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Professor lectures on Judaism

Karen Langley | Thursday, February 10, 2005

Professor Elliot Bartky of the Program in Liberal Studies presented a lecture on the “Social Ethics of Judaism” at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies Wednesday. This was the second in the five-part “Comparative Religious Social Traditions” series, sponsored by the Program in Catholic Social Teaching and co-sponsored by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Studies.Bartky began his lecture by explaining there are no true Jewish social ethics, as the central idea of the religion is the Torah. “If we wish to speak of the social ethics of Judaism, we must presume that social ethics is a concept that transcends every religion,” he said. “Social ethics are not a Jewish idea.”Discussing the possibility that Jews may develop a set of social ethics, Bartky cited the interaction between Reform and Conservative rabbis and the efforts by Orthodox Jews to create dialogue with members of other religions.”Jews are increasingly ready to contribute to interreligious dialogue on social ethics, but they must develop their own system of social ethics before they can add something to the discussion,” said Bartky.Bartky discussed the basis of Western thought in the philosophy of the Greeks and in Jerusalem. “Ethics is a prelude to political science. The question of the greatest human happiness cannot be divorced from the question of the greatest regime,” Bartky said.Judaism and Greek philosophy both converge in their value of the political. They are essentially political in a way that Christianity is not, Bartky said. Judaism believes the law to be a product of revelation, while Greek philosophy considers the law to originate in human reason.”Within classical Jewish texts, there are laws that can be loosely labeled social ethics. The rabbis teach us of the covenant that God made with Noah, in which the colors of the rainbow are a symbol for the seven fundamental Jewish laws,” Bartky said. “These are universal principles which can be understood by any person with the reason that God gave them.”The Jewish emphasis on laws is the basis of their moral system, Bartky said. Jews have 613 commandments they should follow. Though these are explicit commandments to be followed strictly, they are always lived with reason and respect for the prevailing Jewish values, such as the value for life, Bartky said.”The purpose of Jewish law is to make them a holy people. The Jews see themselves as the chosen people, but their purpose is to redeem the world. The law’s intent is to make them holy so that this redemption can happen,” said Bartky.Bartky advised the audience to take their own individual beliefs seriously, regardless of their religious or atheistic origins. He also noted that there is room for dialogue between the faiths in the public and political arena, he said. “Even though the Jews do not have an explicit set of social ethics, it is important to remember that historically speaking, there is no possibility of social ethics without Judaism, because social ethics arose from religion,” Bartky said.