A Code Of Jewish Ethics: Volume I: You Shall Be Holy, by Joseph Teluskhin
While I wouldn’t consider my reading of this book an example of hate-reading, I read this book knowing that my thoughts on it would be somewhat mixed and complicated. On the one hand, I am deeply critical of the mishnaic approach to God’s law, seeing as it tends to substitute human reasoning for divine lawgiving, and this book is organized in the same format as the Talmud with various chapters and references to non-authoritative rabbis and the like. While I did not know what organization the book had, I knew that the author’s statement that this was a code of Jewish ethics meant that it would engage more with the human religion of Judaism than with the biblical worship I endeavor to follow, although on the positive side there is certainly a great deal of overlap between the two at least. Since I read this book looking to see what a reasonably conservative look at Jewish ethics would be, I came in with curiosity as to whether there would be any worthwhile nuggets for me to examine and found to my pleasure that there was much to think about and much to reflect on and even repent about, and so I consider the reading successful in that regard. I came looking to learn something and I did indeed, and if you come to learn there will likely be something here for you as well.
In terms of this book’s contents, this book consists of 57 short chapters and other material in five larger parts and numerous smaller sub-chapters that take a bit more than 500 pages of reading. Despite the book’s size, its structure does mean that the material flows well, even when the author is writing about material that is obviously meant for Jewish insiders who know (and care) what was said by the Vilna Gaon or Maimonides or one of the figures from the Talmud. After a long set of acknowledgments, the author discusses the task of a lifetime (I) including Judaism’s ethical essence (1) and building character by dealing with free will and human nature (2), developing goodness (3), and knowing ourselves and guarding against our weaknesses (4). The author then discusses basic virtues and vices (II) including the need to judge others fairly (5,6), become a grateful person (7), show good manners and civility (8,9,10), develop common sense (11,12), repent (13,14,15,16,17), properly forgive (18,19), develop humility (20,21,22,23), manage anger (24,25,26,27,28), avoid humiliating others (29,30,31), overcome envy (32,33), and deal with hatred and vengefulness (34,35,36). After this the author moves on to dealing with fair speech (III), examining the Jewish laws on the subject (37,38,39,40,41,42,43), examining criticism (44,45,46), and dealing with truth and lies (47,48,49,50). After that there are two brief chapters on living a holy life (IV) as ambassadors for God (51,52), some chapters on God and ethics (V) that involve the relationship between belief in God and personal morality (53,54) and the importance of Torah study (55,56,57) before an appendix looks at the nine most important commandments according to rabbis, including the Sabbath and circumcision.
Is this particular volume worth reading? If you have an interest in applied Jewish ethics, where there is some biblical discussion but a great deal of discussion about Jewish culture and history and tradition, there is a lot to appreciate here. Even if one has ambivalent and complicated views about such matters, there are still a few things one can read here that are worth applying. I particularly appreciated the author’s discussion of embarrassing others as being a sin almost as serious as murdering someone, something which I think ought to be more highly appreciated by those who seek to obey God’s laws, and also thought a great deal about the author’s discussion on the lashon hara–evil tongue–which manifests itself in a variety of discussions concerning gossip, deception, rumors, and related forms of forbidden speech. These are matters I struggle against, and as a book critic, even more often than most people do. I also was pleasantly surprised to share the author’s views concerning permissible lies in scripture, something I may write about at more length if someone wants to hear what I have to say about the subject. The book gave me plenty of food for thought and some areas in life that could probably use a bit more work, and that is a good deal of worth in a book on ethics.