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Understanding Jewish morality

served our country as a proud veteran
served our country as a proud veteran
Photo by Uriel Sinai

Let’s not be disingenuous and call this “The Year of the Scandal,” but when you turn on the news and there are two “Stories-of-Shame” in one day, you realize the world is running low on morals. Of course, “bending-the-rules” has been around since Cain killed Abel, but it does seem as if scandals are everywhere you turn. Just today the director of Phoenix Veterans Health Care is accused, with others (fakers must have their own fraternity), of keeping a false list that made it appear sick veterans were being treated - while hiding the real list that showed 1,600 veterans waiting months to see a physician. In fact, it is alleged that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments.

P.S. This is not the first time this individual has manipulated patient data. At a previous job, the number of veterans’ suicides was also fudged. Of course, there is more to the chutzpah! Last year, this director received a $9,345 bonus in addition to her annual base salary of $169,900.

The second news story: The official tasked with keeping watch over the Department of Homeland Security, instead of protecting us, altered or delayed reports to protect senior officials he considered friends. This includes the cover-up of Secret Service agents caught with prostitutes during presidential trips.

Perhaps political scandals are coming out of the closet simply because there are too many for government to hide. Examples: The NSA's massive data collection (thank you Edward Snowden); the Justice Department’s gathering of telephone records from reporters and editors, and of course San Diego Mayor’s resignation because of sexual harassment allegations from 17(!) women.

In truth, it is not just politicians. The Moral Malaise is everywhere: Hollywood, business, scientists, education, even the army is not immune. And yet there is an antidote. The Mishna spans five centuries of Rabbinic teachings and 63 volumes. One tractate, Pirkei Avos is devoted entirely to ethics. It begins with these words: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders…the Prophets…the Men of the Great Assembly.” This bare-bones chart of Torah transmission is clearly not intended to provide in-depth history. Its purpose is to authenticate the Mishna, demonstrating that though it was authored 1500 years after Sinai, it is “kosher” as Moses’ Torah.

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, (15th-16th cent.) asks an obvious question: Pirkei Avos is the 39th volume (out of 63). So why did the Sages validate their teachings now? He explains that all other sections of Mishna discuss Jewish law. They are precise; how to observe Pesach, compose a marriage contract, slaughter an animal, judge a thief, the how-to's of Judaism. Jews never had much doubt as to the origins of such laws. After all, these practices existed for centuries unchanged. Their Divine origin was obvious.

But what about ethics and morality? When the Sages tell us to greet everyone favorably (ibid 1:15) is that pure Judaism? Can such advice really stem from Sinai? To this our mishna answers: Moses received [even the Ethics of] Torah from Sinai. These ethics are not GOOD ADVICE. They are G-D’S WORD.

But how can Jewish morality help the rest of the world. For this we must turn to the last Mishna in Chapter One: "On three things does the world endure: justice, truth and peace.” Now this mishna is similar to an earlier mishna (#2) which states: “The world is based upon three things: Torah, service [of G-d], and kindness." Notice that this list is entirely different. But upon close examination we discern another discrepancy. In Mishna #2 the world is (omaid) based/stands on three things, whereas in the latter Mishna it (kayom) endures upon three things.

Omaid is why the world was created, its purpose; that man study Torah, serve G-d, and act with kindness. These three pillars establish a perfect world. On the other hand, kayom is how the world can continue to operate smoothly – via justice, truth and peace - and not disintegrate into anarchy. These latter three, addressed to both individuals and nations, though certainly vital to civilization, are not the purpose of creation. G-d did not create the world only in order that wars not be fought, individual liberties not be suppressed, or that people not be mugged. But these are prerequisites so that the purpose of creation (Torah, G-dly service and kindness) can take hold.

Note that the obligation to establish healthy and functioning societies is universal. G-d placed this responsibility upon all men, not only Israel. Indeed, this duty was communicated to man before the Abraham was even born. They are known as the seven universal (Noahide) laws. Their purpose is not that man become spiritual or ascetic. They do not obligate man to refrain from forbidden foods or rest on Shabbat. But G-d does ask man to create societies with respect for basic values. No society can survive while condoning murder and robbery, where life and property are not respected.

Common however to both sets of laws (the 7 universal and the 613 Jewish) is belief in G-d. This is crucial and the only guarantee for their longevity. If we refrain from murder only because, “I can't kill you because tomorrow your brother will come and kill me,” this law will nor remain since it is not truth, only expedient. A society that allows Jews or blacks to be killed, soon loses respect for all life. Without belief in G-d, no law, no matter how reasonable will be sacrosanct and above human corruption.

Judaism distinguishes itself from other religions in that it does not claim that everyone else is condemned to eternal damnation if they don't do things our way. So Gentiles were also given Laws, and if they obey because G-d commanded them and not merely because they conform to one’s own perception of morality, they receive a share in the World to Come. Yes, Israel was given a unique mission, but the rest of the world has not been forgotten by G-d.

It is almost as if G-d said to man: “Create civilizations which can be secular (but not idolatrous), uphold basic principles, promote justice, ethical behavior, and within your communities Israel will be able to attain a holy lifestyle. If, however, society deteriorates into chaos and lawlessness, man will be forced to expend all his energies on simple survival and making ends meet, and even Jews will have neither time nor composure to focus on matters more lofty.

G-d did not entrust the world to Israel alone; He gave it to us all. That is what Pirkei Avos teaches us to teach the world. Morals are not right, they were written by G-d, elaborated upon by the Sages, and exhibited by Jews as a tutorial to all of man.

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