Essays on Ethics: A Week­ly Read­ing of the Jew­ish Bible

Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks; Sen. Joseph Lieber­man, fwd.

  • Review
By – March 29, 2017

Essays on Ethics joins Lessons in Lead­er­ship in Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks’s ongo­ing series of online Covenant and Con­ver­sa­tion” essays on the week­ly Torah reading.

As in the pre­vi­ous essays, Rab­bi Sacks dis­plays a wide-rang­ing eru­di­tion with respect to Jew­ish and gen­er­al cul­ture, as well as an impres­sive abil­i­ty to express com­plex ideas in read­i­ly-acces­si­ble pre­sen­ta­tions, cit­ing pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary Jew­ish sources inter­twined with a broad spec­trum of philoso­phers, the­olo­gians, psy­chol­o­gists, anthro­pol­o­gists, neu­ro­log­i­cal researchers, econ­o­mists, politi­cians, his­to­ri­ans, painters, and musicians.

In his intro­duc­tion to this book, enti­tled Sev­en Fea­tures of Jew­ish Ethics,” Rab­bi Sacks out­lines the areas that he believes to inform Judaism’s over­all approach towards the moral life, and there­fore through­out the con­tents of the Bible: the dig­ni­ty of the indi­vid­ual, human free­dom, the sanc­ti­ty of life, guilt instead of shame, loy­al­ty and love, the ethics of covenant, and the dual covenant. Sto­ries from Gen­e­sis — with some por­tions of the oth­er Five Books of Moses — lend them­selves most read­i­ly to high­light­ing these eth­i­cal and moral themes. Rab­bi Sacks iden­ti­fies man­i­fes­ta­tions of moral ideas in the legal por­tions of the Bible as well, reflect­ing his belief in the need for stu­dents of the Bible to con­scious­ly con­sid­er ta’amei hamitzvot, or the rea­sons that under­lie the Com­mand­ments. A dis­cus­sion of the Taber­na­cle in Parashat Teru­ma, for exam­ple gives rise to a med­i­ta­tion upon vol­un­tary giv­ing; the send­ing forth of a scape­goat on the Day of Atone­ment, men­tioned in Acharei Mot, gen­er­ates a com­par­i­son of guilt soci­eties” as opposed to shame soci­eties”; the delin­eation of the laws of the Nazirite in Naso serves as a con­text for con­sid­er­ing how the themes of mod­er­a­tion and bal­ance impact the quest to live a moral life; and the direc­tive in Va’etchanan to do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” leads to con­sid­er­a­tion of how the moral life com­bines con­cern for both the uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar in our deal­ings with our fel­low man.

Essays on Ethics once again demon­strates Rab­bi Sacks’s won­der­ful abil­i­ty to expli­cate the core texts of Judaism in the con­text of not only the broad­er Jew­ish tra­di­tion, but of West­ern intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion over­all. Each short essay can serve as a cat­a­lyst to much broad­er read­ing, learn­ing and dis­cus­sion. This is a vol­ume that should not be missed.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions