Tag Archives: Shmuly Yanklowitz

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.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz replies


I’d like to share my appreciation with Professor Brill for posting this op-ed and to all the thoughtful commentators. I have a few replies here:

1. Gilgul’s implications for relationships between Jews & Non-Jews: This is exactly the kind of conversation I would like to further. I think that by embracing Sartre’s notion that “existence precedes essence” we can embrace a past soul’s existence (not essence) as a Hindu, for example, and we can do so without saying that our soul was essentially different. I’m suggesting that perhaps we can embrace gilgul and be post-essentialist. The soul has a universal nature which enters different cultural realties. What divides me between a Muslim or Buddhist is not our determinism but our freedom. Our choices and affiliations, not our essences, have more weight.

In Keriat Shema al Mita, we ask for forgiveness for our past gilgulim. We are, in fact, held accountable for those existences not because they have scarred the essences of our souls but because the free will (the real stuff of existence) has carried over into our next gilgul. Our decisions, in this life, have more weight and moral implication beyond this body.

2. I’m suggesting less of a metaphysical truth and more of a spiritual activity or a hermeneutic for human phenomenological encounter. I was surprised that someone was “put off” by my treating “this exercise as a thought experiment and temporary suspension of belief.” We live in an age of religious skepticism and I was merely stating the obvious here. Given the current epistemic foundations of Judaism (and religion), we can no longer state hard truths. What does this commentator propose as a different way of framing our theological discourse in a post-modern age (with certainty and perfect belief)?

3. “One could take the opposite tack and argue that a belief in gilgul allows people to work less hard in this life” – you’re right that someone could do that. But I think that our intentions when crafting our personal theologies are vital in religious life. I think we can embrace a more pragmatic consequentalist theology – one that works for us and that improves us. Is it wrong to embrace a theology that one believes to be true if it produces a racist or sexist culture? To have integrity in confirming one’s beliefs, one must embrace more comprehensive truths.” One who needs a personal G-d to feel connected religiously and spiritually engaged simply should not embrace Rambam’s theology even if they find it logically compelling. Maybe in the next gilgul they can embrace it, but this life demands more – it demands that their chosen hermeneutic actualizes them!

I look forward to replies.

B’Shalom, Shmuly Yanklowitz

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

Walmart, Love and Universal Ethics

Pope Benedict of the Week

David Nirenberg a Jewish professor of (Jewish) history and social thought at the University of Chicago offers a review in the TNR of Benedict’s recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” He likes the message of love over market values, but asks: Why does it have to be framed as Catholic and not universal?

Benedict’s teaching differs from that of his predecessors in at least two important ways. The first is evident in the key term in his analysis: “love,” rather than “justice,” “natural law,” or “human reason,” the terms that were favored by some of his predecessors

As Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, we must divide our attention between 1) a self-interest in the lowest possible price for whatever object we desire; and 2) the needs of that object’s producers, of the environment in and from which it was made, and of the moral and fiscal balance of global trade (hence “consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing”); and 3) an openness to the loving “spirit of the gift.” Benedict is not simply suggesting a moral yardstick for the marketplace. He is claiming that every commercial exchange needs to become a loving act modeled on the gratuitous gift of Jesus Christ.

And only Catholicism, Benedict tells us, can achieve the universal fraternity necessary for authentic community: “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.

The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism. Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.

In a de-secularizing age, and with our faith in self-interest shaken by economic crisis, we should want to draw on the wisdom in that ocean of thought. But if those teachings are to contribute to global “unity and peace,” they will have to be taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them. This does not mean, as Benedict fears, that Christianity (or any other religion) must become “more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance,” or that “there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.” Values are not a zero-sum game. God’s place in the world is not lost when one religion tries to translate some of its truths into helpful good sentiments for those of other or no faith

Full review

To which Michael Sean Winters replies at NCR and at his blog at America that he likes the perspective of the historian but disagrees with the need for universalism

his article is so refreshing and so frustrating. On the one hand, he understands that the advent of capitalism and its values represented a “reversal of a millennial moral consensus”

If Nirenberg truly believes that Benedict’s vision is narrowed by his insistence on truth to the point of preventing dialogue, why write a review of the encyclical? Nirenberg’s effort disproves his own claim.

Who is correct?

I think A Jewish Call For Social Justice by Shmuly Yanklowitz is closer to David Nirenberg in that he discusses social justice without any claims of truth or higher values. But is Jewish pragmatism enough? Is Winters correct that David Nirenberg, and most Jews, are more utilitarian than principled?