Page 74 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
cast of Jewish thought, a not inappropriate set of priorities in
Judaism.
As society changed and as history affected its transformations,
those older understandings became strained. The role of gov­
ernment action in the moral improvement of society no longer
could be taken for granted. Jews had long identified Jewish
ethics with the espousal of such government leadership for they
had benefited from it in the emancipation of the Jews. For dec­
ades this notion was reinforced by the Jewish belief that their
people’s security depended on their society affirming everyone’s
equality in law and practice. So enlightened self-interest rein­
forced Jewish liberalism. But as Jews changed from have-nots
to haves, and their success depended on maintaining the current
social order, as some Jews believed that “what was good for
the Jews” was to be left alone in safety, the accepted liberal-
political understandings of “Jewish ethics” demanded rethink­
ing.
VIEWS OF ETHICS
At the same time, the Kantian understanding of ethics which
had dominated Jewish thought ever since the late 19th century
no longer retained its philosophical dominance. O ther ways of
thinking about ethics have now vigorously reasserted them­
selves. Moreover, as Orthodox Jews increasingly found their
place in our culture, a host of theoretical questions about the
relationship between Jewish law and general ethics — partic­
ularly as it demeaned the particular and elevated the universal
— prompted new writing. All this has led to a small but steady
stream of Jewish books seeking to reconceptualize what had for
so long been taken for granted as “Jewish ethics.”
Most of the new publications in the realm of Jewish moral
responsibility have dealt with the practical questions raised by
contemporary ethical dilemmas and no area has received great­
er attention than bio-ethics. The writing about specific issues
has not come from the source that one would have anticipated
fifty years ago. Then ethics seemed to be the realm of secularists
and Reform Jews. As it were, moral law was their substitute
for Oral Law and they gloried in the universality of their ethical
horizon, implicitly asserting its moral superiority to any which
operated from an essentially particularistic Jewish basis.