Chabad at Stanford
Wisdom Center
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By: Heshel Greenburg

What distinguishes the symphonic order from the cacophonous world of chaos is to be found in human ethics. Whatever the ethical system one follows, its objective is to introduce order and harmony into one's life and into one's world. But these systems, similarities notwithstanding, have different foundations. It is important that we understand the foundational basis of Jewish ethics and how it distinguishes itself from other forms of ethics.
Let us begin with a discussion of the foundation of all ethical systems. They are invariably based on one of three premises: intuition, mutual self-preservation or Outside authority. To put it in somewhat original terms and to coin some new terminology: In-tuition, co-tuition or Out-tuition.

Systems that are based on intuition believe that ethics are innate to the human condition and the universe. Some describe this as Natural Law. Accordingly, all one has to do is to probe beneath the surface and block out all of the external static and unwarranted distractions to find the inner message that tells us how to live our lives harmoniously and morally. Eastern religions and modern New Age philosophies are known for their adherence to this looking inside to find a meaningful system of harmonious living.

The beauty of this system of ethics is that it involves the individual. It is not superficial and despotic. Ethics do not command but are in complete harmony with one's most inner self. Ethical life liberates the person rather than overwhelms the person. Moral behavior in this system is redemptive rather than suffocating.

The possible deficiency of this system, however, is that it is subjective and cannot be validated by any outside criteria.

The most disconcerting aspect of this approach to ethics, however, is that it is almost impossible to discern between the inner voice of one's conscience and the viewpoints that have been absorbed as a result of an insidious indoctrination process. When we express an opinion about a moral issue, we must be very cautious when we think our view is based on some innate sense of right and wrong: it is possible that it is a product of a message from the popular media that was integrated, either consciously or subliminally, into our belief system. How many hours of indoctrination have we been exposed to that may shape and mold our way of thinking in a way that is absolutely not connected to any inner truth or consciousness?

The second foundation of some ethical systems is the idea that only when we behave ethically can we all survive on this planet. Ethics is thus defined as behavior that will ensure mutual existence and well-being. This co-tuition approach to ethics is what spawned work and concepts like cooperation and co-existence, both of which suggest respect for the existence of the other, which, in turn, ensures that others respect us. The strength of this approach is that it guarantees proper conduct even when individuals are not in touch with their inner self and conscience. One does not have to be spiritual to want to "live and prosper," as Leonard Nimoy often said. Thus, for our collective good we must have an ethical system that will ensure all of our survivability.

But this system has its own flaws. Selfish interests that can resist this form of ethics are often blinding. They can distort our judgment and make us think that our destructive behavior will not be detected or will go unpunished. In addition, the mere knowledge that a certain act is wrong because it is self-destructive does not guarantee that the individual imbued with this knowledge will not act immorally. In Kabbalah we are told that the narrow passage between the mind and the heart-the neck-represents the natural occlusion that does not allow automatically the mind's perception of reality to descend or translate into one's emotions and actions.

Many will therefore point to the absolute necessity for the third foundation of ethics, which is the Outside authority. In simple language this refers to a Divine-given system of ethics that comes from a source that is impeccable and absolute, that imposes itself on our minds, hearts and actions.

But even this third system cannot guarantee complete success. Even within a system that bases itself on the belief in a Creator and revelation, as is the premise of virtually all religious ethical systems, there can still be a serious lacuna.

The Talmud cited the irony in the case of the thief who prays to the Almighty as he stands on the threshold of the house he is about to break into and enter. Why would a person who has faith, as is evident by the fact that he stopped to pray, act contrarily to his faith by violating the law? Is he a hypocrite? Obviously not. There are no observers to his act of piety that he might be trying to impress. The only explanation for this anomalous behavior is that faith-and even sincere, profound faith-does not necessarily translate into action. Faith exists on the periphery of our psyche, while understanding, emotion and action constitute its inner substance. In mystical terminology we can put it this way: Faith rests in the core of our souls; it will not necessarily express itself onto the outer layers of our personalities which govern our actions.

And here is where the eclectic nature of Judaism's ethical system manifests itself. Jewish ethics are predicated on all three premises. Judaism does ask us to accept the Torah's reality even when it appears to challenge our intellect. But Judaism also asks of us to nurture our soul's appreciation for the Mitzvot (good deed). They are not only derived from a Supra-Rational Divine source, but that Divine source is also internalized within us at the core of our soul.

But Jewish ethics provides us with the third system as well. Judaism demands of us to develop a social consciousness, one that will compel us to act ethically even when we are not receptive to the voice of Sinai, when our soul's inspiration is stifled and we cannot consciously feel our soul's cry for more moral and spiritual behavior. Judaism does not give up on us. It has provided us with the skills to live ethically, even when our ethical antennae do not pick up the signals from without or within. We have been conditioned to act morally and responsibly, because Judaism has also conditioned us to be socially conscious.

These three ethical engines of Judaism can perhaps be represented by the three categories of commandments we find in the Torah: The Chukim (supra-rational commandments), Eidot (testimonials) and Mishpatim (rational civil laws).

While the Chukim jolt us into obedience, the sentimental and spiritually oriented Eidot nurture and arouse our soul and the Mishpatim mold our social consciousness. Together they form a threefold bond that will not unravel quickly.

Rabbi Greenberg is the Director of the Jewish Discovery Center in Buffalo and Lecturer of Judaic Studies, State University of New York at Buffalo. He is also host of the popular "Let My People Know" weekly Television program. He has authored several books, and over 300 scholarly articles in English and Hebrew publications.