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Ethics

Ethics

By Marc Gary | Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer

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This week’s parashah comprises a multitude of ordinances, providing an embarrassment of riches upon which to comment. Capital punishment, abortion, workers’ rights—to name just a few of the issues suggested by the parashah—offer ample grist for the commentator’s mill. Yet in this political year, with all of its focus on immigration, refugees, and minority rights, it would seem almost churlish to avoid addressing one of the key themes of the Torah reading: the treatment of the ger (stranger).

The seminal verse is Exodus 22:20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were

By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach | Director, The Block/Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts, JTS

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Words fail me.

This common idiom—so casually tossed off in a moment of surprise—expresses a deep truth. Words do indeed fail us, sometimes to tragic effect.

That is the way the Zohar (the foundational text of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism) understands our exile in Egypt: as the exile of speech, a failure of words. In this reading, the breakdown of speech is both cause and effect of our enslavement, while healing and redeeming speech—finding our voice—is both the process and hallmark of redemption.

How does the exile of speech—failed, unredeemed language—manifest itself?

By Rabbi Julia Andelman | Director of Community Engagement

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Parashat Vayiggash opens with Judah’s impassioned plea to Joseph, begging him to release Benjamin from captivity in order to spare their father Jacob from further anguish at losing, again, a son of his favored wife Rachel. Deeply moved by Judah’s words, Joseph can keep his identity a secret no longer, and the brothers are finally reunited. From his high station in Egypt, Joseph has toyed cruelly with his brothers—perhaps as their comeuppance for having sold him all those years ago. What is it now that finally stirs his mercy powerfully enough that he changes course?

By Rabbi Tim Daniel Bernard | Director of Digital Learning and Engagement, JTS

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What would you do if a voice told you to sacrifice your child?

In the next section of this passage, which deals with the example of an inquisitor who seeks to put a heretic to death, Kant explains why Abraham was just as wrong to follow God’s command and take Isaac to be sacrificed. (Gen. 22:1-10)

Maybe God did speak to Abraham, and if so, maybe it would be theoretically appropriate to follow God’s command. But Kant raises the question of certainty. His objection to Abraham’s action is more about what we can know, rather than about what is (in theory) permitted behavior.

Kant makes two

By Marc Gary | Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer

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“And in the end, they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love’s bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge.”
(Jackson Browne, “Before the Deluge”)

Parashat Noah raises difficult questions about the relationships between the natural world, humanity’s morality, and God’s justice:

“Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. …
The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

By Dr. Raysh Weiss | Student, The Rabbinical School of JTS

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A representation of the sotah (suspected adulteress) ritual from this week’s parashah (Num. 5:11–31).

See the full-size version of this image.

 

These images were originally posted on the Jewschool blog, May 23, 2010.

By Rabbi Rachel Bovitz | Director of Millennial Engagement, JTS

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In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes a personal practice that involved daily focus on 13 moral virtues. Franklin’s memoir, translated into several languages in the late 18th century, became widely influential, reaching even Eastern Europe, where Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanov wrote Heshbon Hanefesh, published in 1808. Rabbi Lefin included justice and most of the other virtues in Franklin’s list when he created his 13 primary middot (moral virtues) to be focused upon in mussar practice (the Jewish approach to cultivating these virtues). Rabbi Lefin’s definition of tzedek

By Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz | Director of Israel Programs, The Rabbinical School, JTS

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In the wake of violent religious extremism that plagues our world today, why are some religious leaders not expressing their opposition to bloodshed in the name of God? By turning a blind eye and silencing their voices, religious leaders tacitly give their approval to the violence—both tarnishing their reputation as leaders and diminishing God’s presence in this world. Leadership, especially religious leadership, demands scrupulousness and accountability.

Our parashah this week, Parashat Emor, underscores this notion.

By Marc Gary | Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer

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A few years ago, my wife and I attended a retreat at Camp Ramah Darom in northern Georgia. The scholar-in-residence for the Shabbat was Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a widely respected author of popular books on Jewish literacy and Jewish ethics. He suggested that all of us in attendance—approximately 100 adults—commit to one of the most difficult challenges we had ever faced: refrain from talking about other people for the duration of Shabbat. That is to say, for an entire day, we should speak not a word of gossip.

By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History

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This year I will not be celebrating Hanukkah at home. I'm off to Israel on December 6, and will not be back till the seventh day of the festival, just in time to light a full complement of eight candles on the last night in the midst of family. It is hard to capture the beauty of this holiday or any other on your own. Neither synagogue nor prayer begins to exhaust the repertoire of ritual that enlivens the distinctive character of every Jewish holy day. The home is the great aquifer of our Judaism, indispensable but undervalued.

Many years ago I spent another Hanukkah alone.

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