Friday, February 15, 2008

"In all thy ways" -- more on the tightrope

In returning to Rabbi Wurzburger's work Ethics of Responsibilty this morning I found these lines:

The applicability of the norms and values of Jewish Covenantal Ethics is by no means restricted to the members of the Jewish Covenantal Community. Although at the present time the religiously committed Jewish community seems to turn ever more inward and tends to focus primarily upon the particularistic and nationalistic elements of its heritage, I believe it to be of special importance to call attention to its universalistic components. While the ritualistic elements of Judaism are completely particularistic and intended exclusively for individuals who either by birth or by conversion qualify as members of the People of the Covenant, Jewish ethical teachings are not subject to the same kind of limitation but are viewed as possessing universal relevance. p8

I look upon Halakhah as an indispensable component but not as coextensive with the full range and scope of the Jewish normative system. I deliberately avoid the term “Halakhic Ethics,” preferring to speak of “Covenantal Ethics.” In my view, Jewish ethics encompasses not only outright halakhic rules governing the area of morality, but also intuitive moral responses arising from the Covenantal relationship with God, which provides the matrix for forming ethical ideals not necessarily patterned after legal models. To use Erich Fromm’s terminology,35 Judaism provides for an “ethics of responsibility” as well as for an “ethics of duty” or an “ethics of obedience.” p15

35. Fromm, Gods, 56

There is no basis for the claim once made by a prominent Christian theologian that “Judaism recognizes no religious requirement unless one can find through ingenious interpretation of the Law the necessary rules of conduct.”36 The absurdity of this characterization becomes evident when we recall the wellknown talmudic statement that the verse “In all thy ways thou shalt acknowledge Him”37 represents the most succinct formulation of our religious ideal.38 Similarly, R. Yosei declared that “all your actions should be performed for the sake of God.”39 Acts need not be perceived as instances of a specific religious norm in order to be performed for the sake of Heaven. p15

36. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the World (New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1934), 69.
37. Prov. 3:6.
38. B. Berakhot 63a. See Wurzburger, “Law as the Basis of a Moral Society.” Tradition (Spring 1981): 51.
39. Avot 2:12. See also B. Beitzah 16a, which attributes this maxim to Hillel.

What strikes me in these paragraphs and in the highlighted lines in particular is that in some way Rabbi Wurzburger is again walking the "tightrope between a 'revealed will of God' and 'intuitive judgements'" that I wrote about in this post.

It is a tightrope that seems to me to exist between the Shulchan Aruch and the Talmud. One that defines very clear religious norms and prescriptions for actions and one that welcomes one into a dialogue and discussion about those norms and much more. But both together in their attention to minute detail both are clearly paths to acknowledging Hashem in "In all thy ways." And only when that is the ultimate motivation and driving desire, it seems would one be in a position to make the "intuitive moral responses" that Rabbi Wurzburger describes.

It is this message of ultimate importance of all our actions that is important for a universal audience, because it can provide an alternative to the messages of meaningless and hopelessness that often surround us.

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