Are There Jewish Values?

A version of this article appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Winter/Spring 2009. It is reprinted here with permission.

We would certainly like there to be “Jewish values.” It is rare to read any description of Jewish identity from any conventional Jewish denomination without hearing a vague appeal to the importance of “Jewish values” – living Jewish values, celebrating Jewish values, teaching Jewish values to our children. Even better than hearing how important they are, of course, would be to hear what they are and what makes them uniquely Jewish.

For all of his commitment to making Jewish identity relevant and meaningful for modern minds, Rabbi Sherwin Wine often criticized the idea that there are uniquely Jewish values.

Good values are universal. They are to be found distributed among all cultures. Love, loyalty and compassion are very Jewish. But they can also be very Greek and very Chinese. Bad values are also universal. Hate, bigotry and greed have no single national home. They are welcomed by people of many cultures. They have even been welcomed by Jews. “Yom Kippur – Peoplehood” High Holiday service of the Birmingham Temple.

Education, family, community, even faith are trumpeted as “Jewish values.” There are essentially two objections to claiming any value we admire as a “Jewish value”:
       1) other, less admirable, values in Jewish tradition are just as central; and
       2) other cultures and peoples demonstrate the same good values.
Despite these objections, however, we will see that there is still a basis to claim certain admirable ethics as indeed Jewish values.

Good, Bad, and Irrelevant Jewish Values

If we are going to claim such positive values as education and family as “Jewish values,” we need to distinguish among:

a)      the beautiful ethics of Leviticus 19: for example, loving your neighbor as yourself, judging the poor and rich with equal justice, and not oppressing the stranger “because you were strangers in Egypt”;
b)      the ritual commandments of Leviticus 19: for example, “you shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” and “you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials,” which seem ethically irrelevant or irrational commands testing obedience; and
c)      the objectionable ethics of Leviticus 20:15: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Or the acceptance of slavery, or the extermination of the Canaanites, and so on.

All three varieties of values appear in the middle of the same Torah and are even read in the same Torah portion, Kedoshim – “holy things.” Which is the more Jewish value, the historic Jewish emphasis on education that created widespread male literacy, or the historic Jewish discrimination against women that denied them similar education and authority until modern times? It is too convenient (and not reasonable) to claim that what we like in our day are “really” Jewish values while what we have discarded were just “accidental.”

The truth is that contemporary Jews have always been the arbiters of which values of their past were celebrated, and which were acknowledged and rejected or changed. Deuteronomy decrees that a stubborn and rebellious child should be stoned to death. (Deut. 21:18-21). As anyone who has children knows, fully enforcing this law would bring a quick end to humanity. Several hundred years later, the Mishnah (200 BCE-200 CE) refined the definition of a “stubborn and rebellious child” to limit it to sons between the onset of puberty and the attainment of majority (Bar Mitzvah) – a very short period – and added many conditions required to activate this punishment (Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:1 ff.). By the time of the Babylonian Talmud (200 CE-500 CE), the barriers were so high that it was objected, “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son,’ and never will be”(BT Sanhedrin 71a). We today might be more willing to challenge the original Torah ethic directly than the rabbis of the Mishnah or Talmud were, but we certainly would agree with their end result.

The United States Constitution (Art. 1, sec. 2) counted slaves as 3/5 of a person (with 0/5 of a vote!) for the first one-third of this nation’s existence, but the presence of the “3/5 clause” does not ethically disqualify the entire founding document or the nation as a whole. Rather, it requires amendment, historical context, and a nuanced understanding of how culture and ideas develop. Slavery was a Jewish value; it is no longer. For most Jews today, separate seating of men and women in a synagogue would be a violation of their sense of Jewish values (especially with women rabbis), even though that was once a quintessentially Jewish tradition — and still is among the most Orthodox. Our sense of gender equality derives from the modern experience, not from traditional Jewish religious belief, practice, or teaching.

The most important lesson is that “our values” are not synonymous with “Jewish values.” We don’t accept all historical “Jewish values” as our own, so we must be making choices. We are pleased to find our choices prefigured in our cultural tradition, and we can find meaningful formulations that have emotional resonance and cultural importance in that past, but we don’t agree or disagree with them simply because they’re “Jewish” – we celebrate those values of Jewish culture that inspire us. Perhaps the best approach is to describe “our Jewish values,” understanding that “THEIR Jewish values” may be different.

Respect for other cultures

As Sherwin Wine wrote, “The attempt to equate Jewishness with a set of eminently respectable social values is an act of moral boorishness. It suggests, by implication, that these values (if they are defined as virtues) are absent from the behavior of non-Jews.” (Humanistic Judaism (1978), p. 57) Our experience has shown us that family, education, and community are common to many civilizations, and it feels chutzpadik to put our label on them as if they were ours, and exclusively ours.

Many traditions have some version of the “golden rule.” Consider these familiar formulations:

  • Leviticus 18: “v’ahavta l’rayakha kamokha — love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • Jesus in the New Testament: the proverbial “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:31 or Matthew 7:12, slightly variant)
  • Rabbi Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your brother,” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
  • Lao Tsu in the Tao Te Ching: “Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.” (tr. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York: Vintage Books, 1972, p. 15)
  • Confucius in his Analects: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
  • And even the rationalist philosophy of Immanuel Kant: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (tr. James Ellington) (1981), p. 30.)

Jewish civilization clearly does not hold the patent on inventing the golden rule, nor does it have a monopoly on its articulations. And thus for many other “Jewish values.” Watch Japanese children going to supplementary schools to learn Japanese language and culture; see Mexican families maintain tight bonds and mutual support despite great challenges; and on and on. Which mother shows her love through food more, the yiddishe mame saying, “Ess, ess [eat, eat]” or an Italian mama mia urging, “Mangia, mangia”?

Some might claim that Kant derived his version of the golden rule from Jesus, who began teaching after Hillel’s death, and Hillel and Jesus both read Leviticus, so this actually is a Jewish value. But is the Jewish calendar with its New Year in the fall not Jewish because the Jews learned it from the Babylonians, complete with Babylonian month names? Is Yahweh not the god of the Hebrews because he was born in the Canaanite polytheistic pantheon? Is the Jewish alphabet we know and use for Jewish languages, from Hebrew to Yiddish and Ladino, not really Jewish because it was originally the Aramaic alphabet?

When a Scandanavian hears the quotation from the New Testament, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that for him is a Christian value – from a Christian book, taught by a Christian teacher as emblematic of Christian religious belief and practice. What makes such cultural elements as our Aleph-Bet or our calendar “Jewish” is that Jews have lived and used them. The same applies to values – whether or not we invented or exclusively own them, they can still be ours in a meaningful way.

Let us accept that we have neither the monopoly nor the patent on a particular value, such as education.  That recognition does not change the historical reality that education is an integral part of Jewish civilization. In other words, education can be both a Jewish value and a value found in other cultures – its emphasis is distinctive of Jewish culture, even if not unique to Jews. My house has two entry doors, a garage and an open floor plan – a collection of features not unique to my house, but a truthful description of my house nonetheless.

Finding Our Jewish Values

There are three legitimate routes to finding “our Jewish values.” One can certainly read the traditional sources of Torah, Bible, Talmud, and commentary for conventional Jewish values celebrated in many Jewish circles, with which we may agree. One can also study the lived experience of the Jewish people.  The chutzpah of mocking authority in a satirical purimspiel or expressed in such proverbs as “Angels once walked on the earth; now they are not even in heaven” is not prescribed in religious law but is an important part of the Jewish experience for us.

The third route is to study Jewish history to see what lessons it can teach us; those, too, will be Jewish values, for they derive from the Jewish experience. In that same High Holiday passage in which Sherwin Wine objected to claiming good values as uniquely Jewish values, he affirmed that:

. . . humanistic values flow naturally from Jewish history and from the Jewish experience. . . .we who have suffered so much from hate cannot become the champions of hate. . . . If Jewish history could speak, it would proclaim a humanitarian ethic. If the Jewish experience could talk, it would guarantee the dignity of all men and women. To study Judaism is to hear these messages.

Our values may or may not be “Jewish values;” but “our Jewish values” are clearly ours – values we find meaningful, inspirational, and motivational that are part of both our inherited tradition and our personal philosophy of life.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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2 Responses to Are There Jewish Values?

  1. Pingback: Criticizing Religion | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  2. Pingback: Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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