Increasing Moral Capital Through Moral Imagination:
Traditional Jewish communities are beginning to recognize an increasingly obvious
crisis in the area of applied ethics. This is not a sociological paper, so no
attempt will be made to document this problem in a systematic way. I will begin
simply by citing three extreme examples of ethics failures inside traditional
Jewish communities. These are highly emotional issues and raise questions about
the very identity of the Jewish community.
First, the last decade has seen numerous allegations of lapses in business
ethics. Many of these stories are well known, and I will not elaborate on them
here. Second, the murder of Yitzchak Rabin by a young man who claimed to act
out of religious convictions should have provided the impetus for a deep soul
searching in religious communities, but it never did. Third, the allegations
that a well-known and widely respected former employee of the Orthodox Union’s
National Conference of Synagogue Youth committed acts of sexual, physical, and
verbal abuse against children deserve careful and balanced scrutiny. The charges
against this individual and the organization that employed him may represent
the most difficult failure of all to fathom. Although morally different,
each of these examples reveals unexamined problems inherent in traditional
Jewish communities. Taken together, in my view, they suggest a crisis.
This paper is primarily directed to those of us who already recognize these
unfortunate situations as cause for grave concern inside the traditional community.
It is an attempt to formulate, if not a solution, then at least, an optimistic
case for the future moral integrity of traditional communities. I write this
paper from the perspective of an involved and responsible insider looking out.
It is an attempt to consider this crisis in an authentic and honest way, in
a way that takes both tradition and the contemporary world very seriously. In
writing it, I hope as much to ignite a discussion of who we are and where we
are going as to persuade you of my conclusions.
The Quest for Ethical Leadership
I begin with a definition of ethical leadership. Ethical leadership means using
the moral language that belongs to all of us. Ethical leaders learn this language
and apply it uniquely and creatively to solve emerging human problems. This
definition of leadership can be put more starkly (if slightly less accurately)
as follows: Ethical leaders use yesterday’s language to solve tomorrow’s
problems. In doing so, ideally, they both solve the problem and expand our
No one---not even the greatest and most innovative leader--can create a complete
and private language. In fact, when we consider what language is and what it
is for, it dawns on us that a private language is a contradiction in terms.
Leaders, like everyone else, always emerge from community and, first of all,
absorb its traditions and existing language. All of us begin life’s journey
by seeing our way through the eyes of the community. Perceptions are filtered
through its vocabulary and grammar.
But, as one matures, new and confounding problems inevitably present themselves.
They can arise in any number of ways; they can emerge from within or be imposed
upon us from without. At first, many of these new problems seem very different
from our earlier ones. Often, however, they are not, and the traditional view
that there is nothing new under the sun offers reassurance. What looks new on
the surface turns out to be an old and familiar problem. One is correctly taught,
as a first step, to re-frame the new problem and solve it using the trusted
language and techniques of the past.
Many seemingly intractable ethical problems can be solved in the same manner
as apparently complex mathematical problems. While I can’t solve this
algebraic equation, I can solve that algebraic equation, and it turns
out that this algebraic equation can be cleverly transformed into that
Easy and Hard Cases in Ethics
Ethical problems that can be transformed in this way--and almost all ethical
problems have to be tweaked at least a little--make up the easy cases,
or, at least, the relatively easy cases. A kind of "ethical technology"
is useful in solving such cases, where standard rules and procedures play the
most important roles. Easy cases fit with the assumptions of the rule book.
You figure out what kind of case you’re faced with and you apply the appropriate
pre-determined rule to resolve the dilemma.
Not every ethical problem is easy, however. Sometimes, the honest decision
maker must admit to herself that this really is a new situation. Conditions
change, technologies develop, and values evolve. While a new situation shares
some of the characteristics of the old cases, it doesn’t share enough of them
to permit a ready judgment. There is often no recognizable pattern. Capturing
the new problem with the old language seems like putting a square peg in a round
It may even be difficult to talk about or to describe the underlying ethical
issue because our language lacks an appropriate and rich enough vocabulary.
Existing language is not always adequate to function as the kind of tool we
need. Just as a community that had never encountered an exotic bird before would
have no name for it, a traditional community that had never before faced the
problems of citizenship in a legitimate democracy would have no words to express
those problems precisely, let alone resolve them. Whenever there is a gap between
our language and our world, we face a hard case in ethics.
The Temptations of Fundamentalism and Moral Miserliness
Fundamentalists deny this possibility. According to their view, one never openly
admits that there are hard cases in ethics. I think a good definition of fundamentalism
is the a priori rejection of the possibility of new problems. To the fundamentalist
mind, the idea that there is nothing new under the sun is not just good, prudent
advice to use as a first step in approaching new problems, but it becomes an
essential element of one’s faith. It becomes not just the starting point for
analysis but the end point as well.
In such situations, fundamentalists act in one of two ways. The first option
is to ignore the essential defining elements of the new problem (i.e., those
characteristics that make the problem different from the old problems) and to
continue to apply the strategy of re-framing. In this view, all ethical problems
are easy cases.
In my work in Jewish business ethics, I have come to see that this is a familiar
strategy among contemporary rabbis. Instead of dealing with real problems faced
by actual managers in modern organizations, Rabbis "solve" highly
stylized, but more familiar problems. As an extreme example of what I mean by
re-framing, I remember vividly asking a well-respected Orthodox Rabbi about
a corporation’s social responsibilities to employees and local communities.
The Rabbi said he could not answer this question, even if it is one of the most
important issues in contemporary business, because the Shulkhan Arukh
does not recognize the existence of corporations as a halakhic category. Instead
he proceeded to deliver an hour-long lecture on whether or not a bar mitsvah
boy has to pay taxes on his gifts (concluding, by the way, that he is not obligated
by halakhah to pay even if the government requires such payment). Unfortunately
for our community, many rabbis prefer to rehearse the answers to yesterday’s
questions rather than answering the relevant questions that today’s community
A second option for the fundamentalists, and even more radical than the first,
is to simply ignore the new problem outright. The convoluted logic here runs
as follows. I am certain that my existing language is perfectly complete. If
I don’t already possess the solution to the problem, there is no problem. While
from time to time, all of us succumb to the temptations of this kind of arrogance
and intellectual laziness, only fundamentalists suggest that this is the right
thing to do! Ironically, fundamentalists, like many post-modern thinkers (those
all the way on the other side of the intellectual continuum), claim that all
we have is the text, as if there really were no world out there and no problems
Here’s an example. I vividly recall a proposal I once had for a modern orthodox
Jewish think tank to examine possible contradictions and connections between
traditional religious thought and the intellectual assumptions of the modern
social sciences. Economics, for example, assumes boldly and proudly that human
beings are best thought of as rational utility maximizers. This pervasive assumption
in contemporary economics asserts that all decision making is exclusively
consequentialist and preference-based. The only thing that matters is future
outcomes (or consequences), and the only way to evaluate them is through individual
tastes (preferences). This decision making model, far from being a testable
hypothesis among economists, today provides the very method and foundation for
economic analysis. My proposal included raising the question of whether or not
such a method might not be antithetical (or at least problematic and worthy
of discussion) from a religious perspective founded on the idea that man is
created in God’s image. It might be especially problematic from a Jewish perspective
that insists on explicitly linking all important decisions to traditional and
authoritative texts. In addition, I suggested that there may be similar problems
in other areas of social science (for example, psychology). I did not raise
these issues because I think we need to abandon economic analysis or jettison
religious language. Quite to the contrary, the point was to see if we could
find some commonalities and to begin an honest process of integration. The proposal
was immediately shot down, I was told by a prominent personality in the Orthodox
community, because such a proposal might uncover problems for which the religious
community does not yet have the answers. Better to shut our eyes and
pretend the problems don’t exist than to raise new questions without having
preordained answers in hand--a nearly perfect expression of the fundamentalist
What drives this willful blindness on the part of fundamentalists is, I think,
an understandable desire to preserve moral capital. Fundamentalists are justly
concerned that once we begin to play with language and to purposely manipulate
it for our own interests, we risk the possibility of irreparable damage to the
language that, quite literally, defines us. The obvious flaw here, however,
is that fundamentalists completely disregard another kind of risk, at times
much more dangerous, which is inherent in their decision to cut themselves off
from continuing to examine the world and how it actually works. In short, this
second risk to which those who ignore the world are eventually exposed is the
likely possibility of evil.
Those who ignore the living world and the problems it throws at us are, in
time, almost certainly doomed to extinction. In a world where there is a significant
possibility of evil, ignoring it simply because one doesn’t have a name for
it is not only careless, but is itself unethical. This is especially true for
those in positions of leadership, whose wisdom and advice are relied on by others
in the community. In their zealous attempt to guard and protect the tradition,
fundamentalists turn their back on the future and face rearward. It is almost
as if they were to drive a car facing the back window rather than the front.
Fundamentalists are moral misers, always refusing to borrow from the
moral capital to build a better future. In treasuring their inherited language
and traditions they miss their point entirely. In a literal sense, they begin
to idolize the language, as if human language were itself a god.
While fundamentalism is not a credible option, there is something important
for us to learn and take from it. Fundamentalists are right in claiming that
preserving moral capital is the first principle of ethical decision making.
In order to maintain and ensure our identity over time, moral arguments must
be self-consciously grounded in traditional language. Herein lies the great
strength of their position. This principle suggests that our ethical decisions
must always respect the integrity of moral language. At the end of the day,
the moral language is all we have to help resolve ethical predicaments. The
fundamentalists are right when they insist that making it up as we go along
is incoherent and self-contradictory. But that cannot be the final word on the
Accepting the World and Rejecting Fundamentalism
The necessary rejection of fundamentalism suggests the existence of a second
principle. This principle can be formulated simply: Respond to the real problems
in the real world.
There is an independently existing world out there, and it can wreak havoc
on us unless we attempt to understand it. Even if we do understand it, of course,
there may be nothing we can do about it; but we would be irresponsibly and immorally
naive were we to willfully blind ourselves to our surroundings simply because
we can’t readily understand the environment on the basis of our current ideals,
values, and language. To do so would violate the second necessary principle
of ethical decision making.
There are gaps between our language and our world, which is to say that there
are hard ethical cases to resolve, whether we like it or not. To move beyond
fundamentalism and to avoid nihilism, we need a process of decision making,
and a theory to undergird it, that allows us to integrate the two principles
key step in moving out of fundamentalism lies in the recognition that language
is dynamic, not static. Like people themselves, languages either mature and
grow or wither away and die. To put it differently, it is a deep and fatal philosophical
and religious mistake to believe that there exists a fixed amount of moral capital.
In facing and resolving the hard cases in ethics, there is, to be sure,
a risk that we will eat into our moral capital, the shared stock of practical
and human wisdom embedded in language and tradition. .I would suggest, however,
that in extreme cases, expending moral capital is the morally correct decision
to make. There exist situations where, in the short run, more weight is correctly
assigned to the second principle than to the first. There are real-world problems
that require us to knowingly compromise the integrity of language in order to
satisfy immediate survival needs. In an analogous point, Immanuel Kant, the
justly famous moral philosopher, was wrong to think lying prohibited in every
conceivable case. It is not only permissible to lie to an intruder who would
kill an innocent person; it is the ethically correct action. Kant was correct
that, in the long run, lying will undercut the very possibility for truth. In
the short run, however, it may very well be the lesser of two evils. To be sure,
one must do this with extreme care, and, even as one damages the language, one
should be aware of the damage and try to do so in the least offensive way.
It is possible and necessary on occasion to expend moral capital. But, at the
same time, one must avoid becoming a moral spendthrift, who continually
draws upon moral capital but never makes any new deposits. That means,
however, that it makes sense to say that one can replenish or even enhance and
increase moral capital. If one rejects this possibility, one is caught without
hope between the miserliness of fundamentalism on the one hand and the eventual
bankruptcy of moral language on the other.
Moral Imagination: An Investment in Moral Capital
As stated above, sometimes a case in ethics is so hard that it requires us,
in the short run, to violate temporarily the first principle. If we must take
that path, we try to do so in a way that causes the least amount of permanent
damage. In addition, on occasion, we may choose to defer resolution of a problem
and arrival at a final conclusion when the issue is not life threatening and
the cost to integrity of any conceivable solution is judged prohibitive.
The difference between this prescription and fundamentalism is that here, if
we do choose to "ignore" a problem–by saying that today there is no
conceivable way of resolving this problem without permanently destroying the
integrity of our language--we still keep conscious track of the problem as best
we can. In other words, we attempt to "account" for the problem even
if we can’t finally "solve" it. There is a huge difference between,
on the one hand, admitting there is an unresolved problem and engaging in an
ongoing search for a resolution and, on the other, pretending that the problem
never existed in the first place.
A good example of this kind of agnosticism, again taken from the business ethics
literature, can be found in a recent paper by Michael Broyde and Stephen Resnicoff.
This example provides a stark contrast to the response of the rabbi alluded
to above. In a rich, long, and discussion on the modern corporation and Jewish
law, the authors finally conclude that "none of the Jewish Law theories
of a corporation is entirely satisfying or compelling."1 Some
authors might have ignored the tough and intractable questions and issues raised
in this paper altogether because there is no final, bottom-line resolution on
the topic. The authors put aside a final decision even while they do an admirable
job of keeping track of the problem. One might consider Broyde and Resnicoff’s
well-documented admission of uncertainty an admirable and courageous step beyond
fundamentalism toward moral development, especially considering the context
in which the paper was delivered. (In the past, another invited paper at this
forum was rejected outright because some of the members felt the
conclusions the author drew violated basic tenets of Orthodoxy.)
However, not every hard case in ethics requires deferral of decision.
Some of them are, in fact, resolvable in a way that does not require a trade-off
between the two principles cited above. On occasion, we can resolve an altogether
new ethical problem by respecting the moral integrity of language, even while
we are responding to the actual problem that confronts us. Indeed, not only
can we resolve the problem; the resolution itself may enhance or increase
the moral capital. This process of resolving hard cases in ethics in a way
that increases moral capital requires something called "moral imagination."
The idea of increasing moral capital requires one to reject the certain belief
that our existing moral language is perfect. A perfectly complete and final
language in an evolving and changing world is incoherent. In order to use yesterday’s
language to solve tomorrow’s problems, leaders must find a legitimate way to
alter yesterday’s language without destroying it.
In dealing with hard cases in ethics, the question finally boils down to this:
How does one change the language while preserving its integrity? Note that the
question is not whether it is permissible to change the language; it is the
better and more interesting one of how such change can be achieved in
an authentic way? In answering this broad question, it is useful to consider
each of the following more specific ones:
1. The Question of Importing: Does the reasoned choice of incorporating
elements of foreign languages into one’s native language necessarily violate
2. The Question of Responsible Choosing: Does self-consciously ignoring
elements of one’s native language necessarily violate integrity?
3. The Question of Inventing: Does one necessarily violate integrity
when one attempts to invent new vocabulary by building on the old vocabulary?
4. The Question of Interpreting: Is integrity necessarily violated
in the search for new meanings inside the old language?
Advocates of moral imagination answer each of these questions with a resounding
"no." In fact, importing, choosing, inventing, and interpreting constitute
the tasks of moral imagination and provide the mechanisms for moral growth.
This is not to say, of course, that all importing, choosing, inventing,
and interpreting are legitimate in the context of every existing language. It
is simply that each case of importing, choosing, inventing, and interpreting
must be examined on its own merits.
1. The Question of Importing
No one language is perfect. Or, as we are often correctly reminded in myriads
of ways, no one of us is as smart as all of us. When it comes to moral capital
(as opposed to financial capital) taking from others should be encouraged, not
discouraged. "What is mine is mine and what is mine is yours" holds
for everyone in the case of moral capital. Languages that have developed and
evolved under differing historical circumstances will embed a diversity of truths.
One of the great benefits of language is that one does not have to learn every
lesson the hard way. If I’m smart, I can listen to you and capitalize on your
experiences. The better one listens to others, the more one learns. In short,
often the easiest way to use yesterday’s language to solve tomorrow’s problem
is to realize that there are other legitimate languages out there. Martin Luther
King, Jr., learned ethical lessons from Gandhi, and Gandhi claimed that he imported
elements into his own non-violent philosophy from the early American philosopher,
Henry David Thoreau. In recognizing pluralism, one takes a first step towards
a practical solution to hard cases in ethics.
How can importing be of practical use to the orthodox community? The leaders
of the Orthodox Union who allowed Baruch Lanner to continue leading youth groups
years, even after a series of independent accusations of child abuse had been
made against him, should have immediately adopted the policies of other organizations
and groups that had faced similar problems in the past. Accusations of child
abuse against an employee are indeed an example of a hard case in ethics. Instead
of trying to institutionalize a program of sexual conduct appropriate for NCSY
(such codes of conduct are easily available for adaptation), the leaders at
the Orthodox Union continue to claim ignorance of the problem.
Further, there is an inherent strength in importing from other languages. Borrowing,
although it can only begin if we admit that there are differences among languages,
can actually help to convince us that the differences are not as large or insurmountable
as we might at first have thought. Borrowing is a practical way to solve our
hard cases in ethics, to increase our moral vocabulary, and it has the collateral
benefit of helping to build or widen bridges of understanding between moral
communities. In solving a hard case in ethics through importing, the very notion
of what makes up "our community" is put into play. It may turn out,
at the end of the day, that our community is larger, more expansive, and more
complicated than we originally thought. As moral capital expands, the idea of
community is altered, as well.
For two distinct reasons, however, importing is not always a practical option.
First, it may turn out that importing does violate the integrity of one’s own
native language. It is easy to think of cases where borrowing a concept or a
term from another language would undercut basic axioms of one’s own position.
The point made above was that importing does not always and forever violate
integrity. Second, importing may not be practical because there simply may be
no existing language that has the vocabulary needed to solve a new problem.
Still, even with these two major limitations in mind, importing is a powerful
and profound way to increase the moral capital. Maimonides’ Guide of the
Perplexed may offer the single most important example of this approach
within Judaism, and much of the controversy surrounding Maimonides’ approach
focused on the legitimacy of importing in Judaism.
2. The Question of Legitimate Choosing
In looking at the question of importing, we find that the notion of pluralism
suggesting the simultaneous coexistence of many different moral languages becomes
important. Pluralism also helps us think through the question of legitimate
choosing. Can one legitimately pick and choose from within one’s own language?
If one’s language reflects only a single coherent voice, the answer to this
question would be no. But to the extent that languages themselves are pluralistic
or perceived to be so that is, they reflect more than a single voice--then the
very attempt to make the language coherent requires one to pick and choose.
It’s not easy to solve a hard case in ethics. There are situations where an
ethical leader using yesterday’s language is going to have to make difficult
choices. He or she may willfully ignore part of the tradition when that element
of the tradition is seen as the cause of the problem in the first place. I wonder
if some of the rabbis who openly encouraged Yitzchak Rabin’s murderer considered
the possibility that some of the textual resources they were exploiting simply
should have been ignored as inappropriate in the context of a modern democracy.
When great leaders pick and choose with care and attention in the face of difficult
choices, moral capital is increased. The next generation inherits a language
that is better suited to solving ethical dilemmas.
3. The Question of Inventing
Fundamentalists who continue to assert the perfection of the inherited
language are opposed, of course, to the possibility of invention.2 With a perfectly
complete moral vocabulary in hand, we can only be harmed, and can never be helped,
by invention. On the other hand, if hard cases in ethics truly exist, invention
may turn out to be a legitimate tool to enlarge the moral capital.
How do great leaders invent? First of all, it is important to keep in mind
that invention is not creation out of nothing. Inventors--whether one is talking
about inventors of mechanical or electronic gadgetry or ethical inventors--use
the materials at hand. The genius of invention is always in how one puts those
pre-existing materials together. Invention requires experimentation and the
willingness to put up with temporary failure. When Thomas Edison invented the
light bulb, he did not magically produce something entirely new out of thin
air. His genius, as he was the first to insist, consisted almost entirely in
his patient quest to find the best material to use to produce his filament,
in spite of numerous false starts.
But if invention is not creation out of nothing, what is it? The best way to
think about invention is as a kind of integration. One dictionary defines integration
as the process of "making into a whole by bringing all parts together,"
but I think there’s more to it. I define integration as the process of uncovering
new relationships among discrete elements from which new value emerges. Rabbi
Norman Lamm, the President of Yeshiva University, is surely correct when he
notes that today we no longer view organic unity as a fact, but as a value to
be pursued consciously in human life and civilization. In other words, integration
is not a state of being to be taken for granted, but a valuable human process.
Integration is something that reasonable people can do, and integration is something
that reasonable people have good reasons to do. Restating this using theological
language, Lamm proceeds boldly:
The unity of God is, unquestionably, not yet a fact; it must await...eschatological
fulfillment. But that fulfillment must not be merely a passive one, relegated
only to the heart. If not (yet) a fact, it must be championed as a value.
It must motivate an active program so that all of life will move toward
realizing that "And the Lord shall be king over all the earth";
that the "World of Disintegration" will one day be replaced by
the "World of Unity" and reintegration. 3
In Lamm’s hands, unity becomes a goal to be pursued rather than a description
of current reality. The whole of being is not yet a unity, but there
is a religious and moral duty to come to see the world in this way. Integration
is not passive, but active.
Viewing invention in this way, it is hardly a make-it-up-as-you-please process;
rather, it becomes a core element of moral imagination. In Jewish business ethics,
Hillel’s innovative and integrative reading of Deuteronomy, against the backdrop
of what he perceived as a hard case in ethics, led him to invent his famous
prosbul, a legal document that effectively allowed lenders and borrowers
to circumvent the biblically mandated cancellation of the debt in the sabbatical
year, and to thus ensure the healthy growth of the economy. This is exactly
the kind of innovative thinking our community needs today to help resolve business
ethics dilemmas, but it is almost totally absent from contemporary discussions
of Jewish business ethics. The one notable exception is our community’s justifiable
pride in Aaron Feuerstein’s well-publicized decision to continue paying his
idle employees while a burned down factory was being rebuilt.
4. The Question of Interpreting
The behavioral scientist James March has astutely observed that sometimes decision
making is not about deciding what I, or we, should do today, but it is better
envisaged as rethinking the meaning of what we did yesterday:
Decision making shapes meanings even as it is shaped by them. A choice
process provides an occasion for developing and diffusing interpretations
of history and current conditions, as well as for mutual construction
of theories of life. It is an occasion for defining virtue and truth,
discovering or interpreting what is happening, what decision makers have
been doing, and what justifies their actions. It is an occasion for distributing
glory and blame for what has happened, and thus an occasion for exercising,
challenging, and reaffirming friendship and trust relationships, antagonisms,
and power and status relationships. Decision and decision making play
a major role in the development of the meaning and interpretations that
decisions are based upon. 4
The basic idea here is that from time to time, when faced with a hard case
in ethics, we can move forward only by first retracing our steps and reconsidering
the meaning of our past accomplishments and failures. In other words, there
may yet be new meaning embedded in the old language. From the perspective of
the fundamentalists, the question of interpretation is the most controversial
of all. In their view, meaning is something that is thrust upon us, once and
Great moral leaders, faced with hard cases, can’t afford such overly pious
beliefs. Great leaders challenge us to rethink the meaning of our lives and
communities. Here, one can cite Abraham Lincoln’s imaginative reference to the
"real" meaning of the phrase "all men are created equal"
at a time of political and moral crisis. His example, I think, demonstrates
the possibility of increasing moral capital--not by abandoning moral language
and making it up as you please, but by finding new and better meanings inside
old and well-accepted language.
This idea can be well illustrated in Jewish sources by rethinking one of the
most important stories in the Bible. Consider the famous biblical narrative
of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. This story, as related in Genesis 22, is
traditionally understood as an example of "blind obedience" to a divine
command. A careful reading of the biblical narrative, however, suggests an altogether
In verse 2, the text literally translated states that God commands Abraham
to "lift Isaac up as an offering." Abraham’s initial interpretation
of the Divine imperative is that God is asking for a human sacrifice and, as
Abraham begins his three day journey to the "mountain which I will tell
thee of," he is willing to obey. Abraham is predisposed to such an interpretation.
In the environment in which he grew up, child sacrifice was considered the ultimate
act of faith and piety. Had Abraham actually slaughtered Isaac, his contemporaries
would have considered him a great Canaanite religious leader. To Abraham, however,
this was not sufficient.
Through an act of moral imagination, Abraham burst upon the world stage for
posterity. With knife in hand, "Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked..."
And what did Abraham see? He saw "a ram caught in the thicket by his horns."
Abraham’s genius resided in the fact that he finally recognized that he could
fulfill the literal interpretation of God’s command and demonstrate his ultimate
devotion to God even as he replaced Isaac with a ram. The bible recounts, "and
he offered the ram up for a burnt offering instead of his son." In a sense,
this is the true climax of the story. When the angel speaks to Abraham and warns
him not to "harm the lad," it is not a new commandment--God doesn’t
change his mind--but it is the original commandment interpreted in a better
and more ethically sensitive way. In recognizing that a ram can symbolically
take the place of his son, Abraham demonstrates the power of creative interpretation
and the revolutionary implications of the path of moral imagination. Abraham
does not reject the commandment and become a superman; rather, he becomes a
better and more authentic Abraham and thus provides a model for all ethical
leaders who follow him. He solves a hard case in ethics. He avoids the temptations
of fundamentalism and sidesteps the trap of moral bankruptcy. Most importantly,
for present purposes, he increases the moral capital. Abraham understood that
his case was a hard case. In solving it, he transformed it into an easy case
for all his followers.
In this paper I am asserting that there exists a crisis in traditional Jewish
communities. In short, the kinds of problems our community faces today simply
didn’t exist in the past. The good news is that we can solve these problems.
But to do so, we must become more self-conscious about importing, choosing,
inventing, and interpreting. Those of us who see this need first must have the
courage to talk about it publicly, even at the risk of upsetting the fundamentalists.
To summarize the discussion: Great leaders use yesterday’s language to solve
tomorrow’s problems. How so? They distinguish between easy and hard cases. Easy
cases may require a reframing of a problem, but in reframing, one recognizes
that the seemingly new problem bears a striking resemblance to old problems.
Old problems can be resolved through old language.
If there truly is a new problem, ethical leaders have three options. One, they
can temporarily violate the integrity of their inherited language (this is always
a last resort). Two, they can avoid making a decision, even while they continue
to monitor the problem and search for a solution. Three, they can engage in
a process of moral imagination that will include importing, choosing, inventing,
or interpreting (or, of course, some combination). The long-run benefit of moral
imagination is the possibility for the growth of moral capital. Of the three
possible options outlined here it, moral imagination is the only necessary
option for solving hard cases in ethics. I suggest that all three of the examples
with which this paper began require Jewish leaders and all members of the community
to apply moral imagination in a judicious way.
My major conclusion for present purposes is that all of this is good news for
those of us involved in areas of applied ethics. There is an "ethics of
authenticity," as the philosopher Charles Taylor so aptly put it in his
slim but important book by that name. Taylor suggests that authenticity, correctly
- involves (i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality,
and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially
to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true that it (B) requires
(i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses
the background that can save it from insignificance), and (ii) self-definition
in dialogue. That these demands may be in tension has to be allowed. 5
Taylor’s description of an "ethics of authenticity" emphasizes the
human aspect in all of this. His is a prescription neither for moral miserliness
nor for moral bankruptcy. He recognizes our modern predicament and offers a
plausible way out. There are no final guarantees here, but authenticity at least
promises some hope. For those of us involved in Jewish ethics, or any religiously
grounded system of ethics, this paper is a suggestion to try it. At stake is
the truth to our claim of constituting a moral community.
Moses Pava is the Alvin Einbender Professor of Business Ethics at Yeshiva University.
His book, The Spirit of Covenantal Leadership, will be published in the
Fall 2002 by Palgrave.
1. M. Broyde and S. Resnicoff,
"The Corporate Veil and Halakhah" in Jewish Business Ethics: The Firm
and Its Stakeholders, ed. Aaron Levine and Moses Pava (Northvale: Jason Aronson,
1999), p. 272.
2. Even though fundamentalists deny the theoretical possibility of
invention, fundamentalists themselves often invent new meanings and concepts,
but without explicitly acknowledging their own roles in this process.
3. N. Lamm, Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism (Philadelphia
and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), p. 65.
4. James March, The Pursuit of Organizational Intelligence, (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p. 27.
5. Charles Taylor, Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1991), p. 66.