all the commandments. The source of that enumeration is the homi­letical sermon of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shamlai…Unlike many other homiletical sermons, this one was accepted with great serious­ness, although there were some who saw in Shamlai’s words a tale not to be taken too seriously; Ibn Ezra belonged to the lat­ter.

The afterword added to the new edition deals with the text’s polemical side. Simon draws to­gether the main points of criticism, some of it bitter, leveled by Ibn Ezra against the majority of learned scholars in Israel and Christian Europe, and to a lesser extent also those in Spain, for their tendency to over-specialization and for their lack of systematic education in the sciences.

Contemporary readers are invited to imagine the criticism, tongue-lashing and overt disdain that would have been elicit­ed from Ibn Ezra had he foreseen current trends in the world of Torah and yeshiva study.

Finally, an interview with Michael Wex, author of “Born to Kvetch.” “Just Say Nu,” and this fall “How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck ) (Harper, 224 pages, $24 ). Wex discusses how Yiddish culture valued character, being a mentch, and being.ehrliche.  They use to say frumkeit is for the galah, a yid is ehrliche. And a litvish lamdan was called a “tzelemer kop.” Wax points out the role of Pirkei Avot, that the average Jew was not learned and to avoid khnoykishkay.

Questions & Answers: A conversation with Michael Wex

Judaism is all about refinement of character and becoming a better person; if performing ritual or ceremonial com­mandments or studying all day is not mak­ing you a better person, then there’s some­thing wrong with the way you’re doing it. And we’ve got a couple of thousand years of popular ethical manuals, starting with Pirkei Avot, to help show average people the right way to do things.

Post-Holocaust we’ve been given a rosy picture of pre-Hitler life in Europe, in which every Jew was a talmid haham [learned person]. That just wasn’t the case. People stammered out the prayers, but didn’t necessarily know that they meant. Much of the joke with Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye is that he’s always mistranslating biblical verses and rabbinic sayings, and people still argue about whether or not he — Tevye, I mean — was supposed to be doing so on purpose. What you got as a sort of counterbalance to the traditional exaltation of scholarship, was this idea that character is as important as anything else. This is re­ally just an idea that was re-expressed, that regained prominence, in early Hasidism. I talk a little about earlier instances of it, and the way people looked at things. In part it’s the idea about having the basic Jewish common sense to know when something of anything is too much. You look at some­thing like the story in the Talmud about the destruction of Jerusalem, about Kamtso and Bar Kamtso. Ultimately it turned on a piece of khnoykishkayt [hypocritical sanc­timoniousness], about being punctilious about the wrong things at the wrong time.

Two views of Fackenheim and related approaches

I wanted a more critical approach to Fackenheim than found in the works of Michael Morgan so I turned to David Patterson, Emil Fackenheim Syracuse UP 2008. The book won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought, so I assumed it would be more critical.For Patterson, Fackenheim represents a Jewish thinker who affirms the centrality of Torah, yet does not despair of philosophy the way Levinas and Soloveitchik despair. Fackenheim has the tikkun for the darkness at the heart of man as told by Joseph Conrad or Primo Levi. The height of the book for me was when Patterson used the thought of the kabbalist Yitzhak Ginzburgh to explain Hannah Arendt, that too much ego leads to absolute evil.

A different approach is offered by Konstanty Gebert. An observant Polish Jew who was instrumental as an educator and journalist in Solidarity. He now edits Midrasz, a Polish-Jewish monthly.  Interview with him

He wrote an article “Forgetting Amalek” in Responsibility in Crisis, editor David William Cohen & Michael Kennedy 183-201

Gebert writes that the Torah teaches us to wipe out the memory of Amalek but to always remember their treachery – there is a tension of memory/oblivion

Emil Fackenheim offers the 614th commandment. For Gebert, that is like the situation described by Gregory Bateson, a double bind that produces pathological disassociation or a catch -22. If the Shoah makes one turn away from religion then the 614th commandment to not give Hitler a posthumous victory by turning away. It means that one is either not true to one’s self or is helping the holocaust. One cannot turn away and if one accepts the call of the Holocaust one disassociates from oneself.

He ponders if Amalek in the Torah, as pure evil, is a construct based on their trauma and not on actual knowledge of Amalakites.  Hating Amalek was an easy thing in their post traumatic stage and the inherited trauma of their immediate descendents.

But, the Babylonians mixed all the tribes in the area through forced relocations. This nullified the commandment to eliminate the Amalek, because at that point the Amalek ceased to exist as a tribe.

Gebert thinks that the university today has a responsibility to help prevent the creation of new Amalek images. We need to separate historic understanding from justifying. We need free debate and intellectual liberty.

Now Amalek’s children themselves need to condemn the evil and work together with the children of victims. We need to remember the evil of Amalek, but the only way to truly wipe out Amalek is through reconciliation. Children of Amalek will come to naught if not helped by the children of the victims.

As a comparison, Avi Sagi sought to justify the Biblical prohibition and explain the moral problem now that we have modern morals, many commentaries on Joshua and Samuel also resort to justification and limiting, but not to reconciliation or the role of the university.  The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem, Avi Sagi, Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994)

Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman taught that we have to turn to simcha to overcome the inner darkness. Then we have to return to Torah in a more open way. Reb Shlomo text.

In contrast, the Haredi world, based on a teshuvah of Rabbi Menashe Klein, overcomes the Holocaust by creating a saving remnant of true Jews. They focus only on the true Haredi Jews and limit the validity of conversions including Emil Fackenheim’s son.

Justice or Rawls Lives

Michael Sandel has his Harvard University course on Justice  online. It has recording of the lectures, reading lists, and discussion material. (It comes on with a loud audio soundtrack)

Good article about the course – including how he came to teach it and about his critics.

Good line in article – “Campus legend has it that Sandel provided the physical inspiration for Mr. Burns, the villainous nuclear-plant owner on The Simpsons, for which many Harvard graduates have written.”

Amartya Sen, the Noble prize winner in economics, has a similar book out and here is an article about it.

Suppose three children—Anne, Bob, and Carla—quarrel over a flute. Anne says it’s hers because she’s the only one who knows how to play it. Bob counters that he’s the poorest and has no toys, so the flute would at least give him something to play with. Carla reminds Anne and Bob that she built the darn thing, and no sooner did she finish it than the other two started trying to take it away.

When Rawls declared justice “the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought,” and began his painstaking probe of the conditions of just institutions, he re-established a modern tradition dating back to Hobbes: using social-contract theory to articulate ideal forms of social justice, sometimes in quasi-syllogistic form. But there was also a longstanding, skeptical, antisystematic tradition in justice theory. One of the suspenseful aspects of Sen’s book is how its author, personally close to Rawls (who died in 2002) but more expansive and historical in regard to justice, walks a difficult line between the analytic foundationalism Rawls and Nozick practiced and the sensitivity to real-world justice in people’s lives that Sen and Martha Nussbaum argue for and describe as the “capabilities” conception of justice.

Solomon wrote in A Passion for Justice that justice is “a complex set of passions to be cultivated, not an abstract set of principles to be formulated. … Justice begins with compassion and caring, not principles or opinions, but it also involves, right from the start, such ‘negative’ emotions as envy, jealousy, indignation, anger, and resentment, a keen sense of having been personally cheated or neglected, and the desire to get even.” In time, suggested Solomon, “the sense of justice emerges as a generalization and, eventually, a rationalization of a personal sense of injustice.”

Update – Jewish Texts for Social Justice from American Jewish World Service. Let me know what you find in the various categories. Is it all pragmatic? Is there any overall theory? I see that Levinas, Heschel, Soloveitchik are used interchangeably in small snippets.