Character And Covenant

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Ben Frogel

Review of Geoffrey D. Claussen, Alexander Green, and Alan L. Mittleman (eds.), Jewish Virtue Ethics (New York: SUNY Press, 2023).

Jewish Virtue Ethics, a new, ambitious volume edited by Geoffrey D. Claussen, Alexander Green, and Alan L. Mittleman, is a much-needed contribution to the history of Jewish thought. Virtue ethics, broadly defined, is any ethical system that emphasizes developing a moral character. What constitutes a Jewish virtue ethic is a more contested subject.

Why bring together 35 different thinkers and texts from across the Jewish tradition to analyze the virtue ethics of each? Green, Mittleman, and Claussen have two answers. The first goal of the volume is to provide resources for a contemporary philosophical account of Jewish virtue ethics. In the afterword, Mittleman speculates about the volume’s relevance for committed communitarians and liberal cosmopolitans. The second goal of the volume is to make a claim about tradition. Specifically, the editors claim that the 35 thinkers and texts analyzed in Jewish Virtue Ethics comprise a tradition wherein disagreements and arguments constitute internal pluralism. (498)

The varied tone of the chapters reflects these two aims of the book. The first, penultimate, and last chapters speak in a different voice than the intermediate chapters. These chapters, “Biblical Literature,” “Jewish Feminism,” and “Jewish Environmentalism,” primarily discuss their subjects and virtues from the vantage point of the present–they are also the only chapters dedicated to particular inquiries rather than individual thinkers or texts. By contrast, the intermediary chapters, which focus on individual thinkers or texts, are primarily devoted to the exposition of the virtue ethics present in each work. Given this distinction, I will first focus on the intermediary chapters and then address Jewish Virtue Ethics where it attempts to speak normatively or critically.

Carlos Lévy and Clifford Orwin begin with essays on Philo and Josephus, who each provide a pre-Talmudic account of Jewish virtue ethics. While one might expect Philo to have a virtue ethic, Josephus qua virtue-ethicist may surprise some. Orwin contributes to a wave of scholarship that focuses on Josephus as a thinker rather than merely as a historian. His chapter is the gem of the compilation, well-researched and carefully argued. Readers will be shocked at the parallels between Josephus’ central argument and later strands of Jewish Aristotelianism.

Deborah Barer’s chapter, “Rabbinic Literature,” explicates a normative tradition of text study against and through which later thinkers will develop their accounts of the virtues. In Barer’s account, the virtues of the rabbinic tradition are essentially the virtues required by the hypercompetitive Babylonian academy, with the end goal of transmitting Torah–a feat that will be rewarded in the World to Come.

Diana Lobel’s chapter on Bahya Ibn Paquda, Sarah Pessin’s chapter on Solomon Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron), and Joseph Isaac Lifshitz’s chapter on Elazar of Worms detail thinkers who argued for a virtue ethic influenced by a combination of mystical Neoplatonism, Sufi pietism, and traditional Jewish sources. The twin virtue ethics of pietism and Neoplatonism resurface throughout the collection. The pietistic thread runs through mussar thinkers like Isaac Arama (Baruch Frydman-Kohl), Moses Cordovero (Eugene D. Matanky), Israel Salanter (Sarah Zager), and Simhah Zissel Ziv (Geoffrey D. Claussen).

As for Neoplatonism, the kabbalistic tradition is well-represented in the collection. Eitan P. Fishbane’s chapter on the Zohar emphasizes his subject’s symbolically infused worldview while comparing its conception of virtuous friendship to those of Aristotle and Montaigne. Don Seeman contributes an excellent chapter on Abraham Isaac Kook. Seeman keeps an eye on the past and the present, engaging with Kook’s continuance of kabbalistic virtue ethics while also analyzing those elements of his thought upon which Tamar Ross draws to shape her cumulativist philosophy of Halakhah. Matanky’s chapter on Cordovero and Shaul Magid’s chapter on Nahman of Bratslav are informative profiles of fideistic, mystically inclined thinkers who nevertheless articulated rich conceptions of the virtuous life. These thinkers tend to articulate a more pessimistic view of human reason, a greater reliance on tradition, and a theurgic grounding for the virtues associated with performing mitzvot.

Kenneth Seeskin, Alexander Green, Roslyn Weiss, and Shira Weiss contribute chapters on prominent medieval rationalists, perhaps the most straightforward sources for a Jewish virtue ethic featured in this collection. Seeskin’s chapter chronicles Maimonides’ shift from a more orthodox Aristotelianism about ethics in the Eight Chapters towards embracing supererogation in the Mishneh Torah. Seeskin considers any notion of supererogation incompatible with Aristotelian virtue ethics, a criticism Hava Tirosh Samuelson will later repeat in her chapter on Jewish environmentalism. However, neither chapter engages with Rebecca Stangl’s argument that supererogation is not contradictory to Aristotelian ethical thought.[1] Such an oversight indicates a lack of engagement with contemporary and 20th-century Aristotelian and virtue-ethical thinkers that spans the volume. While the chapters on the Zohar and Hannah Arendt (Ned Curthoys) engage with Martha Nussbaum and several chapters include a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre, most of the book displays only a surface-level engagement with the current philosophical conversation about embodied virtue.

While the volume features many influential figures within contemporary Jewish thought, Jewish Virtue Ethics would be enriched by bringing the primarily intellectual-historical nature of its chapters into conversation with the contemporary interaction between Jewish thought and virtue ethics. As such, Jonathan Sacks’ absence from this volume is notable. Sacks cited MacIntyre as a chief philosophical influence and was a student of Philippa Foot, a leading protagonist of the 20th-century revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics within academic philosophy. As Sacks is one of the most influential voices within contemporary Orthodoxy, a chapter discussing his work would strengthen the editors’ claim to a tradition of Jewish virtue ethics.

Seeskin’s chapter is otherwise a highly recommendable introduction to Maimonides’ moral and political thought. Another standout from this section of the book is Roslyn Weiss’ chapter on Hasdai Crescas, which makes clear the differences between its subject matter and Maimonides. These differences become relevant in Shira Weiss’ chapter on Joseph Albo and Alexander Green’s chapter on Gersonides, as the virtues become a helpful instructor to explain the spectrum of disagreement that characterized medieval rationalist Jewish thought.

More modern forms of virtue ethics also leave an imprint on the volume. Elias Sacks gives a thorough summary of Moses Mendelssohn’s perfectionist virtue ethics. Harris Bor demonstrates how Benjamin Franklin influenced the foundation of the mussar movement through Menachem Mendel Lefin’s influence on Israel Salanter. (257) Shira Billet’s chapter on Hermann Cohen illustrates how the latter’s neo-Kantian conception of Judaism and Platonic reading of Maimonides shaped his virtues. Thinkers like Martin Buber (William Plevan), Mordecai Kaplan (Matthew LaGrone), Emmanuel Levinas (Richard A. Cohen), and Hannah Arendt, who may not be traditionally thought of as virtue-ethical figures are all shown to incorporate some conception of the virtues into their thought. While we may observe aretaic parallels with thinkers like Arendt and Kaplan, they are ultimately tangential to the discussions throughout the rest of the book.

As the collection moves into modernity, its subjects advance traditional strains of virtue ethics. Through Plevan’s chapter, we can observe Buber’s Hasidic influence in his argument for the virtue of dialogical openness. In Einat Ramon’s chapter, we can observe Abraham Joshua Heschel picking up the theurgic grounding for virtue from his Hasidic influences. Richard A. Cohen paints an exciting picture of Levinas, with strong parallels to Aristotle. Yonatan Y. Brafman’s portrayal of Joseph Soloveitchik as incorporating elements of virtue into his thought is a compelling and welcome furtherance of Brafman’s reading of Soloveitchik from previous work.[2]  Given Soloveitchik’s influence on contemporary Orthodoxy and virtue ethics-sympathetic thinkers like Walter Wurzburger, Brafman’s chapter is particularly important for constructive discussions of Jewish virtue ethics.

The intermediary part of the collection implicitly makes an argument to those committed to Judaism: virtue ethics is present throughout the tradition. Thinkers as diverse as the rabbis of the Talmud, the medieval rationalists, mussarists, and Martin Buber all present some account of how certain character traits constitute human flourishing. It is this argument that undergirds the chapters which bookend the volume.

Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi opens the volume with an argument about the virtue ethics yielded by a critical reading of the Bible. Notably, the virtues the Bible promotes in Beckenstein-Mbuvi’s reading are communitarian, a conclusion that the author hopes will be a necessary corrective to overly individualistic virtue theories. Hava Tirosh Samuelson heralds Jewish virtue ethics as a theory that can address the environmentalist challenge to Biblical religion and provide a prescriptive account of how Jewish communities should incorporate environmentalism into their respective practices. Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi’s chapter on Jewish feminism is far narrower than Tirosh Samuelson’s. Continuing the same framework as her concurrent book,[3] Epstein-Levi focuses not on Jewish practices, but on the interpretive virtues necessary for reading Jewish texts through a feminist lens. For Epstein-Levi, feminist text study can be a character-forming practice.

At this point, we conclude our brief summary of the text and consider what the editors of Jewish Virtue Ethics mean when they define virtue ethics and when they define Jewish virtue ethics. As defined by Mittleman in the afterword, virtue ethics is the idea that “character matters and that virtue is constitutive of character.” (498) Thus, a thinker like Hermann Cohen, who views virtue as a motor of the Kantian rational will, can be classified as virtue-ethical alongside Aristotelians like Joseph Albo, who see virtue as a character trait necessary to flourish according to one’s telos qua rational animal.

There is nothing inherently problematic with Mittleman’s expansive view of virtue ethics. However, more tenuous is Mittleman’s and the other editors’ claim that Jewish virtue ethics constitutes a tradition, defined by Mittleman as being something that is handed down from the past. More precisely, the editors believe that despite internal pluralism, the volume’s thinkers are conversing with one another, drawing on similar texts, motifs, and emphases on character. What are the features that are characteristic of this tradition?

They agree on the basic claim that character matters and that virtue is constitutive of character. The participants in the tradition argue with one another within a framework that structures moral reasoning. They share a basic, orienting text—the Bible—but they differ, unsurprisingly, over how to interpret it…The use of philosophical and other cultural materials from the environing society creates strong differences of emphasis in the ethical visions of the various authors. If common reference to the biblical legacy provides centripetal force, philosophy and culture provide a centrifugal one. (498)

I fear the editors have cast too wide a net in their attempt to trace a tradition. On Mittleman’s grounds, we must ask why the book lacked chapters about Saul of Tarsus or Thomas Aquinas, who emphasized character and held the Bible as a basic, orienting text. While one could protest that the latter’s use of the New Testament excludes him from offering a Jewish virtue ethic, one might say the same for Hannah Arendt’s use of Adam Smith, Maimonides’ use of Aristotle, or Moses Cordovero’s belief in the Zohar as divine revelation. Furthermore, the myriad ways the thinkers discussed within the volume interpret the Bible leave one questioning just how centripetal it is.

Similarly, there is a tension within Jewish Virtue Ethics between those thinkers who write from a context characterized by communal norms of halakhic observance and those who seek to draw upon Jewish texts and ideas to inform a way of life in which Jewish law is not the norm. A tradition that encapsulates every thinker in this volume may be too expansive to be meaningfully described as such.

The nature of virtue ethics inflames these tensions. Nearly every chapter in this volume assents to the importance of practice for developing moral character. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, every sociology presumes a morality.[4] As such, a volume on Jewish virtue ethics would do well to ground itself not in a textual standard such as the Bible but in a sociological standard such as some degree of observance of Jewish law.

Whether one views Jewish law as a source of Aristotelian political justice like Josephus, Maimonides, or Albo, as part of a web of unseen reward and punishment like Nahman of Bratslav, Dessler, or Heschel, or as an institution to be dissented from, such as Arendt or Buber, these thinkers discuss one largely continuous system of laws and practices as shaping one’s character in a morally significant way.

A sociological standard centered around Halakhah would exclude several chapters that are excellent works in their own right. Still, it would provide the editors with a more straightforward argument about the contours of a Jewish virtue-ethical tradition. Moreover, it would allow readers to better appreciate those thinkers who fall outside the bounds of halakhic virtue ethics. For example, such a conception would support Ned Curthoys’ argument that Hannah Arendt attempts to outline a virtue ethic for the “Jewish pariah tradition,” defined in explicit opposition to both communitarian concerns and assimilationist pressures. (435) To appreciate Arendt’s virtue ethics in relation to Jewish virtue ethics, we must appreciate her as an opponent of the tradition, an appreciation which itself may warrant inclusion in a volume like Jewish Virtue Ethics.

In his afterword, Mittleman acknowledges that Jewish virtue ethics is anchored in the communitarian life. He allows the communitarians the last word, hoping that liberal cosmopolitans can take from the volume an appreciation for particularity and tradition in shaping virtuous republican citizens. (501)

Overall, Jewish Virtue Ethics is an excellent collection that will give readers a deep appreciation for the thinkers discussed within. The volume will enrich the disagreements it seeks to navigate between communitarian and cosmopolitan. It will provide an invaluable touchstone for future debates regarding Jewish conceptions of a life well-lived.

[1] Rebecca Stangl, “Neo-Aristotelian Supererogation,” Ethics 126, no. 2 (January 2016): 339-365.

[2] Yonatan Y. Brafman “Beyond Values to Critical Praxis: The Future of Jewish Ethics,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 49, no. 4 (2021): 622–637.

[3] Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi, When We Collide: Sex, Social Risk, and Jewish Ethics (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2023).

[4] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 23.

Ben Frogel studies Philosophy at the College of William & Mary. He is an alumnus of the Tikvah Fund’s Beren Fellowship, where he studied and wrote about Jewish virtue ethics with the mentorship of Dr. Alexander Green. He is currently working on an Undergraduate Honors Thesis advised by Dr. Randi Rashkover on the evolution and justification of theological-political claims.