The Jewish Sensibilities
Vanessa L. Ochs
University of Virginia
"I like to think of myself as a good
American Jews say this often.
Typically they are not describing their observance of Jewish ritual practices
or their respect, in principle, for Jewish law. If their desire were to
communicate those expressions of religiosity, they would more likely say, "I am
religious," "I am frum," or "I am shomer Shabbat."
I believe that when American Jews
speak of being good Jews, they are referencing a largely unarticulated code of
behaviors which they try to follow and which they use to judge both themselves
and others. The code is certainly supported by traditional Jewish practices,
texts and regula, but it is not necessarily synonymous with them. The code
certainly plays a role in the lives of religiously observant American Jews of
various denominations and levels of commitment. It is operative, as well, in
the lives of many American Jews who actively or passively eschew Jewish law and
practice but still claim with pride and certainty that their Jewish heritage or
Jewish identity infuses them with moral characteristics and obligations; a
world view that they have inherited and encountered--in both life and
literature--which shapes how they see themselves, how they understand
themselves as moral agents in the world, and how they interact with others.
I call that code "The Jewish Sensibilities." The
sensibilities are Jewish ways of understanding what it means to be a human
being. They affect how one thinks, acts and feels. They guide and orient one's
actions and choices. And just as they shape and refine ones own behavior, they
serve as benchmarks as one evaluates the behavior of others and, in the case of
parents and teachers, as they erect an informal curriculum for character
The sensibilities form a set of intuited
guidelines. If pressed, an individual may not be able to articulate what those
guidelines are, or how they came to know, master or cherish them. They may
not be able to name the texts, ceremonies, events, memories, institutions,
practices, objects, relationships or experiences that facilitated their
transmission. This is not surprising. When people are asked if they know how
to be a member of their gender, family, school, place of work, community, or
even citizen of their country they will surely say they do--but they may be
unable to explain what it is they know and how it is they came to know it. They
just know, and know they know. So it is with cultural practices that are deeply
imbedded. Conscious knowledge is not the benchmark of having cultural
intelligence. Moreover, as I have observed, and this may well be surprising--it
is not the precondition for effective cultural transmission from one
generation to another.
Not that there aren't good pedagogic and ethical
reasons to make the code of sensibilities conscious and articulate; that is, to
name and explain them. Knowing the sensibilities can help someone--such as a
doctor or bioethicist--seeking to understand American Jews better and to
anticipate how they will lead their lives and make decisions. Knowing them can
help Jews themselves better understand why they behave as they do, how they
might choose to behave when the path is not obvious, and how to select a more
ideal way of behaving when there are complicated options. From a pedagogic
perspective, knowing the sensibilities can help Jews who are parents, teachers
and community leaders to articulate clearer answers to those two ever-beguiling
questions, "Why be Jewish?" and "What are Jewish values?"
My observations, while ethnographic,
are based neither on systematic fieldwork nor on comprehensive interviews.
They are personal impressions based upon a lifetime of being an American Jew,
living and researching among Jews in America of different orientations and
backgrounds, in a range of communities, both urban and rural. As a journalist
and as an anthropologist, I observe American Jews--secular and religious--in a
wide range of situations, asking them to reflect upon the choices they make. I
trust, by now, that I have a good eye. Because my expertise rests primarily
upon lived experience in America, I shall refrain from making claims about the
code of sensibilities held by Jews living elsewhere in the world. Indeed, I
have observed that there are major overlaps between the sensibilities of
American Jews and those of Israeli, French, British and South African Jews, but
there are significant variations as well, which only inhabitants of those
places, or entrenched scholars, are in position to name.
I began to develop the concept of a
code of sensibilities when I was asked, some ten years ago, by bioethicists,
physicians, chaplains, and medical students to present "the Jewish perspective"
on healthcare issues such as making end-of-life decisions, choosing whether or
not to pursue treatment, and using new reproductive technologies. Those who
consulted with me expected I would share the relevant Jewish laws bearing on
these problematic or novel situations. Whether or not they knew the term, they
wanted to hear the halakhot, the ancient rules determining what is
permitted and forbidden to Jews, and the responsa literature, the ongoing
written chronicles of rabbinic interpretation of ancient textual perspectives.
I did my best to explain that Jews do not, in fact, open up the Bible or Talmud
and expect to find a set of clear-cut laws that they can follow. Moreover, I
would explain, Jews do not have a single human authority, like a pope or chief
rabbi, to whom they all turn for instruction, interpretation, clarification and
guidance. I would offer:
Halakha does not mean "law,"
but "the way to go." Halakha, not inscribed in a single book of law, is
derived by generations of Jewish scholars and teachers who have consulted
sacred texts and lived practices of the past in order to align human behavior
with their understanding of Divine will. When confronted with novel or
complicated situations, a rabbi, in discourse with other scholars and teachers,
will interpret past understandings in light of contemporary situations and
apply them to the particular lives and particular situations of individuals.
I would provide examples--demonstrating, for instance, how
sacred texts have been variously interpreted through the ages, leading to the
conclusion, upheld by most rabbis, that in cases in which a mother's life is
endangered, abortion is not only permissible but advised.
"What are the other laws?" they
wanted to know, hoping I was on my way to providing the list of Jewish policies
they had wanted in the first place. At this point, I would insist that knowing
laws would only help them to understand what--according to certain experts in
rabbinics or Jewish ethics--law-abiding religiously observant Jews should
ideally believe or how they should ideally behave. Even if every
Orthodox Jew did hold those beliefs and practiced them, the healthcare
professionals would only know about a small percentage of the American Jewish
If knowing halakha is insufficiently
predictive, how are ethicists and doctors to discern what might be in the
hearts and minds of those Jewish families who huddle outside intensive care
units as they struggle to, say, make complex end-of-life decisions for a loved
one? Are ethicists and doctors to conclude that those Jews who do not lead
lives governed totally or even partially by halakha lack distinctive,
Jewish ways of thinking about how to act in the world? Are they to conclude
that most of the choices Jews make concerning healthcare--or work, or family, or
community--are made without reference to Judaism?
Not at all. I believe that most American Jews--those
who identify with the various denominations as well as those who define
themselves as secular or non-practicing--do indeed have a distinctive
set of principles that guide them, whether or not they are aware of it.
Moreover, they transmit this awareness and sense of obligation to their
children. Even when American Jews act against halakha, by intention or
by ignorance, there are still, deep-seated Jewish sensibilities guiding their
behavior. These sensibilities are the guidelines I present to healthcare
professionals, and I encourage they turn to them so they might better
understand American Jews.
I would eventually discover, in my work consulting
with American Jewish communities and communal leaders, that the sensibilities
could also be of use in addressing a broad range of issues, including making
decisions about adopting new rituals and practices, education and outreach. In
fact (since the first time I wrote about the sensibilities in the Journal Shma
in December 2003) I am told they are currently being used in such settings for
teaching and discussion. 
I have selected a group of
sensibilities as being most central, predictive, and characteristic. They are
ethical precepts, values, principles, and ways of being human that draw upon
Jewish sacred texts, Jewish ritual practices and communal customs, as well as
upon the vast narrative of Jewish history; that is, Jewish experiences. The
sensibilities are made available through watching and listening to people
modeling behaviors; through meals, songs and adages; through the stories of
people's lives that are narrated as being exemplary or cautionary; through
texts that are venerated--both sacred and secular. Despite the helter-skelter,
non-systematic nature of their transmission, and despite the fact that they are
not usually made available through writing or a formal set of initiatory
activities, their transmission from one generation to another seems unusually
If being guided by the
sensibilities gives one a sense of ones being good, then violating them--or
witnessing them be violated--can cause personal or social distress. I would
therefore suggest that for many American Jews, these sensibilities have
acquired some of the felt impact of law.
Two major Jewish thinkers
influence my own understanding of Jewish sensibilities. First, there is the
work of Max Kadushin, who articulated what he called Jewish "value concepts."
Kadushin's four central core value concepts (God's love, God's justice, Torah
and Israel) contain within them sub-concepts and even sub-sub-concepts:
[includes] the subconcepts of chastisements, Merit of the Fathers, Merit of the
Children, and "measure for measure:" Torah the subconcepts of the Study of
Torah, Mizwot, Good Deeds, and ethical Derek Erez, the latter also having its
own sub-concepts in charity and Deeds of Loving kindness and in such ethical
matters as humility, honesty, reverence and the like.
Second are the teachings and writing
of my teacher Rabbi "Yitz" Greenberg, who was my mentor at CLAL, the National
Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who speaks of broad "continuum
which include such terms as Tikkun Olam (perfecting the world), Tzelem
Elokim (being in the Image of God: this includes having infinite value,
equality and uniqueness), Covenant, the Triumph of Life, and Clal
What differentiates my list of
sensibilities from Kadushin's value concepts and from Greenberg's continuum
concepts is that the sensibilities are categories that emerge primarily from
the real lives of a diverse population of Jews, characterizing how Jews
self-describe and live out their ideals, rather than as prescriptions imposed
by sacred texts.
(Granted: in the formulation of their conceptual structures, both Kadushin and
Greenberg have been highly attentive to folk or communal practices.) Thus, the
authority of the sensibilities comes from their capacity to orient people's
lives, and not the way they "crystallize" (as Kadushin would say) Jewish law.
Below, I describe those
sensibilities I have selected as being highly operative in the lives of
American Jews; there is no significance to the order in which they are
presented. I could reasonably have been included other significant
sensibilities, and I imagine that at a later date, I will continue to make
revisions and additions to the list. In most instances, I have chosen labels
that correspond to concepts available in biblical or rabbinic literature (In
doing so, my intention is to reflects rootedness in both written tradition and
oral traditions, but not necessarily a definitive or authentic source of
legitimation.) I then outline some of the general dimensions or characteristics
of each sensibility. Following that, I suggest how knowledge of the
sensibilities might be applied. I provide two illustrations of how the
sensibility might be played out in a novel situation that requires some
immediate response or reasonable prediction of a response. Drawing on my own
areas of interest, the first illustration addresses the area of healthcare. In
particular, I indicate how the sensibilities might orient Jews as they make
decisions borne out of unprecedented medical technologies. The second
illustration will addresses issues of novel ritual practice. I focus on ways
that individuals and groups maintain their connection to the Jewish past while
forging a Judaism that speaks to the lives and ideals of contemporary people.
Based on responses to the earlier publication of my preliminary work on Jewish
sensibilities in the journal Sh'ma (December 2003), I have been told
that readers with different skills and experiences can readily imagine
pertinent applications of their own: this has been done by community rabbis,
trainers of Jewish communal workers, day school educators, educators of Jewish
adults, and parents. I encourage readers to work out applications of the
sensibilities of their own, but also to challenge, tailor, or improve upon both
my choices of the primary sensibilities and my definitions.
1. Making distinctions: Havdalah (a reference to the central
creative act of Genesis-making divisions, as well as to the ceremony marking
the distinction between holy time and regular time)
important to draw distinctions. Those distinctions can be of a temporal nature,
such as making the distinction between special times and every day times;
appropriate and inappropriate moments; or auspicious or inauspicious times.
Hence, we take calendars seriously by honoring vacation time, family time, and
anniversaries of birth, marriage and death. While we acknowledge the blessings
of everyday and mundane moments, we understand that special occasions have holy
dimensions, which demand particular recognition.
distinctions can concern relationships. We distinguish those persons to whom
one has special responsibilities and commitments, and acknowledge that, for
instance, a parent's relationship to a child is differently defined from a
child's relationship to a parent. We may distinguish responsibilities we have
to family, from those we have to Jews, from those we have to all people. We
distinguish between those who can meet their own needs and those who are
dependent upon us. For better and for worse, we distinguish between those who
are part of our community or "tribe" and those who are outsiders.
distinctions can be spatial. What goes on inside the house and outside the
house might be kept separate. Inside the home feels safer then outside. We are
attentive to people whose home spaces are like ours, and are drawn to the
similarities. Israel and historical and current Diasporas may be distinguished
as inside space, as opposed to all other places.
distinctions can concern the proper ordering of priorities. We might be expect
to be chided if we work to feed the poor but fail to see to it that our own
families or we ourselves eat properly. We might expect to be praised if we
reduce our workload and salary in order to take care of a family member, raise
children, or address our health.
distinction making is important, we pay attention to ceremonies marking
distinctions. For example, marriage ceremonies are weighty, as they designate a
major distinction in one's social situation. We would hesitate to elope or have
a very small wedding with few witnesses. Graduation ceremonies are important
too, going beyond the communal respect for learning. A graduation matters
because it marks ones being changed by learning, and ones moving from one stage
of life to another. Funeral attendance is not discretionary. We appear, not
just out of respect, but for our own sake: to have the visceral experience of
marking the distinction between life and death, so as to more fully acknowledge
and address a loss.
Because it is so important to be
present at ceremonies that mark distinction, we often hear often of terminally
ill people who defy medical wisdom and succeed in surviving long enough to
witness a child's marriage, a birth of a child or grandchild, or the arrival of
an important holiday. Thus, while we might not encourage an individual to
choose a risky or painful treatment in order increase the possibility of living
to see an important ceremony, we might not discourage it either.
The sensibility of distinctions
can help us understand why so many American Jews, religious and secular, (as
many as 90%, by some accounts) attend a traditional Passover seder or improvise
and create a seder of their own. The seder makes multiple distinctions salient.
It distinguishes how Jews and non-Jews celebrate history. The seder one goes to
distinguishes one's family and friends from all other peoples who claim one's
allegiances. The timing of the seder, in Spring, marks a seasonal distinction.
The content of the seder itself emphasizes the distinction between slavery and
freedom. Of course, on this night that is different from all other nights, the
foods are distinctive, separate from those of year-round.
2. Giving honor: Kavod (drawn from its source in the Ten
Commandments, "Honor your mother and father")
The sensibility of honor
concerns both our own behavior as well as our behavior towards others. We
ourselves want to live honorably, both out of self-respect and out of our
desire for approbation. We are aware that we do not live in a social vacuum and
that our actions have consequences. To receive approbation and to avoid
humiliation, we aspire to act in ways that will bring credit to ourselves, to
our families and to the communities we belong to. We want to be worthy of honor
after we have passed on and our deeds and choices are remembered. While we may
show humility by formally deflecting the honor others show us, we are likely,
ultimately, to receive their honor graciously.
We are aware that others
flourish with respect, just as we do. We know that parents, teachers, the
elderly and guests all deserve more demonstrable expressions of honoring
behaviors. Showing honor is a primary way in which we express love; showing
honor is generally reciprocal. We also understand that we can only honor
people in the way in which they wish to be honored.
When we make choices about how an
elderly member of the family will be cared for, we are aware that people in our
community judges our decisions. Did we honor elderly parents by caring for them
at home? Did we honor parents by providing them with the best medical
technology could provide, or did we honor them by steering them away from
invasive practices that they might find too painful or demeaning? When we make
medical choices, we are aware that the honor we might receive from our family
and community for what we have chosen to do or not do is contingent upon the
honor our decisions have shown to others.
The bar and bat mitzvah candle
lighting ceremony, invented by developed by clever kosher caterers in the
1950's, has become such a well accepted part of the celebrations of many
families that it is often referred to as "the traditional candle lighting
ceremony." Granted: it is mawkish in sentiment and is often drenched in the
music of popular culture. Still, the ceremony allows families to give public
honor to those people who have played a significant role in the life of their
child. In important ways, it parallels and democratizes the process of
choosing family members to receive aliyot, Torah honors, in the bar or
bat mitzvah Torah service. Because women, in some synagogue settings, can
neither bestow nor receive Torah honors, the candle lighting ceremony allows
for women to participate in an "honor-economy."
3. Turning: Teshuvah (drawn from Deuteronomy
31:1: Those who have been spiritually cursed and physically exiled still have
the capacity to return to God, and to be embraced with forgiveness)
We believe it is possible to
reflect upon our lives, turn them around around, and both receive and
experience forgiveness. We think of ourselves as works-in-progress, and we
believe improvement--following introspection--is always possible. We give both
others and ourselves opportunities to start off with a blank slate and to
change. We do not feel that things we have done in the past which we are
ashamed of now will define us forever, nor do we feel we are innately bad: in
this respect, the notion of "original sin" feels quite unfamiliar.
We take pleasure in opportunities
for renewal, be they spiritual, physical, or relational. We know that
improvement requires more than a wish: it requires a concrete plan, a program
one can join.
We might be attracted to an alternative or complementary
healing modality that "feels Jewish," despite its origins, setting or
membership. A case in point: Alcoholics Anonymous groups hold that one can
change ones ways and it is never too late to make amends with the people
one has hurt and disappointed along the way. Because of AA's emphasis on
telling stories of turning, starting over again, and reconciliation, many Jews
feel comfortable in AA meetings, saying they feel "very Jewish," even when the
meetings are held in church basements.
Until recently, the mikvah (ritual bath) was used
primarily for immersions before marriage, after menstruation, before conversion
and before a holiday. Now that more liberal communities are building their own
ritual baths, they are being used to mark a range of life passages. Many are
choosing to use immersion in water to signal a range of personal turnings. Some
are body centered: reaching menopause, recovering from rape or abuse,
recovering from a disease, or giving up smoking. Some focus on relationships,
such as marking ones divorce. Others focus on changes in personal identity,
such as becoming a rabbi.
4. Exhibiting human dignity; being in the image of God:
Tzelem Elokim (source in Genesis; the earthlings, Adam and Eve are made
in God's image)
We are aware that dignity is possible
only when one is free and able to care for oneself. We know education enhances
ones self-respect and ability to live with dignity. We might care about
appearances, knowing that dressing appropriately enhances ones self-respect and
dignifies others. We are likely to engage in political, charitable, and
volunteer activities (such as mentoring the underprivileged, working for civil
rights, or building housing for the homeless) that increase the dignity of
Because we privilege the well-being of living, sentient human
beings over beings-in-progress, we tend to care more about human beings
suffering from terrible disease that might be cured by stem-cell research than
about non-sentient cells in the early days of their development outside the
womb. We tend to favor research on pre-embryos if that research promises the
possibility of cure in the future, even if the cure is remote and the future is
distant. Many find it unconscionable to enact legislation that prevents or
retards research that could lead to the cure of fatal disease. Particularly as
we make the end-of-life decisions, we are sensitive to making choices that will
preserve a person's dignity. That is, we know that there are real limits to how
much pain and suffering a person should have to endure. We are aware that while
one may be technically alive, a life lacking in dignity is not a real life; in
such cases, we may entertain practices that might not prologue life.
In daily life, we engage in a good many activities that
indicate our commitment to increasing the dignity of our lives, such as
dieting, reducing our consumption of problematic foods, beginning an exercise
regime, taking classes, or preparing for a new career. It is not surprising,
then, that adult bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies (in which individuals or a
class of adults who did not have the opportunity as youngsters to study Hebrew,
Bible, and synagogue skills, now prepare for a public ceremony marking their
commitment and accomplishments) become popular. Such ceremonies mark one's
autonomous desire to increase self-dignity by becoming a more informed,
enfranchised participant in synagogue life.
5. Saving a life: Pikuach nefesh
We believe that "as long as you've
got your health," you have reason to celebrate. It is not surprising that when
we toast, it is "To life!" that we raise our cup. Health is the number one
blessing. We do not take recoveries for granted: they always feel miraculous.
We understand life is fragile and precious and hesitate to take physical risks
that could endanger our lives. We are quick to comment on the foolhardy
behaviors of "daredevils".
We will go to extremes to save a
life. We believe in doctors, hospitals and science. We do not skimp when it
comes to regular health care and will do whatever is necessary to have the best
care available. Because we cannot stop short in securing treatment, we seek the
advice of specialists and secure second and third opinions.
We tend to favor and support most genetic and medical
innovations that promise and increase of life: more years, more health, more
vitality, lives that are more meaningful and productive. We're apt to favor
innovations that will allow the barren to bear children, the infertile to
reproduce more easily, and for parents to give birth to healthy children.
This has not happened yet in a widespread and organized
way, but I anticipate eventually Jewish communities will hold days when adults
come together to register as bone marrow donors and organ donors; already there
are synagogue mitzvah days when the Jewish community comes to donate blood. I
anticipate as well that Jewish hospital chaplains will develop bedside
religious ceremonies which ritualize a family's choice to donate the organs of
a family member who is brain-dead so that others may live, and which solemnize
the harvesting of their organs as a preamble to a funeral.
6. Being a really good person: "Be a mensch; a ben adam"
We aspire to be people who act with compassion, fairness
and sensitivity toward others. We value being attentive, empathetic, just,
discreet, and making sacrifices in interpersonal relationships. We try to be
good friends and neighbors, especially in times of need. A really good person's
broad reserve of compassion extends toward all Jews, wherever they live, and
toward all people, particularly the vulnerable. We see it fit to remind others of
their obligation to act appropriately in moral situations; in doing so, we
remind ourselves as well.
Jews tend to decide autonomously (that is, without family
pressure or the urging of doctors or clergy) to donate organs, such as kidneys,
to their next-of-kin provided that doing so will save a life. Agreeing to
donate feels like the right thing to do (provided the act of generosity toward one
member of the family does not threaten one's obligations to be present to others).
Even when Jews are not quite comfortable (for whatever
reasons) with the idea of commitment ceremonies between gay or lesbian couples,
their capacity for empathy tends to lead them to attend such ceremonies when
invited by members of their social circle and to hope for the couple's success.
7. Keeping the peace: Shalom Bayit
Certain decisions or gestures are made or avoided in order to
keep the peace, settle differences, keep a family together, and create harmony
instead of divisiveness. This includes knowing when to speak to assure harmony
and when to hold one's tongue. Airing a groups difference aloud is sometimes a
route to peacekeeping, but just as often, it is the suppression of differences.
In an end-of-life context,
we might choose to wait for all the siblings in a family to gather, especially
any who have been estranged, before any major decisions are made.
While we might prefer our children not to intermarry (outside
the faith, or even outside one's social comfort zone) we are apt to welcome the
partners our children bring into the family for the sake of holding the family
8. Repairing the world: Tikkun olam
We hold that each person should find ways to make
the world a better and more just place. This stance of compassionate engagement
occurs in simple individual ways as well as on larger platforms. We use any
resources we have to make a difference. Engaging in world repair, we may feel
as if we are "doing a mitzvah," doing something that we are divinely ordained
and privileged to do even though it is our choice. Doing good works justifies
our having been put on this earth. If we have been fortunate, we feel
responsible to "give back."
Making any healthcare decisions, we are cognizant of their
impact on the broader population. Thus, when considering the costs of extending
the life of individuals with terminal illnesses, we calculate the impact of
such decisions on other people who are ill.
Miriam's cup has found a regular place at the table
because it expresses the sensibility of "repairing the world." In part, this
practice has become readily adapted because of the capacious nature of the
Haggadah, which had long accumulated new songs, teachings and additional cups of
wine. Simply put, many feel that the cup acknowledges the many generations of
women who had no place at the seder table and only a venue behind the scenes in
the kitchen. The cup demonstrates that women now have an honored place at the
table: it makes amends for the past, and sets an agenda for the future of
increased women's presence and participation in ritual in general.
9. Maintaining hope: Yesh tikvah
We try to hang on to hope and resist despair. In
romance, we believe we will meet our beshert, our intended one. We dream
expansively and even set off on uncertain journeys with because we feel promise
lies just over the horizon. At the same time, we accept that some things seem
fated not to be. When a door closes, we face reality and move on to open doors,
We will make many tries to conceive using the newest
reproductive technologies--holding onto even a glimmer of hope--until we
acknowledge that the facts are telling us it is time to choose other options.
In the face of health problems that currently have no cure, we do not stop
working for and hoping that a breakthrough will come along.
Much as we might believe
one's bashert is out there waiting to be found, we know fate sometimes
needs to be nudged into being. Thus, it is not surprising that Jewish computer
dating and other strategies for introducing singles to each other (such as
speed dating) have been rapidly embraced.
of one's ancestors: Z'chut avot
We feel connected to the
people who came before us. We draw insight and wisdom from the experiences of
our ancestors and seek to honor them with our actions. And we expect the same
of our children. Thus, we honor our ancestors by transmitting the sensibilities
that characterized their ideals and actions onto the next generation. Realizing
we can never repay our parents directly for all they have done for us, we
reciprocate indirectly through our attention to our own children.
If a parent is not able to make healthcare decisions on
his or her behalf, we intensify our bonds to them as we take great pains to
make a decision that is in keeping with what they might have wanted for
themselves. Anticipating this may happen, we encourage our elders and other
family members to clarify their health directives in writing.
Those congregations that
now include the matriarchs in the Amidah have had success in making this major
(and quite contested) change because, in part, we so value recognizing and naming
the people (including the women) from whom we come.
In conclusion: Moving from the sensibilities to particular situations
three pragmatic reasons (though I imagine there are others) for Jews, whatever
their orientation, religious or secular, to refer to these sensibilities.
First, paying attention to the sensibilities can help one formulate a decision
that is in keeping with one's Jewish "compass" in healthcare situations,
particularly novel ones that leave us without familiar responses. These might
include deciding how to use unprecedented medical technologies in reproduction,
in finding cures, and in making end-of-life decisions. Sometimes, I should
note, changes or improvements in technology may cause a different sensibility
to come into play. For example, consider the changes in Jewish attitudes
towards organ transplantation. When organ transplants were still more
experimental in nature, and thus, more dangerous and less predictably
effective, Jews hesitated to give and receive organs, because they we oriented
by the sensibility of "Dignity." At that time, they might have been
particularly aware that harvesting an organ required both the mutilation of a
corpse and potential pain and suffering for the recipient, without assurance
that the recipient would even recover. There was concern that the dignity of
both the dead and living might be compromised. (Curiously or not, many Jews,
observant or not, would cite a folk belief, the desire to keep one's body whole
for the sake of resurrection, to justify resisting organ donation.) In the last
decade, as organ transplantations have become safer, more reliable, and even
more routine, the sensibility of "Saving a Life" comes more predictably into
play. More Jews now tend to look at organ donation as a familiar and usually
safe procedure that saves lives. They will consequently designate themselves as
organ donors on their driving licenses and health directives and, if asked,
would probably agree to donate the organs of a loved one who is brain-dead.
They would hope that others would do the same should they be in a position to
need a donor organ.
Second, knowing the sensibilities
can help one determine if a novel Jewish ritual practice or synagogue policy
one has witnessed or is shaping oneself is consistent with Jewish
self-understandings. This would be the case even if the new practice diverges
from familiar practices or from halakha. An example concerns the
question many liberal congregations are wrestling with: is it appropriate to
give Torah honors to non-Jews, particularly when they are the parents of a bar
or bat mitzvah child? The sensibility that is operative in this situation is
"keeping the peace." Despite what Jewish law may have to say about the
inappropriateness of giving Torah honors to non-Jews, liberal congregations are
finding creative ways to include the non-Jewish family members in order to make
the family celebration as harmonious as possible and to minimize slighting in a
public setting and on what should be a joyous occasion that brings people
together and celebrates community.
Third, consulting the
sensibilities helps one understand how one's Jewishness defines or contributes
to the way one lives when the influence isn't at first obvious. An example
would be attitudes toward premarital sex. According to halakha, as
understood by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, sexual relations between an
unmarried man and woman are forbidden. This halakhic proscription is
ignored by most Conservative Jews and by some Orthodox. One should not conclude,
however, that Jews who fail to heed halakha concerning premarital sex,
bring no Jewish consciousness whatsoever to this part of their lives. Two
sensibilities in particular govern thinking and action concerning premarital
relations. First, "Saving a life": The majority of Jews involved in romantic
relationships feel duty-bound to take precautions for safe sex both for
themselves and their partners. Second, "Distinctions": Many Jews tend to honor
both themselves and their partners by maintaining monogamy during the duration
of a relationship that has become intimate. While the relationship may not be
sanctified by marriage, it is sanctified informally by a level of commitment
From these examples, one can see
that drawing upon the ten sensibilities and relating them to a situation at
hand requires creative thinking, the ability to juggle. That is, a sensibility
that mattered more at one time, or to one generation might give way to a
different sensibility that now takes precedence. Sometimes multiple
sensibilities are at play, and they may be competing for the strength of
influence. At the core, however, is the weightiness of the sensibilities. What
Kadushin has written about his value concepts could well be applied to the
sensibilities: "They are primary factors in the experience of significance."
 In presenting the sensibilities to various
communities, I have been especially struck by some responses, which I have yet
evaluated to my satisfaction. "These are American values," they say, or
"Judeo-Christian ethics" and not descriptions of anything uniquely Jewish. For
some, their being coterminous is a good thing: you can live out Jewish
sensibilities and simultaneously be an upstanding American; you can have ethnic
distinction without losing membership in the larger culture. For others, the
code comes as a disappointment, for it does not reveal a depiction of being a
human being that seems distinctively Jewish enough.
The Rabbinic Mind by Max Kadushin (New York: The Jewish Theological
Seminary of America, 1952; Second edition. New York: Blaisdell Publishing
Company, 1965), p. 15.
Living in the Image of God by Irving Greenberg and Shalom Freedman
(Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1998), p. 284.
Two Jewish Chaplains, Rabbis Bonita Taylor and David Zucker, have formulated a
list related to mine, a presentation of twelve "key points about Judaism and
Jewish thought," intended to aid those training Jewish hospital chaplains and
working with Jewish patients. "Nearly Everything We Wish Our Non-Jewish
Supervisors Had Known About Us as Jewish Supervisees", published in The
Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Winter 2002, vol. 56, no.4, pp.
327-338, is based on six years of canvassing in order to discern ways in which
mainstream Jewish thinking diverges from Protestant thinking, which is the
orientation of most CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) programs, even when they
call themselves "Interfaith" programs. For example, the authors note in their
key point #7 "Vicarious Suffering/Atonement are not part of mainstream Jewish
thinking" and that Jews do not "seek salvation through the intervention of
others who suffer for them" (p. 334).
Worship and Ethics: A Study in Rabbinic Judaism by Max Kadushin (Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, 2001), p. 25.