Personal Virtue

September 1, 2005
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Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Given the immense weight of the legal tradition in Judaism, and Kant’s influence in modern philosophy, it is no surprise that Jews tend to think of ethics as a body of rules. Both halakhah and Kant speak powerfully of duty as the primary ethical dimension. But one helpful alternative way to think of personal ethics is not as fulfilling rules, but as pursuing virtues, or middot, a classical Hebrew term. Personal virtue ethics does not focus on defining a moral imperative for a difficult situation. Rather, it cultivates practices that build excellent lives that aid social wellbeing and eliminates practices that destroy society. This approach to ethics would not ask, in Al Gore’s words: What would Jesus … well, let’s say Moses … do? Instead it asks: What makes Moses an excellent person, worthy of emulating?

The key source for a Jewish virtue ethics is Maimonides, the leading Jewish Aristotelian. In his legal writings (Laws of Character Traits) and his philosophical work (the Guide for the Perplexed and the “Eight Chapters”), Rambam wrote that rigorous discipline and self-scrutiny aid in building a moral personality. The entire Torah with all its mitzvot, Rambam writes, was given for the sake of tikkun haguf / improving the body — that is, society — and tikkun hanefesh / improving the inner person, primarily the mind, but also the will.

Even before Maimonides, we find the central idea of a personal virtue ethics in the paired biblical concepts of tzelem Elohim and kedoshim tihiyu; that human beings are created in the image of God and are called upon to imitate God’s sanctity. These themes compel a Jew to ask herself or himself: What am I making of my life? What kind of person am I training myself to become? Because truly everything depends on whether we honor the image of God in other people and in ourselves; whether we elevate or degrade our potential for holiness.

What virtues help us attain that holiness? Each month over the course of the next year, this Sh’ma Ethics page will explore personal ethics and the challenges we face in living ethical lives. Below are a few of the questions and virtues Sh’ma will be addressing.

In business, politics, friendship, and love, human relations are impossible without a dependable commitment to the truth — to what is instead of what is not. Our society’s estimable commitment to privacy permits us to get away with all sorts of petty and grand deceptions (from cheating on income tax to lying about our ages). Does the practice of telling white lies erode our commitment to honesty?

The path of least resistance is rarely virtuous. On the other hand, choices that call on us to show courage and grace during personal sacrifice often call forth ethical excellence. Should we demand of ourselves that we choose careers based on how much they help others rather than how they satisfy us personally and materially? Does the degree of comfort most American Jews live in cultivate an ethic of disciplined self-sacrifice, or does it train us to pamper ourselves?

Our competitive society encourages us to thrive by looking out for ourselves. But ethically virtuous people look out for others. Does this extend even to our adversaries? Is it virtuous to care for the feelings of those with whom we disagree? Or does that make us suckers? Does the pain of Gaza settlers leaving their homes demand real consideration from supporters of withdrawal? Should discrimination against gay people demand consideration from those who view homosexuality as immoral? Can ethics responsibly treat something as unquantifiable as feelings?

It’s not about us. Seen through the lens of eternity, each of us live short, not very wise or pure, lives. When we grow too self-important, we should stop and measure ourselves against God’s eternal standards to determine how much we can still grow. Do we assume we’re generally right, or do we strive to learn from every person? What drives some of us to want to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show sharing sexual secrets and processing our feelings toward our parents?

Becoming virtuous people is not easy. In the end, I value the prophet Micah’s famous formula: It has been told to you what is good and what God demands of you: nothing but doing what is just, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God.

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Jan R. Uhrbach, a Wexner Graduate Fellow, is an adjunct faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary and has taught for Wexner Heritage, the Skirball Center, and the 92nd Street Y. She is the founding rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, where she continues to serve part-time, and she is the sh’lichat tzibbur for the Kesher Minyan on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

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