How America Prays

January 1, 2004
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by Erica Brown

Love Your Neighbor and Yourself, Elliot N. Dorff, (Philadephia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) $34.95, 366 pp
To Do the Right and the Good, Elliot N. Dorff, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2003) $34.95, 303 pp
Creating an Ethical Jewish Life, Byron L. Sherwin, Seymour J. Cohen, (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), $19.95, 302 pp
The Ten Commandments of Character, Joseph Telushkin, (New York: Bell Tower, 2003) $25, 317 pp

WE USED TO ASK ABBY, and sometimes we asked Ann. Lately we’ve been sending our dilemmas to Randy. Randy Cohen is the “ethicist” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The difference between an advice column and an ethics column is not always clear, but the latter seems to raise the intellectual or philosophical bar. Personal problems about cheating — financial, educational, or spousal — for example, are being treated as universal, moral conundrums that require rigorous and disciplined responses.

This seems to explain a spate of new general and Jewish books on ethics, particularly those of the interpersonal variety. The year 2001 brought us Byron Sherwin and Seymour Cohen’s book, Creating an Ethical Jewish Life. In 2002, Elliot Dorff’s book, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics hit the bookstands. The same author, a year later, shared his thoughts on another aspect of ethical living in To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics. Offering ethics with gentle Jewish touches for a popular general audience is Joseph Telushkin’s The Ten Commandments of Character. These are, no doubt, only a few of the latest tractates on ethics that prompt us to ask: Why now? Why this subject? And the more difficult questions about the impact of literature on living: Will reading a book really change us?

It would seem that self-help books generally — but not always — get published because they address a pervasive societal need. That a society too often scandalized by the moral deficiencies of its political leaders and celebrities is looking for guidance should be of no surprise to us. But perhaps another, more subtle dimension of this “overdose” of ethical literature needs to be understood. Obvious immoral acts and character flaws have always been a subject of concern; today it is the nuances and complexities of ethical dilemmas that prompt one to ponder. For example, a recent case of surrogate parenting involved five parties: the woman who supplied the egg, the man who supplied the sperm, the birth mother who carried the fetus to term, and the two adoptive parents. Who, lawyers asked, are the real parents? It is no wonder we need ethical guidelines. Technology is moving faster than our ability to address its ethical perplexities.

Our current interest in ethics might also be influenced by moral ambivalence. A recent newspaper columnist dissecting popular American slang such as “like,” “whatever,” and “random” concluded that these words demonstrated a shared sense of ambiguity and an inability to make judgments. Clear articulations of right and wrong were often seen as dogmatic and judgmental. Telushkin’s book, which is based on a series of columns he wrote over the course of two years for the Internet site Beliefnet, specifically addresses this issue of “right” and “wrong” in the context of recent research on teenagers and shoplifting. Although many teenagers said they would not shoplift, they were reluctant to judge those who did. Telushkin points out the importance of providing children with unequivocal statements about right and wrong when it comes to cheating (a theme throughout the book). Some of his readers took offense; one wrote: “There is no such thing as right … or wrong. There is only what you choose for yourself.”

Telushkin responded: “A generation of children raised in a morally neutral environment will yield a society where no truths can be held as self-evident.”

This interchange may shed light on another reason we see more ethical literature on our Jewish bookshelves. While parents of every generation struggle to raise their children — borne out by the wonderful Yiddish expression, “Little children don’t let you sleep; big children don’t let you live” — Telushkin’s generation of parents faces a profound level of insecurity created by the fear of global terrorism. It is true that the 20th century witnessed unspeakable tragedies, but the enemies — for the most part — shared identifiable national or ideological ties. Because terrorism is a new breed of evil, it has garnered new types of fears that are harder to articulate and even harder to resolve.

Do these guides make us more ethical? In Creating an Ethical Jewish Life, Sherwin and Cohen state that the “primary goal [of Jewish ethical literature] is not to inform but to transform.” The noble goal of transformation can only be measured by individual readers. Sherwin and Cohen refer continually to the “art” of ethical living, making character building into a quasi-aesthetic experience. Although the chapters in Creating an Ethical Jewish Life are well written and packed with wonderful Jewish sources, the aesthetic appeal of character perfection may work better as a Greek ideal than as a Jewish one. Dorff’s two books are helpful in just this vein. To Do the Right and the Good creates a strong secular and religious context within which to view a Jewish approach. Dorff also understands that, while most of today’s ethical dilemmas are not new, modernity has presented us with both “capabilities of mass destruction and… simultaneous potential for true global learning, understanding and enrichment…. Some of the old answers seem to do just fine in our modern world, whereas others seem to be woefully inadequate.”

These books are intellectually challenging; they will certainly stretch the reader, but will they change the reader? After briefly presenting his “Ten Commandments of Interpersonal Relationships,” Telushkin offers readers highlights from several years of his advice column. Rather than the sharp, sometimes cynical and witty responses offered by some columnists, Telushkin’s style is sincere, sensitive, and informed, focusing sagaciously on particular ethical rather than emotional responses to contemporary dilemmas. While his style may be more accessible and, perhaps, more influential, his own “Ten Commandments” seemed more like a quick and superficial hook into his correspondence.

Vanessa Ochs has created a different, perhaps more compelling, medium to frame Jewish ethics: the ten sensibilities. Rather than Telushkin’s specific case studies or Dorff’s more intellectually challenging essays, Ochs presents ten general Jewish values that we should carry with us — regardless of halakhic observance — when we confront ethical dilemmas. The range of her sensibilities is extensive and feels authentically Jewish without being dogmatic.

Jewish legal views on complicated issues like abortion or transplantation are generally filled with the wisdom of two thousand years of legal debate. It is hard to distill that complexity into a guide for everyday ethical behavior informed by Jewish tradition. We would be wise to cut out Ochs’s simple but profound list and post it onto our home and office corkboards. If we are a generation suffering from everyday ethical ambivalences, then we need a daily reminder that Jewish values can help us on the path to integrity.

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Erica Brown is Scholar-in-Residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Director of its Jewish Leadership Institute.

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