A River (Of Ethics) Runs Through It


The Graduate School of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America announced last week that is establishing a new academic program — a master’s degree in Jewish ethics. The program, to be headed by Alan Mittleman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the school, will focus on such area as bioethics, business ethics and legal ethics. The Jewish Week interviewed Mittleman by e-mail. This is an edited version of the transcript.

Q: Ethics are supposed to be an intrinsic, fundamental part of Judaism. Why is there a need for a separate program in Jewish ethics?

A: There are really two questions here, one ancient; the other modern. The modern question is: Why study Jewish ethics? Why separate it from the rest of Jewish thought? The answer is that Jewish studies focuses on everything that is important, interesting, and significant in Jewish texts and experience. As a field, Jewish ethics is coming into its own. So why not give it special academic attention?

The deeper (and more ancient) question is a Socratic one: Can virtue be taught? Since ethics is supposed to be pervasive and fundamental in Judaism, just taking Judaism seriously should suffice to cover the ethical dimension. I think a disciplined, focused engagement with Jewish ethics — which our new JTS program will provide — will help students to be more thoughtful, reflective, aware and sensitive to the ethical dimension of their lives.

Standing on one leg, how do you summarize Jewish ethics?

It’s clear that many of the laws of the Torah have an overt ethical dimension. It is also clear that the Torah is concerned with the cultivation of character. Jewish ethics deals with ordering the conduct and cultivating the character of Jews. To use old-fashioned English words — it’s about duty and virtue. When you look at a classic treatise, say, on the laws of tzedakah [charity], you are looking at what other religious or philosophical traditions would call ethics. This is also true for the vast range of Jewish literature called sifrut ha-mussar, which has to do with what modern people might call character education.

A lot of Jewish names — Madoff, the most prominent among them — seem to appear in ethical scandals in this country. Is the Jewish community losing its ethical base?

I doubt it. There are always bad apples; every community has its share of them. The more interesting question is whether the Jewish community can relate its ethical commitments to Jewish tradition in a well-grounded way. That’s where study of the sources comes in. I’m not saying that if Madoff had a better, more ethically alert Jewish education he would have acted differently. I am saying that the Jewish tradition has powerful moral resources that can enrich and deepen our lives, and improve our character and moral sensitivity. We have to do a better job at enabling engagement with those resources..

If the left wing of American Jewry concentrates on tikkun olam social action, and the right wing focuses on the minutia of halacha, do ethics get lost in the wash?

I wouldn’t blame political or religious orientation here. Everyone, whether on the left or the right, has a version of what constitutes ethical conduct. The deeper problem is that there are large trends in modern culture that work to undermine an ethical vision for the whole of life; that try to shunt ethics into a corner. We need to work toward an integrated conception, in a Jewish mode, of what constitutes a good, flourishing life; a life that is well spent. Indeed, a life that is worthy and holy. If we can talk, as a community, about the good life — a very big “if” — ethics would find its rightful place.

Your resume describes you as an “enthusiastic fly fisherman.” What have you learned about life while standing for hours at the side of a stream?

I try, but seldom succeed, to fish 52 weeks of the year. My life would be much poorer without it. My fishing practice is limited to fly fishing, my peculiar obsession. One thing I especially like about it is that it alternates between a meditative, thought-free way of being in the world with intense cognitive problem solving. Why isn’t this fly working? What can I do to lure that trout to the surface? One minute you are just enjoying nature; a minute later you are trying to solve a problem. That balance is very restorative. I suppose fly-fishing creates a worry-free zone for an hour or two. Who wouldn’t want to go there?