Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Values?

Whether it’s over the phone to a pollster, in our rabbi’s office, across the halls of the Knesset, or around the Shabbat table; it’s time to talk Jewish values with an eye toward their impact on others and their true value to ourselves.

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Is there such a thing as Jewish values? Back in August, the media frenzy over how Jews celebrate bar mitzvahs turned to values-based discussions of what is appropriate. More recently, the Jewish values imperative has seemed to underwrite the fretting over the results of the Pew survey on American Jews. We hear the phrase Jewish values all the time, yet it remains a rather slippery concept.

As I understand it, the concept of communal values is meant to refer to a set of moral and ethical priorities that are actively internalized and promoted by the members of that community. But is that clearly in evidence in the Jewish context?

I recently completed a three-city speaking tour for the New Israel Fund of Canada where a handful of Israeli and Canadian commentators were charged with discussing the role of Jewish values in shaping Israeli democracy. What soon became clear is that a) there is no consensus on what Jewish values are; b) talking about Jewish values in the context of Judaism’s “Israel moment” quickly shifts to a discussion of something much more pressing, which is the question of Jewish sovereign power, and c) value-based discourse in the context of Israeli policy and advocacy arguably tends to be used instrumentally.

In Israel, consider the platform of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party (which literally means the Jewish Home). The party stresses the importance of Jewish law in informing public legislation, demands that Israel not be a “state of all its citizens,” encourages what the party acknowledges is the “cruel” act of cutting off employment to asylum seekers, and suggests that there are elements within the Palestinian Arab minority who represent a “fifth column.”

Flirting with theocracy, turning your back on the stranger, assuming disloyalty from minority ethnic groups within one’s own citizenry, and rejecting the most basic democratic idea that the state belongs to its citizens: is this the best we can do when it comes to using Jewish values to inform Jewish statehood? It is but one example along what is a varied Israeli political spectrum, certainly. But within modern-oriented Jewish values discourse in Israel, at least, the Jewish Home party remains among the most vocal.

Back in America, looking to the widespread reaction to the Pew study, we must ask: Is it the edifice of Jewish values that community leaders fear is being eroded or is it simply the self-referential idea of “Jewish continuity” that leaders are seeking to preserve? If it is the former, how well is our community doing in inculcating a uniform set of Jewish values? And when it is promoted, how helpful are these rubrics in fashioning the kind of community of which we can all be proud?

One way to shore up the confidence we have in our value system may be to discuss the issue of value trade-offs. With Jewish law undergirding much of our knowledge base on the subject of Jewish values, less attention is generally devoted to this question. When a conflict does arise between a literal halakhic interpretation of the sexuality laws of Leviticus, for example, and the question of human dignity; or between a humanist commitment to saving the stranger versus Jewish insularity; or between the universal desire for love versus the imperative for in-marriage, who is to adjudicate, and who is to decide?

Take the oft-heard Jewish value of “family.” For some, a Jewish commitment to family goes hand in hand with the exclusion of gays and lesbians from Jewish life. For others, a commitment to family means emphasizing the importance of including diverse types of family structures and sexual identities within our Jewish communal tent.

Or consider the Jewish value of kashrut. For some, committing to kashrut inevitably means propping up the worst offenses of the industrial agricultural sector, including what have in the past included questionable labor practices (think Agriprocessors). For others, a commitment to kashrut means an overall mindfulness surrounding health, ecology and animal ethics.

In short, whose values, whose society, whose community and whose Israel? Who is writing our values script, and who is editing, cross-checking and challenging? Whether it’s over the phone to a Pew pollster, in our rabbi’s office with our bar and bat mitzvah youth, across the halls of the Knesset, or around the Shabbat table, it’s time to talk Jewish values with an eye toward their impact on others and their true value to ourselves.

The World Jewish Congress.Credit: Reuters / Haaretz Archive