Shavuot, Jewish Ethics, and a Rebuttal of Thomas Jefferson

by Yossi Prager

As Shavuot approaches, I think of the multi-faceted nature of the Torah. It tells the stirring story of a small, complex family that grew into a great nation. It sets out the constitution for that nation. And it contains a detailed set of laws for interaction among members of the nation. As someone who has studied these different facets from childhood, I continue to be amazed by the richness of the written Torah as well as the Oral Law, a now-written set of books that includes the Mishna, Talmud, and medieval and modern commentaries and codes. Despite – or perhaps because of – my immersion in these sources, until last week I had not given much thought to what America’s Founding Fathers thought of it all.

On a recent Shabbat, I heard Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik give a talk on the differences between Thomas Jefferson’s and John Adams’ views of Judaism. John Adams spoke highly of Judaism’s contributions to moral civilization. Jefferson disagreed, and his attack on Judaism provides the opportunity for us to reflect on the ongoing distinctiveness and contribution of Judaism to the modern world.

In an October 12, 1813 letter to Adams, Jefferson noted the extraordinary volume of material that must be studied in order to provide an assessment of Judaism. Not having done so himself, he relies on the work of another scholar, whose conclusions he adopts. Here’s Jefferson, citing a book by Enfield (full text of the letter here):

Ethics were so little studied among the Jews, that, in their whole compilation called the Talmud, there is only one treatise on moral subject… What a wretched depravity of sentiment and manners must have prevailed before such corrupt maxims could have obtained credit! It is impossible to collect from these writings a consistent series of moral Doctrine.’ Enfield, B. 4. chap. 3. It was the reformation of this `wretched depravity’ of morals which Jesus undertook. In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to them.

I want to go right to the heart of Jefferson’s point. Is he right that “ethics were so little studied among the Jews” that there is only one treatise on moral subjects? Do Jewish doctrines lead to “wretched depravity”?

Enfield and Jefferson are right that only Pirkei Avot is devoted exclusively to ethical exhortations (though parts of most other Talmudic tractates contain such exhortations). And if the study of ethics means exhortations, then Judaism might fall short. However, the genius of Judaism – at the time and relevant today – is its mandate that ethics be embodied in legally-enforceable behaviors. Jefferson credits Jesus with “extracting the pure principles.” Judaism believes that God revealed Himself to people in the language of law because ethical life depends on enacted behaviors, not merely principles.

Let’s take an example from the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot. Charity is a “pure principle”’ in Christianity, which hopes that either moral teachings or concern about the afterlife will cause people to be charitable. Judaism mandates a legal obligation for farmers to allow the poor into their fields to pick up and take home sheaves that have dropped. These belong to the poor and cannot be retrieved by the farmer. Thus, a critical portion of the story of Ruth takes place in the field, as she joins the other poor in Bethlehem gaining their livelihood by following the workers in Boaz’s field.

There is an even more important reason for “the pure principles” to be embodied in law: when the pure principles conflict, how can we know which choice is the ethical one? Here are some principles: feed the hungry, tell the truth, protect other people’s livelihoods, don’t steal. But what about the following cases: Who gets priority if there are two equally needy people, and I have enough bread only for one? If the truth will hurt someone, is the lie a better choice? If the one school teacher in town is mediocre, and a better teacher opens a school, should we nonetheless protect the livelihood of the first? May I steal something inexpensive to save property of mine that is more valuable, if I plan to repay the loss?

In these cases, neither exhortations nor Pirkei Avot will provide useful answers. What’s needed instead is a resolution of conflicting ethical principles – what in modern parlance we call law. And this is why the Talmud and subsequent codes and responsa are shorter on exhortations and longer on law. (The answers to all of the above moral quandaries are addressed in Talmudic literature.) In an insightful new talk, Professor Michael Broyde of Emory University notes that because Judaism is built upon laws and legal arguments, a Jewish education is training in “lawthink.” Aside from providing better ethical grounding, Professor Broyde argues that Jewish education trains young people to think like lawyers, which gives them better skills in critical thinking, conflict resolution and policy assessment.

So, as we consider devoting a few hours to Torah study for the holiday of Shavuot, we all have a rich set of texts to choose from. The Torah offers the opportunity for literary analysis, political and other philosophy, theology, spirituality and law. Ethics, as the intersection of theology, spirituality and law, is central. Whatever you choose to study, join me in proving that Thomas Jefferson knew far more about how to ensure religious liberty than about our distinctive religion and its continuing contributions to contemporary questions.

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Cross-posted at The Avi Chai Foundation Blog.