Values a jewish Perspective Jonathan Gorsky

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Values — A Jewish Perspective
Jonathan Gorsky
THE STORY OF THE destruction of Sodom is one of

the most striking of the early Biblical narratives.

Before the city is destroyed, there is a famous

dialogue between God and Abraham that forcibly

illustrates the Biblical perception of values.

Abraham is considered worthy of being taken into

the Divine confidence, because he will be prepared

to teach his children the way of God, which

consists in the doing of righteousness and justice. It

is the entire purpose of God's relationship with the

Abrahamic family that Abraham's values will be a

blessing for all of the peoples of the world.¹

When God has confided his plan to destroy the

wicked cities, the dialogue takes a surprising turn:

Abraham protests. Perhaps there are also righteous

people in the city, albeit a tiny minority, and how

can God cause the righteous to perish with the

wicked? For Abraham, this is a very terrible

prospect and he concludes his argument with a

plea: "How can it be that the judge of all the world

will not act justly?" God accepts Abraham's protest,

and the dialogue continues.

Several features emerge from the story.

Righteousness and justice are to be the focal points

of the religious life; there is no mention at this

point of prayer, spirituality or the mystical

knowledge of God. The Divine way in the world is

described in terms of two key values which must

inspire all of our relationships.
Justice is not only instrumental in the pursuit of

civilised human purposes; it is a transcendent

absolute, binding upon God Himself. Even God is

not permitted to conduct Himself in an arbitrary

manner in meting out punishment to the sinful.

Abraham is sufficiently troubled by this prospect to

risk his all and protest against the Divine decision;

if justice is threatened every risk must be taken and

Abraham is prepared for the ultimate sacrifice that

his action might entail, in this world and the next.

Justice was not invented by Abraham; there were

courts and law codes in the world around him. But

it is in this narrative that justice is transformed from

an instrumental value into a transcendent absolute

that is supremely described as the Divine Way. It is

precisely because the value is absolute that it

commands not only obedience but self-sacrifice. If

justice is supplanted by arbitrary behaviour,

especially in the Divine conduct, it will be wholly

transformed, and its nature will be irrevocably

Jewish tradition has tended to link Abraham with

a very different value, that of compassion. The

tradition teaches that Abraham's tent, where he

offered hospitality to the three angels, was placed

at a crossroads, so travelers from all directions

would be able to find shelter. The Biblical

description of Abraham sitting in the heat of the

day and running to welcome the unknown figures

who are to be his guests is intensified by a tradition

that this took place three days after his

circumcision, when he was still very ill.²
For Abraham, compassion, like justice, is

transcendent. Abraham pitches his tent in a lonely

spot, presumably at some distance from the nearest

village. His home, like his life, is to he a blessing for

all who come, rather than a private domestic

retreat. Illness and pain are nor permitted to inhibit

or restrain his duty to care for others. Compassion

is truly realised in self-sacrifice; when every aspect

of pleasantness and indulgence is absent the

"other" becomes truly central, and a new mode of

relating to the world is created in the simple

actions of a family welcoming their guests.

For later Judaism, identity with values that are

simultaneously attributes of the Divine is a way of

holiness that will restore God's image within all


A verse in Deuteronomy (13.5) tells us that we

should walk after the Lord our God. One of the

Rabbis, Hama bar Hanina, asked how could this be

possible? "How can we walk after God? Is He not

a consuming fire? What the verse means is we

ought to walk after the Divine attributes. Just as

the Lord clothes the naked, attends the sick,

comforts the mourners and buries the dead, so we

must do likewise".
A similar tradition has Moses confronted by the-

same problem, when he teaches people to walk in

the Divine way, for surely the Lord is in the

whirlwind and the storm is His way and the clouds

are the dust of His feet? Moses responds to his

questioner that he was referring, not to the storm,

but the ways of compassion, truth and charity. The

Torah opens and closes with acts of loving

kindness. So do you follow after the qualities of

God. For the medieval philosopher Maimonides

"God is the final purpose of everything ... it is the

aim of all things to become...similar to God in

Furthermore, the Jewish perception of values can

be socially explosive. Consider Amos of Tekoah;

eighth century B.C.E. herdsman, dresser of

sycamore trees and scourge of those who were at

ease in Zion and secure in the mountain of

Samaria. Amos stands over against the

establishment of his day: "Hear this, 0 ye that
would swallow the needy, and destroy the poor of

the land, saying when will the new moon (a

religious holiday) be gone that we sell grain, and

the sabbath that we display our corn? Make the

measure small and the coin great, and falsify the

scales of deceit, that we may buy the poor for silver

and the needy for a pair of shoes... the Lord will not

forget your doings." Incensed by injustice and

hypocrisy, he abuses the very houses of worship:

"Take away from me the noise of the songs and let

me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. But let

justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a

mighty stream!"4
For the twentieth century scholar Abraham Joshua

Heschel, the prophet is a person who suffers when

harm is done to others. Wherever the crime is

committed it is as if the prophet were the victim,

Heschel argues that the great contribution of the

prophet was the discovery of the evil of

indifference. The prophet is overwhelmed by the

anger of God when the rights of the poor are

violated and vulnerable people are oppressed.5 If

we transpose this into the contemporary world of

the homeless and the asylum seeker its force

becomes readily apparent. The prophet makes no

nice distinction between religion and politics and

has scant regard for piety nurtured amidst a sea of

unwarranted suffering.
Judaism's greatest concern has been to bring this

perception of values into the world of the every day.

Values were implicit in family, community and in

the Talmudic debate that was the central focus of

the traditional curriculum. Traditional Jewish

education was primarily concerned with the

developmenr of the moral person. Economic life —

making ones living — was secondary, and largely the

responsibility of the family, rather than the school

room. Jewish pro-occupation with the nitty-gritty

of legal debate instilled a sense of the value of truth

and right behaviour in its students and was

intended to form and discipline character.
Like their modern counterparts, teachers were not

satisfied that their students would have a

knowledge of values:— they wanted them to be

moral people who would behave justly and

compassionately in all aspects of their lives. The

central concern of the educator, like the Creator

whom they served was ënaaseh adam', let us make

a person — in the fullest sense. When Rabbi

Yeruham Leibovitz, a spiritual director who lived in

the earlier part of this century, was asked what his

students, who spent their days and nights in the

study of Talmud, would ultimately achieve, he

replied that if they were traveling on a bus and a

fellow passenger needed a seat, he hoped they

would stand up and let the other passenger sit

down. The Rabbi was telling his questioner that

to create a society where everyone behaved like

this could only be achieved with great and

passionate endeavour.
Rabbinic Judaism lays heavy emphasis on the

constant trials that beset the achievement of a

moral life, particularly the continual need for the

restraint of egoism and human desires. It is possible

to sanctify every aspect of our being, but time is

short and the work is great, for we are beset by trial

and temptation.
This vision has lead to much emphasis upon the

discipline of practical behaviour, rather than a

preoccupation with the abstract analysis of values.

Values are known and implicit, but education

concentrates on discussing behaviour in real

situations, and character is developed outside the

classroom, in family and community, as well as in

the schoolroom. When the rabbis speak of loving

our neighbour, the central thrust is neither

emotional nor "caring" in the modern sense; it is

rather to encode practical obligations to those

around us. In the ensuing interaction, self-

centredness is slowly transformed, and our capacity

for mutual love is gradually nurtured.

Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish practice,

writes as follows: The following positive

commandments were ordained by the rabbis:

visiting the sick; comforting the mourners; joining

a funeral procession; escorting departing guests;

performing the last offices for the dead...causing

the bride and groom to rejoice and providing for

their wedding. Although all of these obligations are

rabbinic in origin, they are implied in the precept:

"And you shall love your neighbour as yourself".

These obligations became the building blocks of

Jewish communal life, and as children grew up they

would be involved as a matter of course in a

landscape that would be taken for granted.6

The recent work of the National Forum for Values

and Education in the Community reflects a

growing concern with the state of values in

contemporary British society. The forum was

intended to reassure teachers that employers and

the wider world continue to regard values as

essential, and would support the classroom in its

moral endeavours- It was also clearly intended to

dispute the contentions of moral relativists who

maintain that values have no objective authority

and are, therefore, not the business of school

teachers. When these contentions are linked with

a political discourse that identifies educational

aims with economic utility, it is clear that the

National Council's contribution should not be


Nevertheless, writing from a Jewish traditional

standpoint, major concerns remain. Firstly, a far

sturdier response to moral relativism is called for.

While Judaism sees values in terms of transcendent

absolutes, it does not deny that they are also

objectively significant in social life. Moral

relativism is the polar opposite of these positions,

and should be explicitly debated, as it is apparently

highly influential among those responsible for the

training of teachers. The implication that values

can only be ascertained on a consensual basis — if

you wish to know what values are you must take a

representative sample of the population and ask

them — virtually sells the pass that the Forum

wishes to defend.
Moral relativists have argued that values are a

matter of personal choice. Different cultures have

created different values and no value can be

endowed with objective authority, because it does

not refer to an objective state of affairs. My values

are my own business and they cannot be prescribed

for me by teachers or anyone else.
Against this it can be contended that values are

necessary and indispensable elements of activities

and relationships. A scholar who falsifies evidence

is not merely a scholar who has made a personal

choice about the value of truth; her work is not

scholarship at all. A relationship in which one

partner chooses to be unfaithful is necessarily

transformed by that choice, and very possibly

destroyed. In the absence of fairness and civility a

classroom will dissolve into chaos and cease to be

an environment of learning. Activities and

relationships are necessarily dependent on values,

which are essential elements of objective social

situations. They do exist "out there" and cannot be

regarded as personal, or purely cultural, constructs.

(The unspoken role of moral considerations in

public policy is a reasonable subject for enquiry.

Historians who refuse to accept this on the grounds

that their role is not to sit in Judgement on the past

have wholly misunderstood the point, confusing

moral analysis with judgementalism. When

Kitchener’s famous poster proclaimed that Your

Country needs You, it presupposed a universe of

shared moral assumptions. To tease these out is not

to sit in judgement..)7
Furthermore, Judaism, and other religious

traditions, offer educational models that differ from

the current wisdom in terms of their aims.

Admittedly in the modern world most jobs require

a variety of skills that can only be imparted in the

classroom, and therefore they will be given

substantial space in the curriculum; economic

matters can no longer be left to family or

apprenticeship. But it does not follow at all that

educational aims are wholly synonymous with the

achievement of economic goals. We all inhabit

family, community, society and the wider world,

and take on many different roles and

responsibilities. We are all confronted by the great

existential questions of life. A moral curriculum

must surely challenge the utilitarian rhetoric that

governs some contemporary thinking.
Finally, there is a sense, in reading the National

Forum's principles, that they have not recognised

how difficult it can be to live a moral life. Schools

have traditionally conveyed values as part of their

implicit discipline, in a manner that considerably

resembles Jewish practice and for similar reasons,

Moral behaviour demands knowledge and skills,

but it is beset by dilemmas, trials, and conflict with

elemental inclinations. I am to behave morally

even if I must stand out against peer pressure, or the

prospect of losing my job. A moral decision in the

context of the Armed services, or other walks of

life, involving disobeying orders or instructions,

might have very grave consequences. I am to

behave honestly even if material interest might

dictate the opposite, and my decision will have to

be made quickly and under great pressure. The

Jewish sense of the transcendent nature of values

can provide inspiration, but even so the obstacles

remain very powerful and the modern curriculum

must recognise that the demands of the moral life

are radically distinct from those of normative

academic disciplines.
This point emerges with great pathos in the

debates over the teaching of family values. The

pressures of modern society often create situations

where people whose values are deeply held simply

cannot cope. The emotional pressures on married

couples are greater than in earlier generations,

when extended family and a rich network of

face-to-face communal relationships meant that

there were many with whom the couple could

share their burdens. Today couples are far more

dependent on each other for emotional support,

which cannot always be given if both partners are

suffering equal stresses. The demands of dual

careers in a culture where working hours are the

longest in Europe are surpassed only by the

pressure of grinding poverty that afflicts a growing

number of British families. Mediating the radically

changed role perception of modern women with

familial demands can be very difficult, and it is no

surprise that divorce rates indicate that the family

has become a most fragile institution.
Schools could undoubtedly help by preparing

pupils for the unprecedented complexity of modern

family life, and by offering insight drawn from

different disciplines combined with the living

experience of modern family members. But the

assumption that all will be well if certain values are

included in the curriculum is wholly erroneous.

The National Forum's work will be useful only if it

is seen as a beginning, rather than an end. The key

debate is about the aims of education. We need a

curriculum that recognises the complexity and

pathos of the moral life, and offers pupils

preparation and insight that will be equal to the

trials they will encounter. This is a major

educational enterprise, it raises very profound

questions, and offers fruitful ground for dialogue

between modem educators and the great religious

traditions of this country.

1. Genesis 18: 17-33
2. Genesis, 18: 1 and Rabbinic commentaries. For a summary

see Cohen, A. (ed) The Soncino Chumash (Soncino Press,

1993) p. 86.
3. Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 14a. Midrash Tanhuma:

VaYishlach, 10. Maimonides: (Guide to the Perplexed (tr: M.

Friedlander) 1:69. For a full discussion see Shapiro, D.S. The

Doctrine of the Image of God and Imitatio Dei in Kellner,

M.M. (ed) Contemporary Jewish Ethics (Hebrew Publishing

Company, N.Y. 1978) pp. 127-151.

4. Amos 8: 4-6. 5: 23-4,
5. Heschel, A.J. The Prophets (Harper Torchbooks, 1962) Vol.

11 p. 64.

6. Maimonides: Mishneh Torah: Laws of Mourning 14.1, For

translation see Twersky, I. A Maimonides Reader (N.Y. 1972)

7. For a heated but accessible discussion on moral relativism

and education see Melanie Phillips' All Must Have Prizes

(Warner, 1997) pp. 219-32.

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