Family Values the Jewish Way

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Since the election, “values” have been a big thing. We know that “values” in the context of the election meant, “No abortions,” and “No same sex marriage.” Jewish values are completely different. The president made it clear that he works from his value system and never compromises it; a Jewish commitment to values is from the start, a commitment to compromise. With on three exceptions, murder, sexual assault, and idolatry, all Jewish values are to be compromised. For example, Jews are against abortion EXCEPT when the health of the mother is at stake—AND—most Jewish scholars (and the ideologs of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionst movements include “mental health”).

Rabbi Max Kadushin, in his book Organic Thinking, makes it clear that while Jewish values represent absolutes, the right choice, the well-valued option is always a balance between various actions that come into play in a given situation. The values are not compromises, rather they are balanced against other values. In teaching Jewish ethics we need not only teach the raw values, but the process of balancing values. That process, is the process of halakhah, Jewish law. Let me give you a perfect example from Jewish law. Honoring parents is a prime Jewish value, an absolute value. Image that your father asks you for a glass of water. Then, your mother asks you for a glass of water at basically the same time. Each parent asks you to get their glass of water first. There is no way of honoring both requests. According to Jewish Law, the right response is to invoke a third value, a sense of justice, and place the glass between them, saying, “It is unfair to force me to decide between you, too. The “honoring parents” value is so compromised. Most moral choices are not choices between the ethical and the unethical, but rather choices between two values, in the case of our example, “Honoring mother and honoring father as well as fair demands on a child.” Jewish values are called middot.

Middot means measures. It is also the functional Hebrew word for “values.” Midot contains a whole lesson in a single word. Its secret is that ethics have more to do with measurement that with direction. In this article we are going to talk about anger. The simple lesson, the essential lesson in one phrase, is that anger is not good or bad. Those are the wrong questions. The question is: “How much anger?” and “What are you mixing it with?” When it comes to midot, you need to be like a kid in a candy store. What you need to do is say, “I’ll take two of these, five strips of those, an ounce of that, and a full scoop from that barrel.” That is the way the Jewish tradition wants you to build character. It works like this.

If you can feel it—God wants you to have it. If it is one of the voices in the choir that is your soul—then it is there for a reason. Nothing needs to be purged. Nothing needs to be beaten out. God blended in everything that is you—on purpose–for good reason. Your inner-self cannot be divided “good” feelings and “bad” feelings—rather your job is to put them in balance. The midrash puts it this way:

The Yetzer ha-Tov the inner-tidal-pull to do “good” is “good.” The Yetzer ha-Ra the inner-tidal-pull to do “evil” is “very good.” The “shock” we feel “evil” being “very good” is intentional. This midrash goes on to explain that it is only because of the Yetzer ha-Ra, that couples make babies, establish homes, open business, go into competition, and even become public leaders. Everything God built into our inner works is a gift—but they are gifts that must be carefully balanced and used well. (Bereshit Rabbah)

To raise Jews whose actions are informed by the Jewish tradition, we are have an obligation not only to teach values but to teach ethics. Values alone only get us half way towards making the right decisions. Here is where the richness of the Jewish tradition can inform the “fundamentalists” in our midst and help them understand that true religiosity is the flexible application of values, informed by the tradition, to life’s challenges. To be good Jewish teachers, compromise is as important as the raw values. That’s a big lesson.