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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dr. Benji Levy

Modern ethical challenges to Judaism explored in new book

(First published in the Jerusalem Post on the 9th of July 2022).

The tension between competing values forces most people today into one of three categories: for, against and indifferent. Those in the first two categories often feel burdened by binary choices and respond by burrowing deeper into their positions, limiting themselves to an echo chamber with people they agree with, whether online or in real life. More often than not this leads to a lack of empathy toward people with whom they disagree.

Many fatigued by the black and white, either/or nature of the bewildering number of decisions that modern living poses, end up indifferent to larger questions and constrict themselves to the immediate challenges of family life and earning a living. Few people live with the ongoing tension, yet this is the liminal space that Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn invites us to venture into through his book, To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values. In it Korn explores some of today’s most difficult dilemmas facing the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel in particular.

A moral philosopher and an ordained Orthodox rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, Korn carefully navigates through Jewish ethical conundrums, investigating whether the Israeli Defense Forces behavior towards Palestinians is defensive and essential for Israeli security (and hence morally justified), or, as claimed by some, motivated by expansion and power. He asks whether Israel is succeeding in fighting according to ethical principles, and if women’s equality is required by our ethical ideal of tzedek (justice), or just a modern bias that clashes with Jewish tradition. He probes whether all human lives are equal, or if Jewish tradition posits an essential and irradicable difference between Jews and non-Jews. While analyzing power, Halacha (Jewish law) and other disciplines, Korn explores fundamental questions from a moral perspective, and asks the critical question of whether Halacha and tradition can be made consistent with modern values.

The book is philosophically and spiritually rich, but written in an accessible and open style. It will engage both scholars and thoughtful Jewish laypersons. Through this journey the book highlights the differences between Jewish ethics and Halacha, and explores the extent to which the ethical values of justice, hesed/rahamim (compassion/empathy) and the Tselem Elokim (the image of God) influence the decisions of rabbinic authorities and the decision-making process in Jewish law. Korn tackles other hot-button topics head-on yet sensitively. His orientation provides not only an approach to examining current moral issues, but also does justice to the Jewish context and background from which the ethical issues arise. These questions include how we can prevent the plague of religious extremism and violence, what are Israel’s moral and religious responsibilities beyond the Jewish people, and whether Jewish law and religious policy support democratic liberties.

“Jewish tradition faces a spiritual and existential crisis today, one unlike any other in the past.” Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn

AS AN educator who is privileged to serve thousands of students and religious Jews grappling with modernity, I know personally how compelling these issues are. Here are two examples: For the first time in 2,000 years the Jewish people has self-determination and sovereignty in its homeland. In Israel, we are free to choose our own moral and social values. On the other hand, this freedom comes with immense moral accountability.

Korn questions what kind of society Israelis will choose and what values will influence Jews and communities around the world. I moved with my family to Israel from Australia, and this question resonates in me with tremendous import and a sense of responsibility.

Second, my daughter would not be living in Israel (or anywhere, for that matter) were it not for her life-saving liver transplant that she received as an infant from a generous donor. I know deeply the wonder of this modern-day miracle. In perhaps his most persuasive chapter, “Receiving but not Donating Organs: Ethical and Jewish Considerations,” Korn highlights the moral unacceptability of this position espoused by some rabbinic authorities. Ethical consistency demand that one may not be a recipient of vital organs when one prohibits donating them.

As these two examples show, many important ethical dilemmas do not allow the options of indifference and apathy.

Korn begins the book with a powerful statement: “Jewish tradition faces a spiritual and existential crisis today, one unlike any other in the past.” I agree with the contention that this crisis is paramount, yet I disagree that it is located in Jewish tradition. Rather, the crisis is within Jews, who are now confronted with dual sensitives to Jewish tradition and to modern moral values.

Korn goes on to write that “Judaism cannot survive without a deep commitment to ethics, both in action and thought.” Judaism will always be around, but as Mordechai announced to Esther in Megillat Esther: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for Jews will come from another place, while you and your father’s family will perish.”

The question we must ask ourselves today is if we will be part of those who ensure Judaism’s relevance, engagement and resonant meaning with the people it was destined to guide, or will we allow Jewish tradition to become antiquated and slip down the slope of ethical numbness and spiritual irrelevance? The way to foster a brighter Jewish future is through a respectful but honest engagement with the principles behind key issues we face today and effectively pass them on to the next generation.

This book charts a careful path steeped in both tradition and ethical values that are neither tone-deaf to, nor ignorant of, the critical challenges we face. Korn embraces these values as opportunities and his underlying message is embedded in the title: To Be a Holy People. ■

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