INSIGHT

5767 - #18

BUILDING ETHICS

A few years ago, I found myself under heavy criticism for various comments I made on the TV show, Passages.1 A new system for teaching midot, proper character traits, was being introduced in various schools in the Toronto area. While I applauded this focus on the mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments between man and man, I questioned the choice to begin this study project with the teaching of kibbud av v’eim, the commandment to honour parents. I felt that this was not the correct place to begin the study of interpersonal ethics; such a study, I felt, should begin with a study of ethical behaviour between equals. In that the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim involves the establishment of proper behaviour in a relationship between unequals,2 I felt that this was not the place to start.3 In a certain way, in retrospect, I now see that perhaps I was actually wrong. In Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah actually begins its presentation on ethics with a relationship between unequals, i.e. certain laws of slavery.4

Obviously, there is a distinction between the ethical lesson embodied in the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim and the commandment of how one should treat a Jewish slave – and the basic thrust of my critique still remains. My simple point was that one cannot teach ethics by beginning with the treatment of the superior individual in the relationship. My original argument was that one must begin a study of ethics with a presentation on how one should treat an equal. The parsha, though, may be informing us that the proper place to begin such a study may even be with the rules of how we treat the inferior individual in the relationship. In any event, the underlying message is the same. One cannot begin a study of ethics by describing how one treats a superior individual and then subsequently attempt to extend the ethical message to equals. In doing so, one will effectively begin with a presentation of a standard and then go through a process of teaching how this standard is lessened in other cases. This may not necessarily occur in a direct fashion but may be subtle. For example, if one is taught that a child should not respond to a parent in a harsh manner – as part of the ethos of kibbud av v’eim – the inferred lesson is that such a response is acceptable in response to another. The potential ethical lesson is curtailed; is this harsh response actually acceptable in responding to any individual? My argument, as such, was that one should begin the teaching of ethics with a presentation of the proper behaviour in the treatment of equals -- or even, as Mishpatim would seem to be teaching us, inferiors -- and then describe the extra demands in the treatment of superiors. This ensures the full breadth of the ethical lesson. If one first describes how one should respond to another – in general, to any other, as part of the basic ethos of interpersonal behaviour – and then develops a lesson on how one should even be more careful in responding to a parent, the full extent of the ethical lesson has the potential to be presented. The student does not describe a general ethic as part of the narrower direction of how to treat a parent but rather understands this ethic in the broader context of how we are to treat everyone. If we are taught that, on a certain level, we are even to treat the slave with respect and caring, we have set a foundation for our entire ethical perspective, building upon this base as we consider other types of relationships. If we, though, begin a presentation on the propriety of respect and caring for the superior individual, we can potentially create a bottomless ethical pit as the student has no yardstick to determine how much to lessen the standard of respect and caring in the case of equals or, even, inferiors. I have often instructed parents that rather than telling their children that a certain action was incorrect “because you do not act in such a manner towards a parent,” they should be more exact. If the action would be inappropriate in relation to any individual, the proper instruction should be exactly that -- such behaviour is inappropriate in regard to any individual. Only when the ethical instruction specifically relates to the parent-child model should the ethos of kibbud av v’eim be invoked. To follow such a method, though, demands that the first ethical lesson should focus on the general and then move to the specific – or, even, from the perspective of Mishpatim, from the broadest presentation of an ethic, as it even applies to the inferior individual in the relationship, and then move to the narrower cases.

The same ethical standards do not apply equally in all situations. Our relationships are different and the demands upon us, within each of these distinct relationships, are different. One of the great demands of Torah ethics is to recognize this and act appropriately. It is inappropriate to treat one as an equal when the relationship demands a recognition of inequality in the parties of the relationship. It is, though, similarly inappropriate to ascribe certain demands as the result of a recognition of inequality when these demands actually apply in all relationships. Part of the ethical teaching must be to recognize the actual source of demanded behaviour and the true structure of the entire ethical construct. It is not enough that one act correctly in a certain circumstance but, rather, the ethical motivation for such behaviour must also be clear. The dynamics of equality and inequality must be properly understood. The demands upon both the superior and inferior individuals in a relationship must be clarified including what is demanded of them as equals. Ethical mitzvoth cannot be taught in a micro-context of any individual command. The entire macro-context of the entire Torah system of interpersonal ethics must be perceived. We, thus, must always teach such mitzvoth building upon the structure of the base.

. 4.

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 “Passages” is a Canadian television show featuring Torah discussion on various topics usually centred on a passage from the Torah, the Tanach or the Talmud.

2 My use of terms such as “unequal”, “superior” or “inferior” should not be viewed as rendering a value on any individual per se. These terms are used in the context of a relationship whereby the dynamics describe various parameters on the interaction between the individuals. For example, in describing a teacher as being in the superior position, this is not defining the teacher as inherently superior but rather, simply, in the dynamics of this relationship, there is a distinction between the teacher and the student that must be identified and applied in the context of this relationship.

3 The criticism was leveled against me because it was felt that by critiquing the choice of beginning with honouring parents, I was effectively critiquing the entire program. To be honest, I did also present other difficulties I had with the program, such as a lack of instruction for parents on how to invoke a reference to the laws of kibbud av v’eim, each reflecting my basic message that one must see the ethical whole. In this regard, I was effectively critiquing the entire program.  

4 See, Shemot 21:2-11.

Nishma, 2007


 


Return to top

2006 NISHMA