By Translated by Michael L. Rodkinson
Let us now try to give a few outlines of the ethical teachings of the Talmud. In the first place, concerning
MAN AS A MORAL BEING.
In accordance with the teaching of the Bible, the rabbis duly emphasize man's dignity as a being created in the likeness of God. By this likeness of God they understand the spiritual being within us, that is endowed with intellectual and moral capacities. The higher desires and inspirations which spring from this spiritual being in man, are called Yetzer tob, the good inclination; but the lower appetites and desires which rise from our physical nature and which we share with the animal creation, are termed Yetzer ha-ra, the inclination to evil. Not that these sensuous desires are absolutely evil; for they, too, have been implanted in man for good purposes. Without them man could not exist, he would not cultivate and populate this earth, or, as a Talmudical. legend runs: Once, some over-pious people wanted to pray to God that they might be able to destroy the Yetzer ha-ra, but a warning voice was heard, saying. "Beware, lest you destroy this world!" Evil are those lower desires only in that they, if unrestrained, easily mislead man to live contrary to the demands and aspirations of his divine nature. Hence the constant struggle in man between the two inclinations. He who submits his evil inclination to the control of his higher aims and desires is virtuous and righteous. "The righteous are governed by the Yetzer tob, but the wicked by the Yetzer ha-ra. The righteous have their desires in their power, but the wicked are in the power of their desires."
Man's free-will is emphasized in the following sentences: "Everything is ordained by God's providence, but freedom of choice is given to man." "Everything is foreordained by heaven, except the fear of heaven," or, as another sage puts it: Whether man be strong or weak, richer poor, wise or foolish depends mostly on circumstances that surround him from the time of his birth, but whether man be good or bad, righteous or wicked, depends upon his own free-will.
GOD'S WILL, THE GROUND OF MAN'S DUTIES.
The ground of our duties, as presented to us by the Talmudical as well as the biblical teachings, is that it is the will of God. His will is the supreme rule of our being. "Do His will as thy own will, submit thy will to His will." "Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a roe, and strong as a lion, to do the will of thy Father, who is in heaven."
MAN ACCOUNTABLE TO GOD FOR HIS CONDUCT.
Of man's responsibility for the conduct of his life, we are forcibly reminded by numerous sentences, as: "Consider three things, and thou wilt never fall into sin; remember that there is above thee an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a record of all thy actions." And again, "Consider three things, and thou wilt never sin; remember whence thou comest, whither thou goest, and before whom thou wilt have to render account for thy doings."
HIGHER MOTIVES IN PERFORMING OUR DUTIES.
Although happiness here and hereafter is promised as reward for fulfilment, and punishment threatened for neglect of duty, still we are reminded not to be guided by the consideration of reward and punishment, but rather by love and obedience to God, and by love to that which is good and noble. "Be not like servants, who serve their master for the sake of reward." "Whatever thou doest, let it be done in the name of heaven" (that is, for its own sake).
DUTY OF SELF-PRESERVATION AND SELF-CULTIVATION.
As a leading rule of the duties of self-preservation and self-cultivation, and, at the same time, as a warning against selfishness, we have Hillel's sentence: "If I do not care for myself, who will do it for me? and if I care only for myself, what am I?"
The duty of acquiring knowledge, especially knowledge of the Divine Law (Torah), which gives us a clearer insight in God's will to man, is most emphatically enjoined in numerous sentences: "Without knowledge there is no true morality and piety." "Be eager to acquire knowledge, it does not come to thee by inheritance." "The more knowledge, the wore spiritual life." "If thou hast acquired knowledge, what dost thou lack? but if thou lackest knowledge, what hast thou acquired?" But we are also reminded that even the highest knowledge is of no value, as long as it does not influence our moral life. "The ultimate end of all knowledge and wisdom is man's inner purification and the performance of good and noble deeds." "He whose knowledge is great without influencing his moral life is compared to a tree that has many branches, but few and weak roots; a storm cometh and overturneth it."
Next to the duty of acquiring knowledge, that of industrious labor and useful activity is strongly enjoined. It is well known that among the ancient nations in general manual labor was regarded as degrading the free citizen. Even the greatest philosophers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, could not free, themselves of this deprecating view of labor. How different was the view of the Talmudic sages in this respect! They say: "Love labor, and hate to be a lord." "Great is the dignity of labor; it honors man." "Beautiful is the intellectual occupation, if combined with some practical work." "He who doles not teach his son a handicraft trade, neglects his parental duty." "He who lives on the toil of his hands is greater than he who indulges in idle piety."
In accordance with these teachings, some of the most prominent sages of the Talmud are known to have made their living by various kinds of handicraft and trade.
CARDINAL DUTIES IN RELATION TO FELLOW-MEN.
Regarding man's relation to fellow-men, the rabbis consider justice, truthfulness, peaceableness and charity as cardinal duties. They say, "The world (human society) rests on three things--on justice, on truth and on peace."
The principle of justice in the moral sense is expressed in the following rules: "Thy neighbor's property must be as sacred to thee as thine own." "Thy neighbor's honor must be as dear to thee as thine own." Hereto belongs also the golden rule of Hillel: "Whatever would be hateful to thee, do not to thy neighbor."
TRUTH AND TRUTHFULNESS.
The sacredness of truth and truthfulness is expressed in the sentence: "Truth is the signet of God, the Most Holy." "Let thy yea be in truth, and thy nay be in truth." "Truth lasts forever, but falsehood must vanish."
Admonitions concerning faithfulness and fidelity to given promises are: "Promise little and do much." "To be faithless to a given promise is as sinful as idolatry." "To break a verbal engagement, though legally not binding, is a moral wrong." Of the numerous warnings against any kind of deceit, the following may be mentioned: "It is sinful to deceive any man, be he even a heathen." "Deception in words is as great a sin as deception in money matters." When, says the Talmud, the immortal soul will be called to account before the divine tribunal, the first question will be, "Hast thou been honest and faithful in all thy dealings with thy fellow-men?"
Peace and harmony in domestic life and social intercourse as well as in public affairs are considered by the Talmudic sages as the first condition of human welfare and happiness, or as they express it: "Peace is the vessel in which all God's blessings are presented to us and preserved by us." "Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace, and pursuing peace." To make peace between those in disharmony is regarded as one of the most meritorious works that secure happiness and bliss here and hereafter.
As virtues leading to peace, those of mildness and meekness, of gentleness and placidity are highly praised and recommended. "Be not easily moved to anger." "Be humble to thy superior, affable to thy inferior, and meet every man with friendliness." "He who is slow to anger, and easily pacified, is truly pious and virtuous." "Man, be ever soft and pliant like a reed, and not hard and unbending like the cedar." "Those who, when offended, do not give offence, when hearing slighting remarks, do not retaliate--they are the friends of God, they shall shine forth like the sun in its glory."
The last of the principal duties to fellow-men is charity, which begins where justice leaves off. Professor Steinthal, in his work on General Ethics, remarks that among the cardinal virtues of the ancient philosophers we look in vain for the idea of love and charity, whereas in the teachings of the Bible, we generally find the idea of love, mercy and charity closely connected with that of justice. And we may add, as in the Bible so also in the Talmud, where charity is considered as the highest degree in the scale of duties and virtues. It is one of the main pillars on which the welfare of the human world rests.
The duty of charity (Gemilath Chesed) extends farther than to mere almsgiving (Tzedaka). "Almsgiving is practised by means of money, but charity also by personal services and by words of advice, sympathy and encouragement. Almsgiving is a duty towards the poor only, but charity towards the rich as well as the poor, nay, even towards the dead (by taking care of their decent burial)."
By works of charity man proves to be a true image of God, whose attributes are love, kindness and mercy. "He who turns away from works of love and charity turns away from God." "The works of charity have more value than sacrifices; they are equal to the performance of all religious duties."
Concerning the proper way of practising this virtue, the Talmud has many beautiful sentences, as: "The merit of charitable works is in proportion to the love with which they are practised." "Blessed is he who gives from his substance to the poor, twice blessed he who accompanies his gift with kind, comforting words." "The noblest of all charities is enabling the poor to earn a livelihood." He who is unable to give much shall not withold his little mite, for "as a garment is made up of single threads, so every single gift contributes to accomplish a great work of charity."
DUTIES CONCERNING SPECIAL RELATIONS.
Besides these principal duties in relation to fellow-men in general, the Talmud treats also very elaborately of duties concerning the various relations of life. Not intending to enter here into all details, we shall restrict ourselves to some of its ethical teachings in reference to the domestic relations, and regarding the relation to the country and the community.
THE CONJUGAL RELATION.
"First build a house and plant a vineyard (i.e., provide for the means of the household), and then take a wife." "Let youth and old age not be joined in marriage, lest the purity and peace of domestic life be disturbed." "A man's home means his wife." "Let a man be careful to honor his wife, for he owes to her alone all the blessings of his house." "If thy wife is small, bend down to her, to take counsel from her." "Who is rich? He who has a noble wife." "A man should be careful lest he afflict his wife, for God counts her tears." "If in anger the one hand removed thy wife or thy child, let the other hand again bring them back to thy heart." "He who loves his wife as his own self, and honors her more than himself, and he who educates his children in the right way, to him applies the divine promise: Thou shalt know that there is peace in thy tent." "Tears are shed on God's altar for the one who forsakes the wife of his youth." "He who divorces his wife, is hated before God."
PARENTS AND CHILDREN.
"Parental love should be impartial, one child must not be preferred to the other." "It is a father's duty not only to provide for his minor children, but also to take care of their instruction, and to teach his son a trade and whatever is necessary for his future welfare." "The honor and reverence due to parents are equal to the honor and reverence due to God." "Where children honor their parents, there God dwells, there He is honored."
COUNTRY AND COMMUNITY.
Regarding duties to the country and the community, the Rabbis teach: "The law of the country is as sacred and binding as God's law." "Pray for the welfare of the government; without respect for the government, men would swallow each other." "Do not isolate thyself from the community and its interests." "It is sinful to deceive the government regarding taxes and duties." "Do not aspire for public offices; but where there are no men, try thou to be the man." "Those who work for the community shall do it without selfishness, but with the pure intention to promote its welfare."
To these short outlines of Talmudical ethics let us add only a few general remarks. Being essentially a development of the sublime ethical principles and teachings of the Bible, the Talmudical ethics retains the general characteristics of that origin.
It teaches nothing that is against human nature, nothing that is incompatible with the existence and welfare of human society. It is free from the extreme excess and austerity to which the lofty ideas of religion and morality were carried by the theories and practices of some sects inside and outside of Judaism.
Nay, many Talmudical maxims and sayings are evidently directed against such austerities and extravagances. Thus they warn against the monastic idea of obtaining closer communion with God by fleeing from human society and by seclusion from temporal concerns of life: "Do not separate thyself from society." "Man's thoughts and ways shall always be in contact and sympathy with fellow-men." "No one shall depart from the general customs and manners." "Better is he who lives on the toil of his hand, than he who indulges in idle piety."
They strongly discountenance the idea of celibacy, which the Essenes, and later, some orders of the Church regarded as a superior state of perfection. The rabbis say: "He who lives without a wife is no perfect man." "To be unmarried is to live without joy, without blessing, without kindness, without religion and without peace." "As soon as man marries, his sins decrease."
While, on the one hand, they warn against too much indulgence in pleasures and in the gratification of bodily appetites and against the insatiable pursuit of earthly goods and riches, as well as against the inordinate desire of honor and power en the other hand, they strongly disapprove of the ascetic mortification of the body and abstinence from enjoyment, and the cynic contempt of all luxuries that beautify life. They say: "God's commandments are intended to enhance the value and enjoyment of life, but not to mar it and make it gloomy." "If thou hast the means, enjoy life's innocent pleasures." "He who denies himself the use of wine is a sinner." "No one is permitted to afflict himself by unnecessary fasting." "The pious fool, the hypocrite, and the pharisaic flagellant are destroyers of human society." "That which beautifies life and gives it vigor and strength, just as riches and honor, is suitable to the pious, and agreeable to the world at large."
Finally, one more remark: The Talmud has often been accused of being illiberal, as if teaching its duties only for Jews towards fellow-believers, but not also towards fellow-men in general. This charge is entirely unfounded. It is true, and quite natural, that in regard to the ritual and ceremonial law and practice, a distinction between Jew and Gentile was made. It is also true that we occasionally meet in the Talmud with an uncharitable utterance against the heathen world. But it must be remembered in what state of moral corruption and degradation their heathen surroundings were, at that time. And this, too, must be remembered, that such utterances are only made by individuals who gave vent to their indignation in view of the cruel persecutions whose victims they were. As regards moral teachings, the Talmud is as broad as humanity. It teaches duties of man to man without distinction of creed and race. In most of the ethical maxims, the terms Adam and Beriyot, "man," "fellow-men," are emphatically used; as: "Do not despise any man." "Judge every man from his favorable side." "Seek peace, and love fellow-men." "He who is pleasing to fellow-men is also pleasing to God." "The right way for man to choose is to do that which is honorable in his own eyes (i.e., approved by his conscience) and at the same time honorable in the eyes of his fellow-men." In some instances, the Talmud expressly reminds that the duties of justice, veracity, peacefulness and charity are to be fulfilled towards the heathen as well as to the Israelites; as, "It is sinful to deceive any man, be he even a heathen." It is our duty to relieve the poor and needy, to visit the sick and bury the dead without distinction of creed and race."
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. xix., 18), this is, said R. Akiba, the all-embracing principle of the divine law. But Ben Azai said, there is another passage in Scriptures still more embracing; it is the passage (Gen. v., 2): "This is the book of the generations of man; in the day that God created man, he made him in the likeness of God." That sage meant to say, this passage is more embracing, since it clearly tells us who is our neighbor; not, as it might be misunderstood, our friend only, not our fellow-citizen only, not our co-religionist only, but since we all descend from a common ancestor, since all are created in the image and likeness of God, every man, every human being is our brother, our neighbor whom we shall love as ourselves.
The liberal spirit of Talmudic ethics is most strikingly evidenced in the sentence: "The pious and virtuous of all nations participate in the eternal bliss," which teaches that man's salvation depends not on the acceptance of certain articles of belief, nor on certain ceremonial observances, but on that which is the ultimate aim of religion namely, Morality, purity of heart and holiness of life.
84:1 This paragraph is said by Abyye in pure Bible-Hebrew, which was not the language used by him in every-day talk. We infer from this and also from the expression "he used to say," that he only quoted a traditional proverb which was established ever since the oral law had been started.