Ethics is a subject that people speak about often and most people think that the Torah must discuss it. In my book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind,” from which this blog is taken, I show that this is not true.
The American College Dictionary defines ethics as “the principles of morality … the rules of conduct,” and defines morality as “conformity to the rules of right conduct.” The stress in both definitions is on principles and rules, which signifies an organized system. Are there well thought out rules or principles of conduct in the Bible?
A second related question is whether the Jewish system of ethics, whether biblical or post-biblical, is situational. “Situational ethics” refers to the belief that there is no strict ethical standard that is applicable to every situation; instead, what is considered a good and acceptable act varies depending on the situation in which people find themselves. Absolute ethics, on the other hand, refers to a standard of ethical behavior that is applicable to all situations.
Religious and Rational Approaches to Ethics
Most religious people view situational ethics as irreligious, irrational and offensive. They are convinced that God must have created in the world an organized system of good and bad behavior. Rationalists, of course, take a different approach. In their opinion, God expects people to act as adults, to use the mind that God gave them and not behave as dependent children.
Does the Bible Have a System of Ethics?
The religious would therefore be surprised to learn that there is no system of ethics listed anywhere in the Bible. It is not in the five books of Moses and prophetical writings. The Bible does not even have a word for ethics.
To cite one of dozens of examples, in I Samuel 27, the Bible does not criticize David for killing men and women for the sole purpose of keeping them from revealing to the Philistine king that he had killed non-Israelites rather than Israelites. Similarly, Jacob in Genesis 34 does not admonish his sons for destroying the entire city of Shechem for ethical reasons; his objection is that their actions put him in a bad light among the surrounding nations.
It is true, of course, that the Bible does reprimand people frequently, but it is never because they violated a system of ethics. It is also true that within the Bible the prophets spoke of proper behavior; however, they, too, never developed an ethical system. It was not until the Common Era, in the Talmud, that the rabbis began to discuss the subject of ethical behavior.
The first attempt was the statement that a person must copy the behavior of God based on the rabbis’ understanding of that behavior as proper. This concept is called imitatio dei and is derived from Deuteronomy 13:5 “one should walk after God” and Deuteronomy 28:9 “you should walk in His [God’s] ways.” The concept is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a, and Shabbat 133b. Thus, just as God is said homiletically to have buried Moses, so, too, Jews should engage in the proper burial of the dead.
This approach to ethics is God- and not human-oriented. A human-oriented approach would focus on what helps humans maintain themselves and improve. A God-oriented approach, however, bases itself only on the desires of God.
Many religious Jews today view ethics as God-oriented. If asked for a definition of ethics, they will offer a list of actions that they believe God desires rather than a description of what is best for people. Their list will frequently mention somewhat mystical and pious items that are not very specific and do not give clear directions.
Rabbinic Efforts to Delineate Ethical Systems
Bachya ibn Paquda (c. 1040–1080) wrote the book Chovat halevavot (Duties of the Heart), a book that many religious Jews consider the classic work on Jewish ethics. Paquda was a Neo-Platonic mystic who felt that most Jews pay too much attention to the outward observance of Jewish law and ignore the spirit and purpose of the divine laws, the duties of the heart. As a result, these people usually act in a selfish manner and focus their attention on worldly motives.
Although Paquda recognizes the importance of reason, he stresses the significance of divine revelation and tradition. In the book, he develops a list of proper behaviors and emphasizes asceticism, union with God, fear, love and trust in God, and repentance.
Ethics According to Moses Chayim Luzzatto
Another classical text on ethics, which reflects the same God-oriented-list approach, is Mesillat yesharim (The Path of the Just) by the mystic Moses Chayim Luzzatto (1707–1747). Luzzatto praises the virtues of separation, purity, saintliness, humility, fear of sin and holiness. “One who is holy,” he writes poetically, if imprecisely, “clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his creator – such a person is one walking before God in the land of the living, here in this world. Such a person is himself considered a tabernacle, a sanctuary, an altar.”
Maimonides’ Philosophy of Ethics
Remembering that Maimonides was organized and consistent in his thinking, one can predict what he might say about ethics. Some highlights of his philosophy, which serve as a basis for his understanding of ethics, follow.
- Maimonides emphasizes the importance of attaining knowledge and thinking. In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:13, for example, he states that metaphysics, the highest level of thinking, is a “great thing,” while the legal discussions of the talmudists Abbaye and Rava, who lived in the fourth century, are a “small thing.”
- Maimonides focuses on humanity and this world, not on God. Thus, for example, he identifies three human purposes of the biblical commands – teaching proper thoughts, improving individuals, and bettering society – while most people of his age and thereafter maintained that the aim of the biblical commands was to bring a person close to God.
- He draws many of his ideas from the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
- His focus is on philosophy, not mysticism.
We will see that Maimonides’ conception of ethics is knowledge-oriented, designed to protect and improve human behavior and based on the philosophy of Aristotle.
Maimonides’ Prescription to Cure the Human Personality
Maimonides discusses ethics in many of his writings, but principally in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Shemoneh Perakim; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot; and Guide of the Perplexed.
Maimonides emphasizes that improper behavior distorts and destroys a human being, ruining a person’s thinking, personality and life.
According to Maimonides, people must examine their behavior, just as a physician examines an ill body, to uncover their faults, and treat the improper behavior before it harms them, just as a doctor treats an illness.
A proper activity, as Aristotle taught, is to develop habits of behavior according to the golden mean. People should shun extremes in their behavior. For example, appropriate charity is neither giving too much nor too little. Both are extremes that should be avoided. Correct and intelligent conduct is in the middle, giving charity that helps others while not impoverishing oneself. Thoughtful people develop suitable habits so that when a situation arises, they can act promptly and correctly, almost instinctively.
Maimonides uses the Hebrew term deot when discussing ethics. The word is derived from the Hebrew deah and denotes “knowledge.” It stresses the intellectual component of ethical qualities, advising that good conduct is the result of study, knowing oneself and using that understanding.
The Bible does not discuss ethics. The rabbis introduced this subject during the Common Era. Most early rabbis understood proper ethical behavior as doing what God wants to be done. Maimonides’ view of what constitutes ethical behavior differed. He focused on improving people in a rational manner. He saw an analogy between keeping a person’s mind and behavior healthy and the physician’s treatment of the body. People must examine and know themselves and develop behavior that is not extreme, developing habits that conform to the “golden mean.” In contrast to the God-oriented approach of many Jewish thinkers, Maimonides’ view of ethics focused on activities which help people improve themselves and society.