First and foremost, do not be misled by the title of this book: it is not merely a textbook. Although it was conceived and developed as a textbook for a high school course, it has much to offer everyone who is interested in and concerned about Jewish values and ethics.
I regard the book as a gold mine of thought-provoking concepts, ideas and discussion of the dilemmas many people face in their everyday lives. Rabbi Neil Scheindlin has presented us with a wonderful guide to identifying, describing, learning, analyzing and ameliorating ethical dilemmas through a Jewish values lens.
The introduction presents the book’s framework for decision-making and proceeds to examine a variety of Jewish approaches to dealing with ethical issues. A number of classical Jewish sources that are used throughout the book are then briefly described.
Scheindlin concludes the introduction with a guide to the development of Jewish texts and to the rabbinic leaders who developed many of the guiding concepts and the process of disputation that has helped us distill, clarify and ultimately make the decisions that guide our ethical behavior.
He has done a marvelous job in setting the stage for us to begin to understand and tackle the ethical issues we face in our daily lives and in the context of the Jewish family.
The book’s structure is very user-friendly. Each section begins with two to four case studies that offer real-world examples of situations from which ethical dilemmas may arise. For each situation, the author provides relevant classical texts and modern commentaries that explicate and comment on the issues. Some of the topics are parents’ relationships to their children, parenting, honesty, social media, abortion and medical issues.
For example, let us take social media and the ethical issues they generate, which were obviously far from anything envisioned by the biblical text or rabbinic scholars during the time of the Talmud. Scheindlin frames the subject as “looking to the rabbis for guidance on ethical dilemmas relating to sharing messages and pictures, looking at other people’s activities and information, bullying, maintaining privacy, and engaging in social deceptions.”
He then provides two examples of how social media were used in a way that could be construed as inappropriate or unethical – or simply a mistake in judgment because the user did not think through the implications of sending material over the Internet.
The case studies are followed by sections of classical texts that deal with permitted and forbidden speech.
Scheindlin then poses questions to help readers experience the process of deciding for themselves an appropriate ethical approach. Each section concludes with his comments to help frame the issue.
The book has a use much broader than just as a textbook within the classroom: it offers the Jewish family a way to continue learning and discussing – within the context of the family – how to handle important, everyday situations using a Jewish lens. No matter our age or social situation, we are all confronted with ethical challenges and dilemmas on a daily basis. The book provides a framework for understanding and clarifying our own decision-making processes in regard to the values we think are important and how they influence our behaviors. When reading the book, you most likely will find yourself clarifying your own values and your perspective on the implications for the actions you take in living your life.
In addition, the case examples and questions are wonderful discussion tools. For those of us who share a Friday night meal together with our children, family and friends, this book is an excellent way to introduce a focused discussion that includes everyone sitting around the table and touches on issues relevant to both children and adults. As the author demonstrates, the issues are timeless, and only the context of the technological advancements changes.
If we take the opportunity to clarify our values and ethics and see how doing so has the potential to influence our daily lives, we gain the opportunity to improve the society in which we live and the relationships we maintain with others.
Scheindlin has provided us with a gift to continue to look at ourselves and those we are close to, whether family or friends, and to engage in a continual learning process by linking our contemporary lives to the ethics and values of our rich tradition. I hope you find this book to be a valuable resource for living a meaningful ethical life.
The writer is a retired member of the faculty of Hebrew University’s School of Social Work’s program in management of nonprofit organizations.
The Jewish Family Ethics TextbookBy Rabbi Neal ScheindlinJewish Publication Society320 pages; $30