5770 - #02

Ha’azinu / Yom Kippur


            The Rabbinical Council of America, during the months preceding this year’s Yomim Noraim, advised its membership that they should ensure that one of their sermons or shiurim during this time be devoted to the topic of ethics, specifically business ethics. The reason was clear. Given the recent events which saw a number of Orthodox Jews charged with violations of secular laws of this nature, it would seem to be appropriate for a call to go out to remind congregants of: (a) the significance of these laws within Torah,1 (b) the necessity of abiding by the laws of the country in which we reside (dina d’malchuta din) and (c) the terrible chilul Hashem, desecration of God’s Name, that emerges with such public arrests. Yet, is all this not obvious? Do people, even as they may eat bacon, need to be reminded of this prohibition? What is necessary may not really be to inform or remind individuals of these laws, which everyone already knows are part of Torah. The greater issue that needs to be addressed may be: why are these laws so easily discarded?

            The answer may lie in our general motivation for observance. Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger is quoted as stating: “Being Jewish – or better, “not being a Goy” – becomes equated with the ideal of an authentic human life: not to feel at home in the universe because one deliberately elects to remain a foreigner, refusing to become completely naturalized into a full-fledged citizen of the world.”2 We are the am hamivchar, the Chosen People, and much of our consciousness is built upon the value of this distinction. Avraham Avinu was called Ha’ivri, literally the one on the other side. We Jews are to be different and there are many halachot that not only reinforce this reality of separation but were instituted by Chazal, the Rabbis, specifically for this very purpose. The result though, as Rabbi Wurzburger points out, can be that the very concept of distinction in itself becomes the overriding value. We no longer ask why we should be different but assume that differentiation in itself is significant. The result is that the mitzvot which foster this distinction become our focus; those that reflect more universal concerns tend to become ignored. When a person observes laws such as kashrut, all can see that he/she is a Jew. When one observes commands of honesty, he/she is no different than his non-Jewish neighbour who is also honest. If the goal is specifically to be a good Jew, simply being a good human being may suffer from the lack of distinction as a Jew. The need may be not to simply teach the mitzvot connected to honesty but to further teach that part of the direction of Torah is to be a good human being undistinguished from other, non-Jewish good human beings.3,4   

            From the presentation of the thoughts of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik in Rabbi David Holzer, Thinking Aloud, “Affirmation and Acquiescence”, it would seem that there are, furthermore, two aspects to the distinctiveness of Jews, one that is intended to further this uniqueness and one that is intended to eventually lead to, actually, sameness. Part of our intent is to affect the world, promote ethics, morality and recognition of God; yet, we must recognize that with every success in this endeavour, there is less distinction between us and non-Jews. If we are successful, we will be less distinct – and that is also part of our goal as Jews.

            From Sifri, Devarim 12:28, it would seem that this consideration for sameness is also supposed to be a prima facie consideration in our development of the proper manifestation of ethics. The verse states that we are to do what is tov, good, and yashar, straight or correct, and the Sifri informs us that while good is defined by God, yashar is in the eyes of humanity. While understanding this directive may be difficult and demands further explanation given the fact that certain segments of humanity seem to define evil as correct, an overriding value in the distinctiveness of Jews is still challenged by it. We are to include in our setting of our goals what is correct in the eyes of humanity; we are to be good human beings. While obviously, Jewish distinctiveness is still a most important value and many mitzvot further, and are intended to further, this uniqueness, there would seem to also be a value in sameness, in abiding by and furthering the observance of values that do not make Jews stand out but simply define them as part of the goal of a collective theist, ethical and moral humanity.

            These arrests must cause us to also recognize this aspect of the Torah goal for us. There may be, though, another important perception that emerges from this recognition. Herman Cohen critiqued Zionism as he felt that it would not be in keeping with the ethical values that Judaism promotes for Jews to develop their own nation state. In his mind, Jewish values were actually the highest universal values and he deemed altruism to be at their core. As a nation state inherently considers the interest of its people first, he felt it would be contrary to this spirit of altruism for Jews to have a state. In the recent protests by various Jews against the State of Israel, I have perceived a similar perspective. They declare that it is as Jews that they are against Israel, almost arguing that Jews as Jews should abide by this supposedly higher standard and not even defend themselves in these circumstances. While obviously this is contrary to Torah values, what I find interesting is this need to be different, to express themselves as Jews (as they define Jewishness). While any and all nations would act to defend their people, these Jewish protestors motivated strangely, it would seem, by this need for Jewish distinction, insist that Jews must be different -- and take the bullet. There are indeed times for Jewish distinctiveness but, on many levels, it must also be recognized that there are values in the goal of humanity.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 This is not to say that there is a perfect symmetry between the Torah laws dealing with business ethics and the secular laws on the subject. Nonetheless, there is great overlap and lack of concern for secular laws on the matter often does indicate a lack of concern for Torah laws of a similar nature.

2 As quoted in Covenantal Imperatives, Essays by Walter S. Wurzburger on Jewish Law, Thought, and Community, ed. By Eliezer L. Jacobs and Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Acknowledgements.

3 This is not to say that Torah does not distinguish between the laws, even in these general, ethical/moral areas, applicable to Jews and those applicable to non-Jews. There clearly still are differences. See, further, my Is There a Distinctive Jewish Ethical Perspective?, Nishma Update 5755-2 (at There are, though, still clearly laws that are to be applied to both groups equally and, as such, whereby the goal is to be the same, i.e. good human beings.

4 A corollary of this is the ease with which people make distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in regard to the application of certain laws without the consideration that the distinction, if there is one, is actually between good human beings and not good (i.e. idolatrous) human beings, not necessarily Jews and non-Jews. See, for example, Rambam, Commentary to Sefer HaMitzvot of Rambam, Alternative Mitzvah Aseh 16.

Nishma 2009


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