Religion & Beliefs

Moral Certainty and Ethical Action

During my presidency of the World Jewish Congress, I was faced with tasks that addressed what could be called "great moral issues."  The first was the freeing of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union.  The other battles dealt with … Read More

By / March 12, 2009

During my presidency of the World Jewish Congress, I was faced with tasks that addressed what could be called "great moral issues."  The first was the freeing of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union.  The other battles dealt with the defining moral issue of the twentieth century: the Holocaust.  They included exposing the Nazi past of former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, securing restitution of goods and buildings stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and fighting the Swiss banks over the moneys left in their safekeeping by Holocaust victims.  Moral outrage and moral certainty drove these actions forward and helped us to enlist numerous allies.

More recently I have been absorbed in my work as chairman of the Board of Governors of Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.  When I visit campuses, I almost always spend time studying the Bible and Talmud with students, poring over a passage and exploring multiple interpretations.  Part of what is so remarkable about the Talmud is that when it resolves an issue in favor of one opinion, it doesn’t expunge the others.   There is a Talmudic story that after years of divisive disagreement between the schools of the sages Hillel and Shammai, a voice from God calls out to resolve the argument in favor of Hillel, but also to acknowledge the validity of the opposing view, saying: "Both these and these are the words of the living God."

One might see in this respect for opposing views an opening to moral relativism, and an emphasis on contemplation instead of action.  But the Talmud is fundamentally concerned with guiding ethical behavior.  Acknowledging complexity does not mean avoiding action.   This idea is at the foundation of Judaism, and it offers a valuable framework from which to confront the complexity of today’s great moral issues. As we stand at the brink of what could become of a world wide depression, it is difficult to say what should be done to confront crises that include global warming, a nuclear Iran, and the ongoing genocide in Darfur.  But inaction is not an option.  In the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers: "You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."   

In Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, I quote young Jewish leaders who regard their Judaism and their activism as inextricable.  These leaders include Sharon Brous, who founded Ikar, a community in Los Angeles that "stands at the intersection of spirituality and social justice," and Margie Klein, who started Moishe/Kavod House in Boston, where activists gather for Jewish learning, prayer, and culture.  These communities offer the space to tackle the complex question that is so central to Jewish sources: "What is our responsibility in the world?"  And they take to heart the quote from the sage Hillel: "If not now, when?"

As a sidenote, Rabbi Andy Bachman, my co-author Beth Zasloff and I will all be speaking about issues of Jewish ethics and the Jewish community next week, on Wednesday, March 18th, 7:30 pm at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. For more info: http://www.congregationbethelohim.org/