Toward a Modern Jewish Virtue Ethics of Education

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Credit: David Baron via Wikimedia Commons

by Dr. Yonatan Y. Brafman

This is one of several articles from “Gleanings,” a publication from the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson School at JTSA. This issue is a tribute to Dr. Jonathan Woocher z”l. Several scholars and practitioners were asked to respond to Dr. Woocher’s proclamation “Twentieth-century Jewish education was designed to answer the question, ‘How can we ensure that individuals remain “good” Jews, even as they become good (and successful) Americans?’” Jewish education must respond to a subtly, but significantly, different question: How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?”

Modern moral philosophy is inhospitable to the notion of Jewish ethics. However, the recent rediscovery of virtue ethics provides opportunities for the development of a specifically Jewish approach to living the good life. While this opportunity is already being developed in academic studies of Jewish ethics, its most important contribution remains to be achieved in Jewish education. For, from this perspective, Jewish education should aim to identify and cultivate dispositions and practices for today that are essential for human flourishing.

Ethics is the answer to the question, “What ought I do?” Kantianism and Utilitarianism are the two major schools of modern philosophy that try to answer this question. They differ in fundamental ways: While Kantianism focuses on whether an action complies with moral duty, Utilitarianism concentrates on an action’s consequences. They agree, however, in their abstract universalism. Kantianism holds that morality provides a formal standard by which every action can be judged. Utilitarianism maintains that the morality of every action can be calculated by the quantity and quality of generic pleasure or pain that it produces. In both cases, the very idea of a Jewish ethics is ruled out from the start due to its particularity. It is not clear how it can be both “ethics” and “Jewish,” for either it imposes peculiar obligations on only a subset of humanity or it merely provides a specific means for attaining ends that are achievable in many different ways. But this is not just a problem for Judaism. In both cases, morality is extracted from the entirety of the individual’s life, not to mention the web of interpersonal relationships and skein of culture and history in which he/she finds himself/herself.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre rejects the abstraction and universalism of modern moral philosophy in favor of a return to the virtue ethics of classical and medieval thinkers. Chiefly associated with Aristotle but continued by Thomas Aquinas and even preserved in modernity by Jane Austen and Benjamin Franklin, virtue ethics takes a broader view of human life and the role of morality within it. MacIntyre focuses on the development of a person’s virtues, that is, dispositions to feel and to act in certain ways throughout one’s life. While they are the possession of an individual, virtues are acquired in the context of practices that are shared with others. In fact, the practices and the virtues are mutually constituting, in the sense that the virtue cannot be acquired outside of the practice and the practice cannot be enacted without the virtue. Virtues are thus always particular to the practices in which they are embedded. Nevertheless, after their cultivation within a specific set of practices, virtues can be generalized and applied to new practices.

Indeed, practices and virtues are not static. Over the course of time, new interpretations of the virtue or the practice can be offered that transform them both. These interpretations, though, always make reference to how the practice has been performed and to how the virtue has been embodied previously. Reflection on practices and virtues thus always take place within a tradition shared with others both in the past and present. Lastly, if an individual’s life is not to decompose into unrelated practices that inculcate virtues that are indifferent at best and antithetical at worst to each other, they must be interpreted in the context of an image of a whole human life. This image structures the practices into an existential project and integrates the virtues into an ideal character. It is best represented, not by a standard or calculus, but by imagined or actual exemplars—individuals who have achieved the good life.

MacIntyre’s virtue ethics enables the reclamation of Jewish ethics in modernity. To start, it allows an appreciation of Jewish thinkers of the past who thought within this paradigm. Moses Maimonides, who, as is well known, was strongly influenced by Aristotle, presents a virtue ethics, which he connects with an account of the commandments and a theology. Presenting the main insight of this approach, in Eight Chapters, he writes, “Know, moreover, that these moral excellences or defects cannot be acquired . . . except by means of the frequent repetition of acts resulting from these qualities, which, practiced during a long period of time, accustoms us to them.” Virtues, dispositions to act and to feel, are inculcated through repeated performance of actions until they become acquired elements of one’s character. The commandments, in Maimonides’ view, are practices for the “the discipline and guidance of the faculties of the soul.” And though he does not make it explicit, such commandments and their virtues are surely understood by Maimonides as enacted within a community and interpreted within a tradition. The ultimate purpose of Maimonides’s virtue ethics is not bound by a tradition and community, however. In imagining one’s practices and virtues cohering into a whole life, one’s exemplar should be God. For, if one fully develops the virtues, one “will reach the highest degree of perfection possible to a human being, thereby approaching God, and sharing in God’s happiness.”

Maimonides illustrates this approach in his commentary on Ethics of our Fathers (3:15), which states, “Everything is according to the multitude of the deed.” Maimonides takes this claim to mean that quantity matters more than quality in the development of the virtues. He considers the question of whether it is better to divide one’s charitable giving among many different individuals or to give a single large sum to a single individual. One could imagine how a Kantian or a Utilitarian would analyze this question. The Kantian would examine it in terms of one’s general obligation to give charity to those in need. The Utilitarian would calculate what would maximize the general happiness and minimize the general pain. Maimonides, in contrast, approaches the question from the perspective of which alternative would best cultivate the virtue of generosity and decides that repeated instances of giving would be most effective in establishing a generous disposition.

Elsewhere Maimonides integrates the virtue of generosity into an account of flourishing that includes Jewish ritual and theology. In discussing how one should apportion one’s spending to fulfill the commandments of Purim, he writes, “It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence” (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Purim and Hanukkah,” 2:17). Fulfilling the commandment of matanot le-’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and even prioritizing it over other commandments both expresses and fosters the virtue of generosity. Moreover, in Maimonides’ view, this virtue is central to human flourishing. Generosity enables an individual to achieve divine joy.

While Maimonides is an example of medieval Jewish virtues ethics, it is not clear that he can serve as a direct model for today. Despite his incisive and inspiring analysis of generosity, patriarchy and elitism pervade other aspects of his thought. Further, the medieval kehillah and the unquestioned authority of mesorah in which he lived and thought has given way to looser Jewish communal structures and personalized Jewish commitments. Nevertheless, the basic structure that he describes remains relevant: Judaism as a tradition of cultivating virtues and pursuing human flourishing within a communally shared practice of commandments, whether they are understood as divinely revealed or socially constructed. The particular virtues and thus the image of human flourishing, however, remain to be developed by present-day Jews and Jewish communities. Certainly, for such flourishing and its constitutive virtues to be Jewish, it must emerge out of interpretation of the Jewish tradition. But, like all interpretation, it will be performed here and now in view of the contemporary Jewish experience, which includes being enmeshed within other moral traditions and social relationships.

While synagogues and Jewish centers should play a role in developing and fostering a modern Jewish virtue ethics, institutions of Jewish education are indispensable. This is primarily because they are already doing it to a certain extent. In addition to conveying the content of Jewish texts to students and familiarizing them with Jewish ritual, Jewish education also fosters ways of treating others and of orienting one’s life. Often this is understood under the rubric of “Jewish values” as teaching abstract ideas like tzedek, ḥesed, and ’emet. But, in practice, this should mean modeling and reinforcing through action embodied ways of acting with justice, kindness, and truthfulness, that is, through cultivating dispositions. Jewish practices, like daily tefillah, matanot le-’evyonim on Purim, or even confessions of viddui, inculcate these virtues and many others.

What is lacking is a clear vision of how various Jewish virtues like these coalesce into a complete Jewish life. This can be accomplished, not through historical research, theological reflection, or mission statements, but through vividly describing or imaginatively projecting those persons who manifested those virtues and integrated them in the lives that they lived. With such exemplars in mind, Jewish educators have the unique opportunity to specify their implicit conception of human flourishing, refine their practices to cultivate the virtues it entails, and develop a Jewish virtue ethics for our time.

Dr. Yonatan Y. Brafman is assistant professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics, as well as the director of the MA program in Jewish Ethics at JTS.

Cross-posted from Gleanings.

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