The Ethics of Judaism and the Passover Story

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 14, 2017 / 18 Nisan 5777

Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses the recent news stories about United Airlines and Dr. Dao. He then talks about the limits of making ethical decisions based on what we see. Finally, he shares the different moral visions articulated by the Christian, Jewish and American value systems.

Wednesday night marked the end of the first two days of our weeklong celebration of Passover. That meant I finally returned on-line and caught up on some news. Like many people, I was disturbed to see some videos taken when United Airlines asked local law enforcement to remove Dr. David Dao from one of their planes. The trail of his blood left on the plane and his face was gruesome.

Images are powerful, and they often elicit a strong visceral emotion from us. Indeed, Dr. Dao’s case has gone viral and has evoked global outrage. United has already suffered a decline in its reputation and its stock value has plummeted by a billion dollars; we will have to wait to see how long-lasting these losses will be.

Yet I suspect many of us would agree that experiencing a strong reaction to an image is not the same as making a moral judgement. We may feel abhorrence, but that reaction in and of itself doesn’t provide us with ethical reasons. At best, it can only start us on a path to understanding by which we carefully consider what the correct course of action might be.

This Saturday, I hope to share some of my thinking about the recent United Airlines incident and what traditional Jewish sources might have to say about this disturbing incident.

Before that, let me share a more general reflection on the difference between American, Christian and Jewish approaches to ethics and morality. While each system has its value and worth, we also can learn different truths from each of these systems.

In the American value system, the primary unit of value is the individual. Ensconced in our founding documents, we have all learned that we have a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This statement, by the way, is why half of our country supports limited government. From its inception, many Americans have viewed government with suspicion, as historically speaking, many if not most governments have restricted our liberty and constrained our happiness. Those who support an expanded role for government do so because they believe that the government is the best-suited entity to secure our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a fair manner.

Historical Christianity, meanwhile, put less stock in our capacity to reach a happy outcome by our own labors. As Paul says on several occasions, we can’t achieve salvation through our works (Ephesians 2:8-9 Titus 3:4-5), because human beings are woefully limited (isn’t that an aspect of what the concept of Original Sin reveals to us?). Rather, an important aim of human existence is to emulate Jesus and ultimately to seek the grace of salvation; that is achieved most readily through the acceptance of Jesus and his unending love for humanity. With Easter just days away, it’s worthwhile to consider how valuable the life of Jesus as a role model is to the faithful believer and how his example can inspire the individual Christian to live a better and more caring life.

Judaism’s ethical center is somewhat different, and it finds expression in our Passover story. For the Exodus narrative is not concerned with the individual so much as by the group. God took us out of Egypt to form a covenant with us. That covenant comes with stipulations. We are to live our communal lives committed to the path of mitzvot, of the 613 commandments. Our destiny is to apply those mitzvot in the land of Israel so that we can become a holy people and by doing so inspire all nations to a similar path. Jewish purpose is therefore deeply connected to political  and spiritual realities. It is the source for our dedication to tikkun olam, to repairing the world. Yet the vision far exceeds that. Political commitment without a relationship with God is insufficient, and the individual’s needs often must give way to the needs of the group.

In an era when many Jews’ celebration of Passover is restricted to the first two nights of seders (s’darim), it’s fruitful to consider how we can best use our gift of freedom to further our spiritual and political selves. Passover inspires us to build better communities and countries. It reminds us, therefore, that there are greater goals than happiness.

May we labor accordingly.

A Zissen Pesach,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What stories do we tell ourselves that limit our freedom, and therefore our responsibility to the larger world?
  2. Do you find that your initial ethical judgement is normally the correct one? When has it not been? When has it been?