This is one of my favorite questions – thank you so much for asking it!
“Jewish values” is a large term that encompasses everything from how Jews treat one another to how we sleep, how we eat to how we shower and how we repair the world to how we pursue justice and peace. The heart of this matter, however, is that Jewish values are really about creating a Jewish lens through which to view the world; a way of experiencing life that is uniquely and authentically Jewish.
What makes a Jewish person’s compliance to ethical and moral behaviors that may be universal uniquely Jewish is the simple fact that it is a Jewish person performing the particular action. That action, then, is deeply rooted in a particular Jewish worldview. Although the end results may appear the same, I would argue that a Jew’s process of getting to a particular action is different than someone from another worldview or community. The process is important because it is the process which distinguishes action from intent, keva from kavanah. That process is not better or worse, but it is our process.
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and one of America’s great Jewish thinkers, taught that God was connected to this concept of process. He wrote that God was the process that leads to salvation; the sum of all the processes of the natural world that lead us to fulfillment. That fulfillment arises from how we integrate Jewish values into our daily life and utilize the Values of Spiritual Peoplehood (core Jewish concepts which guide our life) to create meaningful Jewish moments of action. That is what makes a seemingly universal value into a uniquely Jewish one.
It is my assumption that when you say, “When Jews and non-Jews abide by the same ethical and moral behaviors” that you are not saying that Jews and non-Jews do abide by the same ethical and moral behaviors.
That would be a simplification of life and morality in the extreme.Saying something like that would be to paint the whole world of diversity with the same brush, saying that we all believe in the same God and believe the same things.That is utopianism and is only available, from a Jewish perspective, in the Olam Habah (the Next World).
Returning to the world as we know it, there are certainly areas of ethics and morality that are shared in common with our non-Jewish neighbors.These make for domestic tranquility and thankfully in much of our world we do share much in common with others.
What makes for a uniquely Jewish approach to morality is a fundamental belief which is the underpinning of all of Judaism.That is, that there is one God, the Creator of all humanity.The law that applies to all is the result of Divine revelation that begins at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah (Divine Writ) as expounded by the Sages of Israel.
It is less important as to the definition of “Jewishness” or what is uniquely “Jewish” about our morality.There is no need to dwell on the concept of Jewishness.Rather, we should be pleased when we see that we can share with our neighbors in what we all consider to be right and proper.
Thank you for your question.Certainly, because I believe that Judaism (and other faiths) carry a message that is redemptive as a guide for building a more perfect world, I would hope that there would be significant overlap in the ethical and moral behaviors and expectations of many of the world religions!(To use the most obvious and extreme example, I would hope that the infinite value that Judaism places on human life, that causes us to prioritize “Thou shalt not murder,” would translate into virtually every religious worldview.I would personally be suspicious of any religion that did not, in some way, with its own language and norms, affirm that standard.)
So then, what makes the adherence to such ethical/moral norms specifically Jewish?Certainly there are certain worldviews that are uniquely “Jewish” – either in their origin (“we gave the world the concept of such-and-such”) or even as a modern-day priority.But for those that clearly overlap with other non-Jewish ethics and morals, we must also consider the motivations and framework through which we arrive at those behaviors.Many of the world’s religions believe in some form of tikkun olam – further “fixing” or incrementally-perfecting the world – but for us, this is only half of the phrase:Jews believe in l’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai – perfecting the word because it is an extension of God’s will for us, because it is a realization of the vision that we share with God – a vision for the Jewish People and for all humankind, and because it is a fulfillment of what it means to be created in the Divine Image and to allow that Image to spill out of us and into the world at-large.If and when I act morally and ethically, I am not only doing that because it is generally considered as “right,” by those who are Jewish and those who are not Jewish.I am doing it also because it is an expression of the way my faith projects a vision for a more perfect world, and because I embrace my responsibility as a builder of that worldview.I am doing it because I am commanded, Jewishly (however one may understand such obligation – as communal, divine, individual, or otherwise), to participate and act in this way.
The action may be identical to another who is motivated by more universal understandings of ethics and morals, or another who is motivated by his or her own non-Jewish faith; but the meaning behind that action and the vision that activates and enables it are particular to my Judaism.These actions help to define ourJewish selves.
We live in a global community in which many ethical values are shared across societal lines. Many traditions – religious or secular – advocate common ethical behaviors, for example, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, etc. It is a fair to ask if there is any difference whether this care is offered by someone who is Jewish in contrast to any other tradition.
Certainly the most important fact is that the care is offered. It is unimaginable that one would object that a hungry person, to choose one example, was fed by someone of one tradition instead of some other tradition. Whether the person offering the food is Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or Muslim makes little difference to the person suffering from hunger. The food they receive preserves their life. I would, however, argue that for the individual offering the food and for those who witness the act motivation matters.
Our multiple religious and secular traditions offer different rationales for helping others. Feeding the poor may be an act of charity or submission before the Holy One or service or compassion. Each is a worthy motive. According to Jewish values we feed the hungry as an act of justice, tzedaka. When a Jew acts in the world out of a Jewish motivation it strengthens that value in the world. That is to say, when we act out of a sense of justice, that value is more present in the world and the benefits extend beyond that particular deed.
Ethical mindfulness implants the values deep in the individual who performs the act as well as in those around him. Consider the child who learns the value of tzedaka from his or her parent's example. The conscious choice creates a pattern that makes an ever deeper impact on the world.
I have focused on one example, feeding the hungry based on a sense of tzedaka, but the same case could be made for any other act. Prayers for healing, aid offered in times of disaster, actions to interrupt hatred – whatever the ethical act the motivation differs from tradition to tradition, each worthy in their own right. Conscious Jewish action shapes the Jewish individual in a way that is distinct.
What distinguishes a Jewish act from that of any other tradition is the mindfulness with which it is done, and the same could be said from the perspective of any other tradition. One who acts from a Jewish motivation honors both Jewish tradition and the Holy One who commands us, as one who acts from a Christian or Buddhist motivation honors their tradition.
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