For the last few years, I have been a member of a local hospital’s ethics committee. The hospital is part of a university-based system and the committee’s chair is a scholarly pulmonologist with a propensity to pick cases involving life and death choices. Other members include nurses, medical specialists, administrators, and social workers. I am the only clergy member of the group. The literature we review is mostly derived from case histories written by medical doctors and generally balances such diverse factors as medical practice, hospital liability, economics, patient rights, and culture. Our purpose is not to advise but rather to review past cases, many with close parallels in our hospital. Our chair never insists we come to a group decision but always carefully opens up the various ethical dimensions of each topic we consider. For sure, sitting on this committee has been helpful to me in my pastoral work especially when it involves end-of-life decisions. However, on several occasions I have pointed out to the committee that we never refer to nonmedical ethical literature nor does the committee maintain anything resembling a scientific system or mathematical scale to rate or prioritize its moral thinking. As in so many sectors of life today, the committee is its own ethical silo.
The lack of an explicit ethical system for this hospital committee is not surprising or unusual but it is worrisome to me. For the most part, we too as individuals live our lives on a case-by-case basis and maintain a strong but nonsystematic ethical sense of what constitutes right and wrong for a number of situations in life. For many of us, ethics actually begin with a verse from this week’s double portion Acharei Mot/K’doshim: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Known as the Golden Rule, it appears in some form in almost every major religious tradition in the world and is widely viewed as one of the common denominators connecting most — if not all — faith communities. As early as the second century, Rabbi Akiba proclaimed that the Golden Rule is “the great principle of Judaism” itself.
Of course, there are also problems with the Golden Rule. The most common challenge is the meaning of “neighbor.” Does neighbor only mean someone you already know or more narrowly, in the original context of the verse, does it represent only your Jewish neighbor? A second challenge is to the words “as yourself.” What happens if you love yourself too much or not enough? Then what happens to your neighbor? And is self-love ultimately too narcissistic and thus inadequate as a basis for any system of universal ethics?
Scholars, moral philosophers, and modern ethicists have long debated the origins of ethics. Is it possible that basic human ethics derive from a kin altruism that is also present among primates, wolves, dolphins, and other living creatures? Among prehistoric, primal, and early historic people, ethical origins and moral codes are often embedded in myths, themselves products of even more ancient oral traditions. The fifth-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus already observed that ethics might be culturally specific, a view powerfully documented by Finnish scholar Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) in his early 20th century classic, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. Westermarck is also well known for his study of human marriage.
The rational and systematic exposition of ethics has been a global phenomenon for thousands of years beginning in India and China; flourishing in Greece; expanding through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and flourishing again in a spectrum of modern and now postmodern secular systems. Jewish ethics today reflect a wide spectrum of systems, which begin with Judaism’s rich classic literature and, to different degrees, include the influences and challenges of the whole world of ethical thought — current and historical.
Ethics have been a primary concern of Reform Judaism almost from the beginning of it history. Reform ethics, however, are not monolithic and have evolved in numerous ways during the last two centuries. Rabbis, philosophers, theologians, and ethicists have all added to the discussion with a number of dramatic results. For many Reform Jews today, the most direct road into Reform Jewish ethical discourse is through responsa generated by Reform rabbis and social justice statements issued by the Reform Movement. Others simply rely on their own ethical instincts and ascribe their views to Reform Judaism.
What are some of the macro challenges specifically faced by theorists attempting to build a systematic approach to an ethical philosophy of Reform Judaism?
First is the question of divine origin or, put simply, does God legislate our morality? Take for example the Golden Rule also known as Lev HaTorah. While it is common practice to state “love your neighbor as yourself,” an expanded version of the end of Leviticus 19:18 is “love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal.” The short version of the Golden Rule could be viewed either as religious or secular; the longer version, religious only.
The question of the possible secular origins of ethics itself is a serious matter in the history of Reform Judaism. By reading the short dictum, “love your neighbor as yourself” as a rational teaching based on human reason and universal in its applicability, Reform philosophers were universalizing Jewish ethics and redefining God, the Author of ethics, as a universal God, and thereby reconstituting the Jewish people as the messengers of a universal message. The purpose or mission of the Jewish people in this scenario is not ethnic but ethical, and our cultural specificity as a people highly negotiable. In short, Judaism could simply and primarily be defined as menschlichkeit, “ethical humanness.” Yiddishkeit, “Jewishness,” on the other hand, is secondary and retractable in so-called Classical Reform Judaism.
On the other hand, arguing that “love your neighbor as yourself” is of divine proposition is equally if not more difficult for many Reform Jews today. Ironically, all of Parashat K’doshim helps establish a well-known religious paradigm called imitatio Dei or the “imitation of God.” In Judaism, the mitzvot provide a sacred path through life that is meant to increase holiness and have the Jewish people live as God would have them live, that is like God. Thus, we even have texts depicting God as studying Torah, wearing t’fillin, and, of course, keeping Shabbat. In this regard, Reform theologians could argue that “love of neighbor” is a Jewish covenantal responsibility. The question is which covenant?: the Torah, the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of the United States, or just common sense?
Classical Reform Judaism generally opposed Zionism as it viewed the Jews as having a universal, ethical mission, that is, to bring about the day when everyone would love their neighbors equally, when cultural, national, and even religious differences ultimately would melt away. By contrast from certain Zionist and Jewish nationalist perspectives, it might be argued that Jewish nationalism restored Jewishness to the definition of neighbor in the Golden Rule. The Jewish people, theorists argued, needed to prioritize their relationship with other Jews, create a Jewish polity, and reach out to the remaining Diaspora-based Jews to enter into a special relationship with Jews in the national homeland. In this scenario, Jews can and should still love all of humanity but should love other Jews a little more. Of course, Zionism does not have to be a narrow, xenophobic nationalism. The goyim, the “other peoples of the world,” do not have to be goyim in the Yiddish sense of the term — dumb, inferior, sometimes evil gentiles — but simply other people parallel to the Jews but in no way bad or repugnant.
The problem of the concept of neighbor in the Zionist context becomes even more complex with respect to Jewish-Palestinian relations. Most Reform Jews, myself included, strongly support Israel’s right to exist and reject the claim of moral equivalency with respect to the origins of the Arab-Israeli struggle. But how do we link concepts of neighbor with non-Jewish Israeli civil rights, the human rights of Palestinians in disputed territories, and the national rights of the Palestinian people? On one hand, there are real issues about Israeli security. On the other hand, we recently saw thousands of Israeli teenagers collect tens of thousands of blankets for Syrian refugees and humanitarian organizations like ISRAaid developing in Israel for the purpose of international emergency rescue! Loving one’s neighbor cannot be ignored and is hard to define even in the face of existential conflict.
Around the same time Reform Judaism began to debate its ethical relationship with Zionism, it also began to discuss social justice and love of neighbor from an economic perspective. The eighth and final plank in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform states:
In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.
In this radical conclusion, were the rabbis asserting that “freedom from need” is the highest expression of “love of neighbor?” By today’s standards, this is still a radical but worthy challenge.
Finally, modern feminism has been nothing short of a revolution in human relations including an ongoing process in Reform Judaism to reevaluate the place of women in the modern practice of Judaism, and the social reconstruction of women and feminine in the Jewish tradition. Beginning with the premise that the Golden Rule and by extension, Jewish ethics, was written by Jewish men for Jewish men, Reform feminism demands more than a simple expansion of the Golden Rule to women. There are halachic issues that need to be overcome for Jewish women (as in the current struggle at the Kotel), general views of womanhood, and the continuing problem of women’s internalization of male-based ethics. More broadly, the ethical inclusion and reconstruction of the LGBTQ experience is now in play in general society and the Jewish world, and it is part of the revolutionary dynamic inherent in the love of neighbor doctrine as it continues to play itself out in history.
In proclaiming, the Golden Rule as the great principle of Torah, the second century Rabbi Akiba presented Jews and Judaism with an audacious challenge for the ages. Defining, debating, and enacting the principle of love of neighbor remains our central task to this day as Reform Jews and human beings.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Rabbi Sussman is currently working on a book on Jews, Judaism, and law in America.