On the Essence of the Ethics


Rabbi [Judah Hanassi] would say:  Which is the correct path for man to choose?  Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.
Ethics of the Fathers 2:1

At first glance, the above statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics, and indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

The very basis of the Jewish faith is that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash Rabba, “An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own: he has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world” (Bereishis Rabba 1:2).  Furthermore, when man orders his life according to the Torah, he is doing much more than following some helpful hints from the manufacturer; as the Talmud puts it, he is serving as “G-d’s partner in creation.” For the world that G-d created in the initial “six days of creation” represents not the completion of His works, but the installation of the raw materials of which man is to develop the finished product.  At Sinai, the architect delivered his plans to his contractors: G-d communicated the Torah to man, imparting His vision of reality to those whom He had charged to implement it in his creation.

Thus, one who refers to the “way things are” in his own nature, in society, or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life, is akin to the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. “The blueprint calls for a square plank,” he muses, “but the log I have is round.  Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?” Why labor to change the world, if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it? To the Jew, the “correct path for man to choose” is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what one is comfortable with or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as his own nature. Thus the Ethics of the Fathers, the Talmud’s summarization of the Jew’s moral philosophy, opens with the words “Moses received the Torah at Sinai”: morality, for the Jew, is not product of man’s subjective thinking but of Divine revelation. And yet, the second chapter of the Ethics begins with the saying “Which is the correct path for man to choose?  Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind…”!

Within The Line

The Talmud, which is a detailed anthology of the entire body of Torah law, is comprised of sixty-three tractates. Sixty-two of them deal with the do’s and don’ts of life: laws which tell the Jew how to pray and how to study; how to marry and how to divorce; how to observe the Shabbat and the festivals; how and what to eat and how to bury his dead; how to punish criminals and how to conduct his business. The single exception is the Ethics of the Fathers, which discusses not the law (din) but the area defined as lifnim mishuras ha-din – that which is “within the line of the law.” “One who wishes to be a chassid (pious individual),” says the Talmud, “should study the Ethics of the Fathers.”

What does it mean to act “within the line of the law”? On the most basic level, it means going beyond the law’s minimum requirements. If the laws of charity mandate that one set aside 10% of his earnings for the needy, the “pious individual” gives more. He has stricter standards of kashrut, dons a higher quality pair of teffilin, and devotes more time to Torah study than the laws of the Torah require of him.

On a deeper level, the chassid is one who goes “within” the parameters of the law in the literal sense: he strives to perfect not only the externalities of his behavior but also his more internal self, his mind-set and character. The “letter” of Torah law deals primarily with the conduct, rather than the nature, of man. There is no law which obligates us to be of a generous disposition – only that we actually share our resources with the needy. Nowhere does the Torah demand of us to be revolted by the taste of pork – only that we refrain from eating it. The practitioner of the Ethics, however, is one who does not suffice with making his behavior conform to the Torah’s directives; he insists that all of him, his thoughts, his feelings – all the way to the very essence of his outlook and character – be permeated with the vision contained in the Divine blueprint for creation.[1]

Chapter II

Obviously, this represents a more advanced phase the effort to realize one’s partnership in G-d’s creation. His first objective must be to actually fulfill the directives of the Torah.  For man to seek to transform his nature without having first disciplined his behavior is as futile an endeavor as the attempt to train an unbridled horse or to draw energy from an undammed river.  First, the “animal” in man must be reined in and controlled; only then can it be refined and sublimated.

Both these stages were present in the manner in which we accepted the Torah at Sinai.  When Moses first told the people of Israel of G-d’s intention to give them the Torah, “the entire nation answered together, and said: ‘All that G-d has spoken, we will do’” (Exodus 19:8). Several days later, after a period of intense preparations for the great revelation at Sinai, the people reiterated their commitment to enter into their covenant with the Almighty. This time they said “All that G-d has spoken, we will do and we will comprehend” (Exodus 24:7). The foundation of the partnership between man and G-d must be an unequivocal “we will do” on the part of man. Only then can he proceed to internalize what is already ingrained in his behavior, transforming the most basic drives of his soul so that G-d’s will is not only what he does but also what he desires to do with every fiber of his being.

Thus, the first chapter of the Ethics begins with the words “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.” Not “discovered,” not “chose” nor “learned,” but “received” – the basis of Torah, including its “within the line of the law” element, is the acceptance of and commitment to the Divine plan for life on earth. Chapter two, however, opens with a second, deeper realization of G-d’s purpose in creation: that man himself choose the correct path. That his fulfillment of the Torah’s commandment be not only an act of submission to the Divine will, but something that is harmoniously consistent with his nature. In the words of Rabbi Judah Hanassi’s son, Rabbon Gamliel, quoted immediately following his father’s words, “make that your will shall be as His will.”

But one is not to suffice with the transformation of self: he must seek to influence his surroundings, so that the very conscious and character of society comes to embody the Divine ideal. When the “correct path” of Torah is not only “harmonious for the one who does it” but also “harmonious for mankind,” G-d and man’s “joint project” of creation is complete.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Tazriah-Metzora 5748 (April 23, 1988)

Excerpt from new book: Beyond the Letter of the Law: A Chassidic Companion to Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers)


[1] This is not to say that the Torah does not enjoin us to improve our characters.  Several mitzvos, such as the commandment to love G-d, to fear Him, to emulate His ways (“As He is merciful, you, too, are to be merciful; as He is benevolent, you, too, are to be benevolent…”), to love one’s fellow as oneself, are addressed to the human heart. Nevertheless, the mandatory element of these mitzvos is to do the things which lead to the development of these feelings and traits: to comprehend and meditate upon those ideas which inspire the love and fear the Almighty, to cultivate positive character traits by consistently acting in a merciful and compassionate manner, and so on. Nowhere does the Torah obligate man to transform his basic will; also one who must constantly battle his nature to observe the mitzvos fulfills every requirement of the “letter” of the law.


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18 years ago


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