A Quaker-Jewish Perspective on Ethics and Halachah

Robert Kirchner

Topics addressed: theological grounding of ethics, relation to halachah, comparison of Jewish and Quaker approaches.

1. What is Havayah?

I begin by attempting to formulate a personal understanding (coherent, I hope) of ethics and its relation to theology. I’m not a trained philosopher nor a theologian; perhaps my thoughts on these topics are obvious and/or easily discredited. Indulge me please as I try to work this out for myself.

Studying organic gardening triggered a mystical response in me. Soil, I learned, is not an inert substance: it’s a living community, a complex ecosystem of growing and decaying vegetation, arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, as well as sand, silt, clay, water and air. The soil fauna and microbes constantly break down dead vegetation, making the nutrients within it available to the living plants, while feeding themselves other fauna, and storing extra nutrients in the form of humus. I felt radical amazement at how these billions of microbes in a foot of topsoil have richly interdependent relationships, with each other and with the plants and microorganisms that grow among them, permitting them to thrive, and how all of life, including us, emerges from this dense symbiotic network, cycling nutrients and energy among living things, as one organism dies, and another grows from its remains.

So what can we call this web of rich interdependence, these relations of parts to each other and to the whole? I want an word that not only objectively describes the phenomenon, but also recognizes and does justice to the radical amazement that it provokes. I want to call this phenomenon ‘love’. If we understand love not primarily as an emotion, but as actions of caring for another, of mutual aid, I don’t think it is at all far-fetched to say that the soil food web, including both living things and inorganic materials, massively exhibits love.

Now, let’s move from microcosm to macrocosm, from a bit of soil to the whole universe. I understand God, or (to use a friendlier term) Havayah1, to be the sacredness immanent within the universe. She could also characterized as the אחד2 of the universe. And just as in a bit of soil, the relation of all the parts to one another, and to the underlying אחד, is also massive love, now on a macrocosmic scale.

‘God is love’: so says a certain first-century Jewish text, 1 John 4:7 (though this text was excluded from the canon of Rabbinic Judaism). I don’t know whether there are comparable statements within the Rabbinic canon, or in subsequent Jewish literature. I do recall Rabbi Arthur Green asserting that love is the fundamental value underlying Judaism, notwithstanding the common misconception that this idea that Christianity has exclusive ownership of this idea, and that Jews are thereby preempted from saying the same thing.

2. Havayah and ethics.

There are at least two distinct senses in which we use the terms ‘good’ and its opposite, ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. ‘Good and bad’ can refer to things that I like or don’t like, respectively, or that humans collectively like or don’t like in general. A comfortable chair is good; stomach cancer is bad. Good and bad, in this usage, have nothing to do with ethics. In this sense, we can say that Havayah creates both good and evil, as in Isaiah 45: 7, for She is what underlies reality — all of reality — whether we like it or not.

In the realm of human ethics, however, my starting place is Hannah Arendt’s observation, ‘the banality of evil’. That is, evil (in the ethical sense) is fundamentally a manifestation of prosaic human stupidity, a failure of imagination, a lack of emotional intelligence, that prevents human moral agents from apprehending their connection to others, of thereby feeling compassion for their suffering, or of giving sufficient attention to the consequences of their actions (or inactions) toward others. Conversely, good (in the ethical sense) is action (or inaction) toward others which is fully informed by and imbued with an attitude of love. Love, awareness of connection, action that accords with such awareness — these are the very essence of Havayah. When humans, in our banality, act in ways that are contrary to love, we are living at cross-purposes to Havayah, to the spirit of the universe Herself, we are denying the sacred, cutting ourselves off from Her. I thus ground my ethics firmly in my theology, but without appealing to a personal God who issues commandments, nor punishments nor rewards therefor.

3. Ethics, halachah3, and Quaker testimonies.

However, merely saying, ‘act in accordance with love’, is insufficient practical guidance in many cases. Our limited human intelligence, our lack of awareness of others’ needs, our failure to consider complex consequences of our actions, may all result in harm rather than aid. Moreover, the demands of compassion toward others must be balanced against the need to care for ourselves, not to mention our finite attentions. For all these reasons, our individual capacity to do good, in actual practice, may be significantly enhanced when the principle of love is supplemented with the collective wisdom of a community, developed over time, as to how to apply that principle in specific cases, or even broad classes of cases. Hence the utility of notions such as halachah and Torah.

It occurs to me that Quakers have a somewhat analogous notion, the Testimonies. These are broad principles or values – formulated variously as

  • Simplicity
  • Truth
  • Equality
  • Peace

(acronym STEP), or

  • Simplicity
  • Peace
  • Integrity
  • Community
  • Equality,
  • (and more recently, Sustainability)

(acronym SPICE(S)).

These Testimonies are still highly general, far from the specificity of typical halachic rules. But each Testimony derives from concrete actions that early Quakers felt ‘led by the Spirit’ (i.e. commanded by God) to take, contrary to contemporary social norms and laws. The Testimony of Peace is a generalization of Friends’4 early collective leading to refuse to participate in warfare; and that decision has been reaffirmed by every subsequent generation of Quakers. Similarly, the Testimony of Equality is a generalization of Friends’ early refusal to show deference to their social ‘betters’, and their recognition that women could minister as well as men; and this Testimony was reaffirmed and extended further when we came to oppose slavery and accompanying theories of racial superiority. So each of these Testimonies has a kernel of historic specificity, of concrete application, which still obtains, as well as a penumbra of extensions.

Quakers, like other mystical movements, emphasize personal direct experience of God. But in discerning how we should act in the world, Friends’ focus on individual experience is tempered by our collective decision-making process. An individual may experience a ‘leading’ to do something, but if it somehow reflects on Friends generally or requires support from other Friends, the leading must be ‘tested’ by the whole Meeting. If the Meeting ‘unites’ with the leading, it becomes part of Quaker practice, perhaps just for that local Meeting; or if other Meetings adopt it as well, the practice may come to be adopted among Quakers more broadly. These decisions are recorded in minutes of the Meeting. In practice, Friends rarely consult minutes from more than a few years ago, and tend to rely more on the memories of long-term members. Friends do not study past decisions the way Jews study the Talmud. Perhaps we ought to.

I don’t have much further to say about halachah at this point, being still largely ignorant of the field. But I am encouraged by this discovery of certain parallels between halachah and Quaker practice, and this motivates me to learn more about it.

These parallels should not be overstated, though. One obvious difference is that Quaker decisions are reached by the whole Meeting, whereas halachic decision-making, Orthodox or Reform, is restricted to those with specialized training, the rabbis.

I close with a lament that both Reform Judaism and Liberal Quakerism, in modern times, have largely abdicated the field to individualism. At a time when our communities urgently need to be collectively discussing and strategizing about how to resist and overcome capitalist injustice and environmental disaster, we are instead left more or less to our own devices; the surrounding culture insists, and we have acquiesced, that it is a matter of individual choice how we earn our livelihoods, how we get our food, how we travel, etc., though all of these ‘personal’ decisions have huge collective impacts. I value personal autonomy – I don’t wish to move to an arrangement where every personal decision needs to be approved by a committee – but we can’t effectively challenge the status quo so long as we each make all of our decisions in isolation.

1Havayah (הויה) means ‘existence’ in Hebrew. It is sometimes used in liberal Jewish circles as an alternative to Adonai, to refer to God. The word is etymologically related to the ineffable Biblical name of God, it is a permutation of the same four Hebrew letters, and it is of feminine gender.

2Eḥad, ‘one’.

3Halachah (הלכה) means Jewish law, literally ‘[way of] walking’.

4I use ‘Quaker’ and ‘Friend’ interchangeably.