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The Wisdom of the Talmud, by Ben Zion Bokser, [1951], at

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Social Ethics in the Talmud


The Talmudic conception of mankind is that of a unity, deriving its character from a common origin and a common destiny. The basic elements of this doctrine are already enunciated in the Bible which traces the origins of the human race to a single person who is formed by God in His own image. It is in the Talmud, however, that this doctrine reaches its fullest maturity. "Why did the Creator form all life from a single ancestor?" inquired the Talmud, and the reply is, "that the families of mankind shall not lord one over the other with the claim of being sprung from superior stock … that all men, saints and sinners alike, may recognize their common kinship in the collective human family."1

Human behavior may be infinitely varied, but human nature which underlies it, is essentially the same. Man is a creature of earth and at the same time a child of God, infused with the divine spirit. Appraised in moral categories, all people are endowed with the tendency to see in their own persons the ultimate ends of their being and the tendency to seek transcendent ends toward which their own persons are but contributing instruments. Out of these two tendencies flow good and evil, which thus reside, in varying measure, to be sure, in every individual as part of his indigenous equipment for life. If you but probe sufficiently, one Talmudic maxim advises, you will discover that "even the greatest of sinners" abound in good deeds as a pomegranate abounds in seeds. On the other hand, the greatest of saints have their share of moral imperfection.2 All human beings are, so to say, cut from the same cloth and there are no absolute distinctions between them.

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This doctrine of equality does not assert that individuals duplicate one another. "A man," the Talmud explains, "strikes many coins from one die and they are all alike. The Holy One, blessed be He, however, strikes every person from the die of the first man, but no one resembles another." Their uniqueness is mental as well as physical, and they all have a special function to fulfill in the realization of the cosmic purpose. A person thus has a right to feel that "the universe was created for his sake," for he has a unique role to play in it, so that the cosmic scheme will be incomplete without him.

The specific role that one's particular faculties enable him to play is immaterial. Humble or exalted, all roles are equally invaluable to the fulfillments of history. In the words of a Talmudic illustration, "I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also His creature; my work is in the city and his is in the field; I rise early to my work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work. But you may be tempted to say, 'I do great things and he small things!' We have learned that it matters not whether one does much or little, if only he directs his heart to serve the divine purpose."3

Deriving from this conception of man's place in the universe is the sense of the supreme sanctity of all human life. "He who destroys one person has dealt a blow at the entire universe, and similarly, he who makes life livable for one person has sustained the whole world." All law, civil and religious, has as its purpose the promotion of human life, and when it ceases to serve that end it becomes obsolete and is to be superseded. To quote a good Talmudic maxim, "The Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath"; and what was true for the Sabbath applied likewise to all

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other law. It is greater to serve one's fellow-man, one Talmudist expounded, than to preoccupy oneself with divine communion.4

The sanctity of life was intrinsic to the individual person and was not a derivative of national origin, religious affiliation, or social status. As one Talmudist generalized: "Heaven and earth I call to witness, whether it be an Israelite or pagan, man or woman, slave or maidservant, according to the work of every human being doth the Holy Spirit rest upon him." Non-Jews residing in Jewish communities were to share in all the beneficences which the Jewish community held out to its own members. Jews were ordained to sustain their needy, to visit their sick, and to bury their dead. As the rabbis put it: "We are obligated to feed non-Jews residing among us even as we feed Jews; we are obligated to visit their sick even as we visit the Jewish sick; we are obligated to attend to the burial of their dead, even as we attend to the burial of Jewish dead." The rabbis base their demand on the ground that these are "the ways of peace."5

Nor was a person's worth a derivative of his status, whether political, social or cultural. In the sight of God the humble citizen is the equal of the person who occupies the highest office. The Talmud did not outlaw slavery which was an integral part of ancient economy, but it sought to limit its degrading aspects. Already Biblical law had declared a Hebrew slave free after a seven year period of service. Talmudic legislation continued to extend the solicitude on behalf of the slave's welfare. The slave was to live at the same level of comfort as was enjoyed by his master. "Do not eat fine bread and give black bread to your servant, do not sleep on cushions and have him sleep on straw." So exacting was the Talmud in its defense of the slave's dignity that it became a proverbial expression, "Whosoever buys a Hebrew slave, buys a master unto himself." Indeed,

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the Hebrew slave was really a workman who had temporarily sold his services but whose dignity and rights remained intact. And the Talmud condemned the man who was willing to accept personal bondage as a solution to his economic problem; for man was meant to serve only God and to recognize no other master beside Him.6

But the Talmud includes equally telling expressions of solicitude on behalf of the pagan slave. He was not to be exposed to ridicule or humiliation. One Talmudist shared his meat and wine with his slave, explaining: "Did not He that made me in the womb make him also?" It was an old principle which the Pharisees had established that "slaves, unlike the ox or the ass, are human beings with minds and wills of their own."7

The Talmud speaks repeatedly of the dignity of free labor. Creative labor, no matter how humble, is always honorable and is a form of divine worship, for it contributes to the maintenance and development of civilization. "Flay dead cattle on a highway," runs a Talmudic proverb, "and say not 'I am a priest, I am a great man and it is beneath my dignity.'" One of the responsibilities which every parent owes his son is to teach him a trade. The Talmudists, themselves, because their academic work was a labor of love which offered no remuneration, pursued various handicrafts as well as farming and commerce to earn a livelihood. Among them were shoemakers, tailors, bakers, woodcutters, a night watchman and even a grave digger.8

Even he who had endangered social security in the commission of crime has not forfeited his inherent worth as a person. The Talmud ordained with great emphasis that every person charged with the violation of some law be given a fair trial, and before the law, all were to be scrupulously equal, whether a king or a pauper. One of two litigants was not to appear in court in expensive robes when the other came in tatters, lest there be a swaying of the juror-judges.9

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Particularly in criminal cases did the Talmud seek to protect the accused against a miscarriage of justice. Circumstantial evidence, however convincing, was not acceptable. At least one of the judges was to act as the counsel of defense. The juror-judges could reverse a vote from guilty to not guilty, but not vice versa. The younger members of the court were first to announce their vote, so as not to be influenced by the actions of their seniors. Whereas in civil cases a majority of one was sufficient to establish guilt, in criminal cases a majority of two was required.

Even when he was found guilty, he had not lost his link to the human brotherhood. The larger ends of safeguarding the community may require his extermination, but whatever punishment is inflicted upon him must be humanized by a persistent love and not brutalized by vengeance. Certain Talmudists advocated the abolition of capital punishment, and it was agreed that any court that inflicts capital punishment once in seven years had exhibited brutality. The execution even of the most violent criminal is a cosmic tragedy. For he, too, was formed in the divine image and had been endowed with infinite possibilities for good.10

In the hierarchy of Jewish values the knowledge and practice of the Torah represented the apex, but the master of the Torah was not to hold himself aloof from or superior to other men. He was to be "modest, humble … to make himself beloved of men, to be gracious in his relations even with subordinates … to judge man according to his deeds." To show pride in one's learning is to become "like the carcass of a dead beast from which all men turn away in disgust." The true master of Torah will be inspired by a greater learning and piety not to aggrandize himself over others or to detach himself from the common people and cultivate his virtues in the privacy of his own home, but to teach and lead the common people to a nobler way of life. He who has insights that can broaden the horizons of his neighbor's life

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and does not communicate them is robbing his neighbor of his due. The gifts of the spirit, like the gifts of substance, are a trust to be shared with others.11


Throughout Talmudic times the Jews lived under the domination of foreign imperialisms; in Palestine under the Romans and in Babylonia under the Parthians and neo-Persians. Whether a free Jewish commonwealth would have developed a democratic representative government, we do not know. But within the framework of the limited autonomy which the Jews enjoyed, they did develop certain democratic institutions. The most important instrument of Jewish autonomy was Jewish civil and religious law, and the Talmud developed the theory that the ultimate sanction of all law is the consent of the people who are to be governed by it. For the Talmud, of course, all authority, including the authority behind the makers and interpreters of law flowed from the divine source which manifests itself in every form of human leadership. But man is endowed with free will and his unrestrained conscience must give its assent to every legal institution that is to have moral claims over him. Judges and legislators must not enact decrees unless a majority of the people find it possible to conform to them. Any decree which is resisted by a popular majority has, ipso facto, lost its validity and been rendered obsolete. Indeed, the Talmud even traced the authority of the Bible itself not so much to its divine source as to the consent of the people who fully agreed to live by it.12

Social stability frequently calls for disciplined behavior; and in the field of social and religious conduct, the Talmud called upon the individuals to conform to the majority decisions of the duly constituted authorities who interpreted Jewish law. In the field of opinion, however, the individual

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remained essentially free to believe and speak in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. Indeed, there has never been formulated an official creed in Israel as a criterion of loyalty to the mandates of Jewish life. And even in law, the minority could continue defending its position in the hope that the majority might eventually be moved to reconsider its judgment. As the Talmudists put it, majorities and minorities are equally "the words of the living God"; they both represent aspects of truth, and are equally precious. The Talmudists themselves preserved all dissident opinions which developed in their discussions and even recorded them side by side with the majority opinions which became authoritative law.

The Talmudists developed a system of democratically constituted town councils which were charged with the administration of local municipalities. All those residing in a community for a year or over enjoyed the right to participate in the election of the seven town councillors. The functions of these town councils were far-reaching, including the supervision of economic, religious, educational and philanthropic activities of the people. On important issues, town meetings were held in which the will of the people could be ascertained more directly. Certain local officials were of course appointed by the head of the Jewish community, the patriarch in Palestine, and the exilarch in Babylonia. But the most important requirement in all such appointments was that they meet with the public approval. In the words of the Talmud, "We must not appoint a leader over the community without first consulting them, as it is said, 'See, the Lord hath called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri' (Exodus 35:30). The Holy One, blessed be He, asked Moses, 'Is Bezalel acceptable to you?' He replied, 'Sovereign of the universe, if he is acceptable to Thee, how much more so to me!' God said to him, 'Nevertheless go and consult the people …'"13

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The social process frequently brings individuals into a position where they exercise power over the lives of others. In the social theory of Talmudic Judaism, it then becomes the task of the community to develop such instruments of social control as will rationalize that power with moderation and justice. The Talmudists declared individual property rights as subject to their consistency with the public welfare. When it is to serve the public interest, these rights may be modified or suspended altogether. Basing its action on this principle, Talmudic legislation regulated wages and hours of labor, commodity prices and rates of profit. They held it was similarly the task of the community to provide other facilities for promoting the public welfare, such as public baths, competent medical services, and adequate educational facilities for all, at least on an elementary level.14

The poor had a claim upon the community for support in proportion to their accustomed standard of living. The more affluent individuals were to share their possessions with them, as members of a family circle were obligated to share with their own kin. To place the administration of poor relief on a more efficient and respectable basis, it was eventually institutionalized. Begging from door to door was discouraged. Indigent townsmen were given a weekly allowance for food and clothing. Transients received their allowance daily. Ready food was also kept available to cope with immediate needs. For the poor traveler and the homeless, public inns were frequently built on the high roads. All these facilities were maintained from the proceeds of a general tax to which all residents of a community contributed.15

Perhaps the most interesting form of poor relief, from a modern standpoint, is a public works project for the assistance of the unemployed, the details of which have been preserved by Josephus but which was instituted in Talmudic

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times: "So when the people saw that the workmen were unemployed who were above 18,000 and that they, receiving no wages, were in want … so they persuaded him (King Agrippa) to rebuild the eastern cloisters; … he denied the petitioners their request in the matter; but he did not obstruct them when they desired the city might be paved with white stone …"16


The same concern for the values of humanitarianism and democracy appears in the Talmudic legislation bearing on the various aspects of family life. The Talmud does not regard the individual man as a self-sufficient personality. He is completed through matrimony. "The unmarried person lives without joy, without blessing and without good. He is not a man in the full sense of the term; as it is said (Genesis 5:2), 'male and female created He them, and blessed them and called their name man.'"

Happiness in married life involves many compromises, but these must be assumed in freedom. They should not be imposed through constraint from any external source. In the words of the Babylonian teacher Rab, "A man is forbidden to give his minor daughter in marriage without her consent. He must wait until she grows up and says 'I wish to marry so and so.'" If he did give her in marriage as a minor, she could protest the marriage on reaching maturity, and have it annulled without divorce. The man's choice, too, should be voluntary and an expression of considered choice. "A man should not marry a woman without knowing her lest he subsequently discover blemishes in her and come to hate her."17

As the more dominant partner in the family circle, the husband was exhorted to treat his wife with tenderness and sympathetic understanding. "Whoever loves his wife as himself and honors her more than himself … to him may be applied the verse, 'Thou shalt know that thy tent is in

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peace.'" Before the children, father and mother were equals. They were both to be accorded the very same devotion and respect.18

The Talmud regards divorce as the greatest of all domestic tragedies. "Whoever divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar sheds tears on her behalf, as it is written, 'And this again ye do; ye cover the altar of the Lord with tears … because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously.'" There are occasions, however, when husband and wife cannot harmonize their natures and irreconcilable differences develop between them. The Talmud then sanctions divorce, as preferable to a life of continuing bitterness and distress.

Divorce could be achieved upon the considered request of either party. Theoretically, it was always the husband who severed the marriage ties and not the wife. But the wife could sue for divorce and, if the request seemed warranted, the court forced the unwilling husband to divorce her. Among the circumstances warranting such action by the court, the Talmud lists the husband's impotence, failure of proper support, denial of conjugal rights, contraction of a loathsome illness, or engaging in a repugnant occupation. The divorced woman was protected by the Ketubah or marriage contract, which provided a financial settlement for her maintenance.19

For the Talmudists, children are the noblest fulfillment of married life. For it is man's elemental duty to the continuity of life to bring children into the world and to raise them properly. Nevertheless, where conception was likely to prove dangerous to the mother, birth control was recommended. In the words of the Talmud, "Three types of women should employ an absorbent to prevent conception: a minor, a pregnant woman, and a nursing mother; a minor lest pregnancy prove fatal, a pregnant woman lest she have an abortion, and

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a nursing mother because of the danger to her young infant."20

The Talmud offers detailed advice on how to bring up children. Parents must treat all children equally and avoid any display of favoritism between them, which can only lead to jealousy and family discord.

Parents must not over-indulge their children, which is the surest road to character depravity. Thus the Talmudists blame the depraved character of Absalom who led a revolt against King David, his father, to his pampered youth. But excessive severity is no less harmful. The Talmud cites the case of a child who committed suicide after some petty misdeed because he was in such mortal fear of his father.

The Talmud ordains a profound respect which children owe to their parents. Even he who begs from door to door is committed to provide for the sustenance of his needy parents. But the proper respect due parents is not merely a matter of material help. The intangibles of tenderness and consideration are equally important. To cite a Talmudic illustration, "There was a person who fed his father on fat poultry. Once his father asked him, 'My son, where do you get all this?' To which he replied, 'Old man, eat and be quiet, for dogs eat and are quiet.' Though he fed his father fat poultry, such a person will inherit Gehinnom."21


Perhaps the most significant triumph for democracy in Talmudic Judaism was the development of a system of free, universal education. The Jewish school system began with higher rather than elementary education. The most important institution of higher education was the Sanhedrin itself and the hierarchy of various lower courts which functioned under its supervision. Their deliberations were made accessible to advanced students who were preparing themselves for ordination; and they were even permitted to participate

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in the discussions. Witnessing the conflicts of personalities, the play of minds, and the manipulation of dialectic by which the Torah supplementation was evolved, represented a vivid and unforgettable educational experience. In addition the leaders of Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism conducted a formal instruction in their own schools. Some of these schools were particularly famous. The schools of Shammai and Hillel were continued even after their founders were gone. Akiba's school which was finally conducted at B’nai Brak is said to have had an enrollment of 12,000 students, like a modern metropolitan university.

In early times, these schools charged tuition fees which were payable upon admission to each lecture. And many made great sacrifices to attend, frequently working their way through school. This is vividly illustrated in the famous story of Hillel's struggle for an education. Hillel spent half of his daily earnings for admission to the lectures in the academy of Shemaya and Abtalyon. One winter day, being out of work, he could not pay the necessary admission charge, and the doorkeeper refused to admit him. Deter. mined not to miss the session, he climbed up the roof and listened to the discussion through the skylight. On the following morning the room was darker than usual; and looking up at the skylight, they saw the figure of a human body. Hillel had been snowed under. Fortunately the discovery had been made in time, and Hillel was saved. This admission fee was abolished after the destruction of the Temple and higher education became wholly free. In addition, lectures were offered in the evening which facilitated attendance for those who had to work for a livelihood during the day.22

Elementary education was originally left to the home, but in time this too was institutionalized. As the Talmud relates it: "Were it not for Joshua ben Gemala (high priest who was in office in the latter part of the first century), the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel." In antiquity

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every father taught his own child. Those who were without fathers to teach them were thus left without education. Later on, schools were established in Jerusalem to which the children were to be sent from all over the country. But these too were inadequate. Thereupon they established regional schools to which youths of 16 or 17 were admitted. But it was soon apparent that adolescents could not first begin to subject themselves to school discipline. "Rabbi Joshua then instituted schools in each province and town and children were enrolled at the age of six or seven." Classes were generally conducted in the synagogue buildings, though they were frequently transferred to the outdoors. There were, according to the Talmud, three hundred and ninety-four schools in Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. The curriculum concentrated on Biblical literature, Midrash and, later on, also on the Mishnah.

The rabbis were equally devoted to educating the general public. Their formal lectures in the schools were generally open to lay auditors. In addition they utilized the synagogue service which brought out large numbers, as an opportunity for educational work. The liturgy itself, which was eventually recited thrice daily by every Jew, was an affirmation of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism. Readings from the Torah, with appropriate elucidations in the Aramaic vernacular, had been made an integral part of the synagogue ritual ever since the days of the Sopherim. Four times weekly, Saturday morning and afternoon, Monday and Thursday, as well as on all feasts and holidays, and on the new moon, the Jewish laity thus listened to Scripture lessons.

Under the inspiration of the Synagogue, smaller groups of people formed into individual study circles meeting at convenient hours on weekdays or the Sabbath for the study of Scriptures or some other branch of Jewish tradition. This was later enhanced with the introduction of the popular sermon

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[paragraph continues] Friday evening and Saturday morning, and there were special sermons before each holiday.

Some of the rabbis were not particularly gifted with eloquence, and it therefore became customary for an additional functionary to attach himself to the rabbi, the orator-commentator. In academy and synagogue alike, such a rabbi would first communicate his message to the commentator who then made this the theme of his oration before the public. The synagogues in every community, in addition to providing for religious worship also functioned as popular universities diffusing the knowledge of the Torah among the common people.23


The sanctity of human life implied for the Talmudists a similar concern for the national community. For each society, too, makes its unique contribution to the fulfillments of history. The Talmudists speak of Israel as being particularly creative in the field of religion, whereas other peoples achieved comparable distinction in other fields—in the arts and sciences. There were some who spoke with admiration of Roman law, of the Roman system of public markets, bridges and baths. The collective welfare of all humanity is contingent upon the welfare of every individual people, and the sacrificial cult of the second Temple in Jerusalem included, during the Feast of Tabernacles, seventy offerings invoking God's aid for each of the seventy nations of the world.

The aberration of human sin will occasionally drive groups to seek dominion over others. Thus in Talmudic times, the Jews suffered heavily from the oppression of Roman imperialism. The Talmudists decried this oppression and encouraged their people's resistance to it. As we have already noted, they denounced the Jewish tax farmer as a

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reprobate and robber because he collaborated with the Roman system of extortion and oppression. Deceiving the Roman tax collector they put on a par with deceiving a pirate, for Rome had no moral right to the country which she had occupied by force. The Pharisaic ostracism of the publican, which was but another name for the Jewish tax collector, was not, as has frequently been interpreted, an expression of self-righteousness. It was the reaction of liberty-loving men against those who, for a consideration, were willing to make themselves the partners of an alien imperialism in the plunder and oppression of their own people.

At the same time, the Talmudists guarded against transmuting the temporary historical struggles of their people against various imperialist oppressor-states into enduring hatreds against other nations. The Talmudists spoke with compassion about the vanquished Egyptians who drowned in the Red Sea in a vain pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. Thus they describe God as silencing an angelic chorus which chanted hallelujahs when the Egyptian hosts met their disaster. "My handiwork is perishing in the sea; how dare you sing in rejoicing!"

Even in the face of the tragedy inflicted upon their people by the Romans, the Talmudists sought to avoid hatred. Individual teachers spoke sharply in denunciation of Roman tyranny. But their collective reactions as summarized for instance in the liturgy of that day, is dedicated not to the denunciation of Rome, but to Jewish self-criticism. "It is because of our sins that we have been banished from our land," is the principal motif in the liturgical reaction to the national disaster. And the way of redemption toward which they were taught to strive was moral regeneration in their inner personal and social lives and the interpenetration of the same ideals of a loftier morality among all mankind. In time, the strife of nations, like the strife of individuals, will come to an end in the discovery of their universal interdependence. Israel's cry for justice will be vindicated in a

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universal fulfillment when the "kingdom of wickedness" shall pass away and all mankind join to form "one fellowship to do the divine will with a perfect heart" (from the liturgy of the New Year, composed by Abba Areka, d. 247).24


But the Talmudic conception of man implied a reciprocal responsibility from individual men and nations to the collective human community. For the fulfillment of the larger organism is dependent upon the integrated functioning of its constituent parts. The unique gifts of energy, substance, or spirit with which an individual is endowed must all be directed to larger human service. As one Talmudist interprets it, the second commandment ordains not alone repose on the seventh day of the week, but also creative labor on the six days. "For is it not written, 'Six days shalt thou do thy work, and on the seventh day shalt thou rest'?" The Talmud denounced asceticism, even when religiously motivated, as sinful, for it withdrew essential creative energies from the tasks of civilizations.

The responsibilities of service rest similarly on every society. And the Talmud called upon the Jews to share with the rest of mankind their achievements in the field where they believed they had distinguished themselves, the field of religion and morality. According to the Midrash, the Torah was originally revealed in the desert and not in the land of Israel, in order to suggest that its teachings were meant for all mankind and not for a particular people exclusively.

Implementing the ideal of its mission, the Judaism of the early Talmudic period proselytized extensively throughout the pagan world. Judaism became, in the words of Professor George Foote Moore, "the first great missionary religion of the Mediterranean world." Because it conceded salvation even to those who were outside its fellowship, Jewish missionaries

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did not seek only formal conversions; with equal diligence they sought to make what were known to the Romans as metuentes, or "God-fearing men," sympathizers of Judaism who, while not conforming to the Jewish ceremonial discipline, would yet order their lives by Jewish ideals of personal and social morality. Through this dissemination of the unique values in Jewish tradition, the Jewish people were to meet their responsibilities to the larger human community of which they recognized themselves to be a part, and to whose service they saw themselves committed by the God who had made them a distinct people in civilization.25

Next: Personal Morality in the Talmud