Religious Beliefs

Is there a distinctively Jewish ethic?

Every major religious tradition has its equivalent of the “golden rule”—treat others as you would like them to treat you. One classic Jewish version says, “Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.” As a humanistic guide, it is very important, and pretty obvious on the face of it. But no religious tradition has ever just left the matter there, hoping their members would work out the details. Most readers will be familiar with the expression “Judaeo-Christian ethic.” Politicians and preachers alike are fond of using the phrase as a handy, if rather vague, summary of values espoused by large populations like those of the United States. The term does not suggest that there are no significant differences between Judaism and Christianity as communities of faith, but it clearly implies that Jews and Christians generally agree on basic ethical principles.

Most people would instinctively identify the “Ten Commandments” as that shared foundation of morals. But since for Christians as well as for Jews, the Decalogue functions as an ethical minimum, there is much more to both approaches to morality than one can squeeze into a handful of commands and prohibitions. This is where religious motivation enters the mix, making each tradition of religious ethics distinctive. Jews strive for a moral life because, in addition to the need for basic mutual respect (Golden Rule) and for broad guidelines meant to prevent social chaos (the Decalogue), the revealing God demands nothing less of believers. Some Jews also draw motivation from the prospect of reward or punishment in the next life. Many find it sufficient that God has given all good things and wants people to share them so that more people can enjoy the gift of life. Since life’s gifts don’t always simply fall into one’s lap and take care of themselves, believers need to work toward worthy goals and use proper care of the gifts attained.


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