"Probing the Jewish Tradition for Moral Guidance," 2003 Los Angeles Graduation Address - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

"Probing the Jewish Tradition for Moral Guidance," 2003 Los Angeles Graduation Address

Main Content
Monday, June 2, 2003

Graduation Address
May 19, 2003
HUC-JIR/Los Angeles

"Probing the Jewish Tradition for Moral Guidance”
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Ph.D.
Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Chair of Bioethics, University of Judaism

What a lovely day! People from near and far have come to celebrate the graduation of relatives and friends who have finished their course work and the achievements of those who have served the Jewish community with distinction for many years. A part of me feels that I should not spoil such a wonderful occasion with anything serious. To do that seems like ruining someone’s party.

But don’t worry – you won’t get off so easily! For after all, one of the ways Jews celebrate is by studying some part of our tradition. That is why we are not allowed to study most of our Jewish heritage on Tisha B’Av, the national day of fasting and mourning, because to study all but the saddest texts would bring us joy. So in line with the happy spirit of this day, it actually is fitting to probe our tradition for some wisdom, especially something appropriate to this occasion.

Today we mark and celebrate the preparation of people who will serve the Jewish community through communal service, education, and the rabbinate. We also mark and celebrate the accomplished and skillful work of people who have served in all three of those fields for quite some time. I have therefore chosen to talk about a theme that is common to all three fields – namely, the moral questions that arise in Jewish professional work and the relevance of the Jewish tradition to resolving them.

We Jews rightfully treasure our tradition for a whole host of reasons. Among others, it gives us a sense of roots and a sense of what to hope for; it makes life meaningful by marking off the events of life and the seasons of the week and the year; it gives us a wealth of wisdom about how to live life and sets a critically important tone of questioning absolutely everything; it gives us a worldwide community in the past, present, and future; it provides us with a complete civilization, with literature, philosophy, law, music, art, dance, and a homeland; it gives us a sense of the sacred and multiple ways to interact with God.

One other reason we cherish our tradition, though, is that it often gives us moral direction and motivation. And yet in modern times, we sometimes find that it is hard to apply the tradition to the issues that confront us. Sometimes that is because modern science and technology have created facts that our ancestors could never have even imagined, let alone treated, and sometimes the challenge comes from a very different direction – namely, the new social, political, and economic circumstances in which Jews find themselves in America, circumstances with few, if any, parallels in Jewish history.

Now, of course, one might say that when there is no clear precedent within the tradition for a given issue, we should simply say that Judaism has nothing to say about it. That has the merit of honesty, and it frees us from having to search long and hard for anything analogous in the tradition and from the inevitable arguments as to whether what one finds is indeed relevant or not. The problem, though, is that if one takes this approach, then Judaism becomes irrelevant to much of modern life, and that, I think, does a disservice to both Judaism and to Jews.

How, then, shall we apply our ancient tradition to the modern world? My teacher and very dear friend, Rabbi David Ellenson, has written that we should use an approach that focuses on the individual Jew’s choice of what parts of the Jewish tradition to use and how to apply them. He calls his method “covenantal,” with all of the warm and personal connotations of that term. My approach, on the other hand, he calls “halakhic formalism.” Oh dear, dear, dear! I need not tell you what that sounds like – harsh, legalistic, and downright Pharisaic in the worst, New Testament sense of the term. My approach is halakhic, it does pay particular attention to Jewish law in order to discern our moral duties. But what I had in mind is not what philosophers call “legal formalism” at all – that is, an approach in which you obey the law simply because it is the law and you determine its demands solely on the basis of what the texts say. Instead, I would use the living, dynamic Jewish legal system in which you obey the law for a whole variety of reasons and you determine its demands on the basis not only of precedent but also of theological, historical, social, moral, and even economic concerns. Well, this Pharisee will forgive Rabbi Ellenson because of the covenantal love I have for the man!

In any case, what I want to demonstrate to you is that whatever method you use to access the tradition, it can and should have some real moral meaning for you in your professional careers. I will illustrate that with three issues, one from each of the fields represented here today.

I am on the Board of Directors of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, and I chair its “J in JFS” committee, probing the Jewish components of our work, including the moral issues that arise. One issue that we are still in the midst of considering is the use of clients for publicity photos and for advocacy before governmental funding agencies. On the one hand, we clearly have a duty to preserve the privacy of our clients and to protect them from embarrassment. These concerns are deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition – in the Torah’s demand (Deuteronomy 24:10-11), for example, that a creditor collecting a pledge stand outside the debtor’s home in order to preserve that person’s dignity and privacy, and in another law (Deuteronomy 25:11-12; see Mishnah, Bava Kamma 8:1, 6; Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 86a-86b) that punishes a person for embarrassing someone in public. At the same time, sometimes clients want to help the agency in gratitude for the aid they received, and gratitude is also a deep Jewish value, expressed, in the case of God, in the one hundred blessings we are supposed to recite each day. Furthermore, we dare not infantilize our clients: the fact that they have received services from us does not rob them of the dignity to decide whether they want to help us in this way. We must, of course, do whatever we can to ensure that they or their photographs will not be used in a compromising way, but at some point they have both the right and the responsibility to judge the risks for themselves. And truthfully, on a purely practical level, while JFS might use actors for publicity shots, there is nothing like real clients to make the case for continued aid before governmental bodies. Weighing all these values from the tradition, we decided to open such service to our clients but only under very specific circumstances, crafted to make sure that this happens only when any risks of embarrassment are contained as much as possible and are fully explained. We are still in the process of refining those guidelines.

Now let us move from the world of Jewish communal service to the world of Jewish education. Jewish educators, especially in day schools, commonly face the problem that a significant percentage of parents want considerably less Jewish content than the Jewish educators do. What do you do when you are on a curriculum committee and parents are demanding a cut in the number of hours spent on Jewish learning? On the one hand, the Jewish tradition does value what we call “secular” or “general” studies. Even the nineteenth-century Orthodox rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, maintained that such studies are important not only because they enable Jews to earn a living, but also because through them we learn about God and God’s world. Furthermore, Rabban Gamliel teaches us in the Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers (2:2), “Study of Torah is good with a gainful occupation, for the work involved in both of them drives sin out of mind. Any study of Torah alone without work will, in the end, be futile and lead one to sin.” Rabbi Hirsch and Rabban Gamliel many centuries before him had to argue for secular studies, for their audiences assumed the value of Torah study. Our community needs to hear the opposite end of that, the need to study Torah. Abraham is already told to “instruct his children and posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19), and the Torah commands us several times to teach our own children and grandchildren diligently. As a matter of fact, two of those passages are included in the Shema that we say twice each day, and so this duty to learn Torah was clearly a major concern of the tradition. This was clearly not supposed to be a tradition of the elite, learned class; Moses was to “speak to the Children of Israel” (e.g., Numbers 15:37), and not just to the elders, and every seventh year the whole household of Israel, “men, women, and children,” were to hear the entire Torah read (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). The Rabbis only amplified on the importance of both children and adults learning our tradition; indeed, Jewish learning is to be life-long, very much an adult thing and not just a pediatric thing.

Thus in modern America, where Jews and Americans generally have all too often transformed work into an idol, making all of life’s decisions solely in the service of the god of work, and where that translates into parents putting tremendous pressure on their children to learn the secular skills necessary to succeed at work at the highest levels, it is extremely important that Jews recover their heritage’s instruction to learn Torah in order to make life meaningful. Work enslaves us and is for naught without Torah. This begins with what we teach our children, and so it is critical that Jewish educators teach children and their parents to balance secular studies designed to prepare children for their work and their place in secular society with Torah, through which they learn values and the meaning of life.

That requires more or less equal time in the curriculum devoted to Jewish and general studies. I know that that means that Jewish educators will need to fight parents who are only interested in getting their child into Harvard, but part of the role of a Jewish educator is to teach Jews the idolatry involved in a relentless drive for status in the secular world and, on the other hand, the sanity and health of the balance between work and Torah that our tradition prescribes.

And finally, let us look at a rabbinic issue. Rabbis are sometimes approached by women – and even by some men – who reveal that their spouse is physically abusing them. All too often in the past, rabbis have told such people to go home and make peace with their spouse in the name of the Jewish value of shelom bayit, the peace of the household. Rabbis were also worried about offending and embarrassing the spouse, a just concern derived from traditional Jewish sources that actually punish those who embarrass others as a tort (boshet – Mishnah, Bava Kamma 8:1, 6). That, however, is a misreading of the Jewish tradition, for as the Talmud makes clear, saving a person’s life (pikkuah nefesh) takes precedence over all the commandments in the Torah save three, and these are not among the exceptions (Sanhedrin 74a-74b). Even when the abuse is short of being life-threatening, we have the duty to protect such people just as we have the duty to protect anybody in danger, for the Torah says, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16; see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a). Civil law now makes rabbis and educators, among others, mandated reporters to the authorities with regard to child abuse, but no such reporting law exists for adult spouses. Thus rabbis need to respond to such cases of family violence in line with the Jewish tradition’s priorities, where saving a person from death or injury takes precedence over any concerns for the embarrassment involved, even if that means that the temple will lose a member.

In these few examples, I have tried to demonstrate that the Jewish tradition can indeed be fruitfully used to help us with our modern dilemmas in Jewish professional life. Jews may, and almost inevitably will, disagree with each other as to how to read the tradition generally or on any particular matter. In response to the old joke that when you have two Jews you have three opinions, someone recently asked me, “Do you really have to have two Jews for three opinions?!” That feistiness and tolerance of argumentation, though, does not rob the tradition of anything substantive to say to us. Quite the contrary, all that means is that we have to study our tradition harder, that throughout our lives we Jews, and perhaps especially we Jewish professionals, have to hone our skills in applying our tradition to the dilemmas of the modern day. And so in the end, I am simply reiterating in perhaps a new way what the Mishnah taught us long ago: “Ben Bag-Bag taught: Turn it over, and turn it over again, for you will find everything in it” (Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers 5:24).

printer friendly version

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu