Review of Elliot Dorff and Jonathan Crane (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 540pp. $150.

By Ute Steyer

Although ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ are terms that are often used interchangeably, philosophers tend to distinguish between them. In philosophical parlance, “morality” refers to value judgments about specific issues and “ethics” refers to the theoretical structure of morality and its relationship to other fields, such as religion, law, custom. This book, entitled “The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality,” is sensitive to this distinction. The book contains a collection of original essays by scholars, activists, and professionals in their respective fields, primarily from North America but also from Israel.

The editors decided to divide the handbook into two parts. Part one is a more historically oriented timeline of thinkers as well as an overview of different ethical theories. This is especially important as far too often similar volumes outline the historical development of Jewish ethical thought as if the development were linear, and they neglect to acknowledge the spectrum of thought that existed during any particular time. There has never been a unified ‘Jewish Ethics’ but rather multiple ethical theories.

The second part of the book contains a collection of essays on specific topics and from specific areas through the lenses of contemporary voices in the field.

In a book as ambitious as this one, there will be certain areas and topics that will not be addressed and will only receive a cursory treatment. The editors acknowledge this limitation in the introduction to the book.

Unfortunately, one of the excluded areas (mentioned also by the editors) is the topic of the relationship between Jewish law (halakha) and morality. This is especially unfortunate as so much of Jewish ethical thought found its expression and articulation in Jewish legal writings. The topic is touched upon indirectly in many of the essays in the way their authors draw on interpretations of Jewish law but one would have wished for a more structured and comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Some of the chapters of part one feel a bit like a Wikipedia entry. For instance, chapter 4 on “Ethical Theories Among Medieval Jewish Philosophers” covers 12 thinkers on 14 pages, devoting no more than a paragraph to some of them. Less would have been more here. Another example is chapter 6 on “Mussar Ethics and Jewish Ethical Theories,” which attempts to cover seven thinkers on 12 pages, leaving less than a half-page to Hermann Cohen.  Chapter 7 does indeed deal with the ethical theories of Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, but the structure results in some duplication in the treatment of Cohen.

In some sense, the contributors to the book were overly ambitious. Considering that it is impossible to cover all ethical thinkers in one volume, it would have been preferable for each contributor to concentrate on one or two representatives of a “school” or “period” instead of trying to treat a whole group.

An interesting section that most likely would be absent in other similar handbooks is the one dedicated to the ethical theories of the four major streams in Judaism: Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. Contributions to this section were made by theologians associated with one of the big seminaries of each movement. Although the question remains whether one can really talk about a specifically Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist ethics, the authors nevertheless invested great effort to show some of the major streams of thinking and give specific examples from each movement.

What really sets this handbook apart is the second part. Contributors with diverse backgrounds, in regards to formal academic training, affiliation with a particular movement or personal backgrounds, but with substantial knowledge in their respective areas wrote essays on specific contemporary topics in Jewish morals.

What is true for the first part, that no book can cover all aspects, is even more evident here in the second part of the book. There is a sheer unlimited amount of moral problems and the contributors had to make a selection. Still, the topics they address are of the highest relevance and give a glimpse as to how various Jewish ethical theories are applied to specific moral questions in the interpretation of each writer.

No doubt, this book is an important contribution and will serve well its purpose as a handbook of Jewish ethics and morality. Readers will not only appreciate the essays in the book itself but also the fact that each chapter ends with a substantial list not only of the usual notes and works-cited but with suggestions for further readings.


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