Since emotion cannot be legislated, Jewish ethics is measured in terms of behavior. The human experience is quite vast and Jewish teachings cover every aspect of it. Rabbi Telushkin does a fine job of selecting those areas which are most prevalent and reflecting on what Jewish ethics demands of us in each situation. Topics covered include duties of a host, of a guest, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, giving advice, how to give charity, relations with non-Jews, business, relating to our spouse and family, the Jewish attitude to animals, justice and tolerance.
Lest one think that this is a dry compendium of laws and regulations, this book is leavened with a host of anecdotes and stories that teach by example. Real people exemplifying true Jewish values are the vehicle for instruction. It is easy to read and is appropriate for all ages as text study or for discussion groups. We have advanced so far in so many areas, but as Rabbi Telushkin points out, this is because there was an attempt to solve that which was thought to be insolvable. Despite some advances, there has been no comparable world wide advance in ethical behavior.
The first five of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship to God. The second five focus on human relationships. The tablets are always depicted side by side, of equal importance. This series on practical Jewish ethics focuses on the importance of the second tablet.
Wallace Greene: Do you want this book to be read, studied, or consulted as a reference work?
Joseph Telushkin: Love Your Neighbor is designed to be read by individuals but also to be used in more formal course settings. The book covers the curriculum of a course, and is, I hope, encyclopedic in scope, without reading like an encyclopedia. That’s why I used hundreds of anecdotes to illustrate the points I was making. I wanted to make sure the book was highly readable and highly practical.
WG: You seem to quote Dr. Abraham Twerski and Dr. Ike Hershkopf a lot.
JT: What unites Dr. Abraham Twerski and Dr. Isaac Herschkopf is that they are both psychiatrists and two of the wisest people I know. I didn’t want to write things that perhaps made sense to me, but were psychologically unwise, and I appreciate the vast number of examples and insights they each offered me.
WG: Can you elaborate on why you feel the commandment to love is defined in terms of behavior rather than emotions?
JT: It is preferable to define love in terms of behavior rather than emotions (the text doesn’t read “Love humanity”), because emotions are too vague. Many parents who abuse their children insist that they love them. But if the word love can be used to describe behavior that is abusive, it means that the emotion of love is insufficient to guarantee righteous behavior. Behavior offers a better definition because it can convey to people what and how to be a loving person.
WG: Do you feel that the Rabbis brought forth a special understanding of this issue or just emphasized what common sense dictates is the proper thing to do?
JT: In many areas, there is a special emphasis given in Jewish ethical teachings that would not occur to most people. Take, for example, Maimonides’ teaching that the highest level of charity is giving someone a job or preparing them to work at a profession so that they will no longer need charity and can become self-sufficient. Most people would think of anonymous giving as the highest level of charity, but Maimonides deems this level higher (in any case, the most important anonymity is that of the recipient, not of the giver). Or take Judaism’s rich body of teachings on lashon hara, the laws of fair speech. Common sense dictates that it is morally wrong to slander or libel another, but Jewish law teaches that it is wrong to tell negative truths about another unless the person to whom you are speaking needs the information. The fact that something is true doesn’t mean that others have the right to know it, and Jewish law therefore forbids spreading such information. This makes sense. After all, we can all think of events in our life that would embarrass us if made known to others, and just as we would regard one who spreads this information as having done us a great wrong, so too should we refrain from spreading such information to others (unless the party to whom we are speaking has need of the information, itself an issue widely discussed in Jewish law). Judaism even has the concept of consumer obligations, not just consumer rights. The Talmud forbids asking the storekeeper the price of an item if you have no intention of buying. You can’t arbitrarily raise another’s hopes just to satisfy your curiosity. All these ethical teachings might seem true and obvious once you hear them, but the fact is they are by no means obvious to most people.
WG: Why do you feel that the “Love Thy Neighbor” aspect of contemporary Jewish culture and practice is deficient?
JT: What I particularly try to address is the issue of being a good person in a morally complicated world, and I want to present Jewish teachings that offer us guidance in this effort. One of the sad things that happened to Jewish life in modernity is that the word ‘religious’ has come to be associated in people’s mind exclusively with ritual observances. Thus, if two Jews are speaking about a third and the question is raised if so and so is religious, the answer will be based exclusively on the person’s level of ritual observance. “He keeps Shabbat, he keeps kosher, he is religious,” Or “She doesn’t keep Shabbat or kashrut, she isn’t religious.” And people treat ethical activities as if they were an extracurricular activity, nice but not very important. But we know that when a first-century BCE non-Jew said to Hillel, “Convert me to Judaism on condition that you can teach me its essence while I am standing on one foot,” Hillel responded, “What’s hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.” So it is clear that ethics are not a peripheral activity in defining one’s Jewishness, but very central.
WG: How would you elaborate on Hillel’s advice to that non-Jew who wanted to convert? JT: Empathy is about the hardest of moral traits to engage in on an ongoing basis, and Jewish traditions use many techniques to try and bring us to it. But it is something we have to work at on an ongoing basis. Empathy is what will ultimately enable us to practice love of neighbor in a consistent way.
WG: Will there be a study guide for schools or adult ed. groups?
JT: A study guide will be posted at the time of the book’s publication
WG: What will your next book in the series be entitled?
JT: It Is Not Good for A Person to be Alone: Judaism and the Family, Judaism and the Community.
WG: Any final thoughts?
JT: I want the teachings in this book to impact people in their daily lives, and affect them both in their personal behavior and their interactions with others.