Approaching Conflicts
Contexts, Perspectives, and Values in Israel Education

A Good Heart:

How is Morality Defined?

Many of our curricular programs in the toolkit touch on the value of morality: what it means to be a moral person and the ways in which morality is defined. This text study can be successfully used on its own or as an addition to many of our programs, placing the Jewish values front and center in the issue debates.

Ancient and modern Jewish texts and thinkers offer numerous definitions for morality.
What does it mean to be a moral and ethical person?
How is morality defined in ancient and modern Jewish texts?

Program Description

The Greek philosopher, Plato wrote in the symposium, “Good people don’t need laws to tell them to act responsibly and bad people will find ways around those laws.” But most traditional religions take a different view, preferring to lay out a system of values and laws to keep people in line with a common set of goals and expectations. Traditionally, the way Judaism has viewed morality has been deeply connected to the Torah.

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) outlines 613 commandments, central among them are the Ten Commandments and other laws that create a framework for how to live a moral life. Since that time, rabbis have expanded and codified the laws of morality through Halacha (Jewish law).


Text #1. Rabbi Karelitz, Emunah u’Vitahon

Rabbi Karelitz (also known as the Chazon Ish) commented in his book Emunah u’Vitahon (Faith and Belief):

    …punctilious [diligent] observance of the law is the only path to the perfection of moral virtue.

According to Rabbi Karelitz, the only way to be a moral and ethical person would be to follow religious law.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you agree with Rabbi Karelitz? Why or why not?
  • Historically, to be a moral Jew, you needed to follow the commandments set out in the Bible. How relevant do you think that is to being a moral person today?
  • According to Plato, are the laws in the Bible necessary? Are there people who are innately good and innately bad?
The Bible and the rabbis examine what it means to be moral in a slightly different way.

The texts below highlight guidelines for leading a moral life:

Text #2. Leviticus 19:17:

    You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Questions to Consider:

  • How can this be seen as a moral imperative?
  • How can you show your love?


Text #3. Deuteronomy 15:11:

   For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.

Questions to Consider:

  • Why do you think you need to be commanded to help those in need?
  • What other good deeds do you think we should be commanded to do?
  • Do you think we should be commanded to do good deeds? 


Text #4. Micah 6:8:

God has shown you, O Man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

Questions to Consider:

  • How do the directives above represent a moral life?


Text #5. Isaiah 1:17:

    Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead  for the widow.

Activity: “Learn to do well”

The prophet Isaiah seems to have a clear vision of how to live a moral life. He offers up a five-point plan in this statement for how to live a moral life. Divide your class into small groups of two or three. Ask them to create their own five-point guide to living a moral life. What five ideas would stand the test of time and reflect living a moral life?


Keep your class divided up into smaller groups for partnered or chevruta learning. Have them read the next two texts and answer the questions with their partners. Bring the group back together and ask students to share some of their answers with the class.

Text #6. Ethics of the Fathers 2:13:

He (Yohanan ben Zakkai) said: 'Go and see what is the right way that a man should seek for himself.' Rabbi Eliezer said 'A good eye'. Rabbi Yehoshua said 'A good friend'. Rabbi Yossi said 'A good neighbor'. Rabbi Shimon said 'One who sees consequences.' Rabbi Elazar said 'A good heart'. He (Yohanan) said to them, I prefer the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach to yours, because his words include yours as well.'

Questions to Consider:

  • According to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, what can be found in a good heart?
  • Do you know someone with “a good heart”? What type of life do they lead?
In the texts below, both rabbis seem to approach the idea of morality as transcending Judaism. To be a moral Jew, it seems, is no longer only about following Jewish law, it is about taking responsibility for the world around you and acting morally in places where you see injustice or immorality.

Read Text #7 and #8 out loud.

Text #7. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference:

Morality belongs no less in the boardroom than in the bedroom, in the market-place as much as in a house of prayer.


Text #8. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his Telegram to President John F Kennedy:

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month's salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.



Text #9. Elie Weisel from a series of full page ads the AJC published in the New York Times called "What Being Jewish Means to Me," September 27, 1992:

I remember: as a child, on the other side of oceans and mountains, the Jew in me would anticipate Rosh HaShanah with fear and trembling. He still does.

On that Day of Awe, I believed then, nations and individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, are being judged by their common creator.

This is still my belief.

In spite of all that happened? Because of all that happened?

---to be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God…
A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.


Questions to Consider: 

  • Rabbi Sacks comments on places where morality belongs. Do you find that in some settings is it harder to be a moral person? Why?
  • Heschel calls for the declaration of a "moral emergency." What do you think constitutes a moral emergency? When would you declare a state of moral emergency?
  • What is Eli Weisel's image of God? Does it fit with the image that you have in mind?
  • Is there a difference between leading a life that is more Jewish or a life that is more moral?
  • What are the implications for morality in day to day life?
  • What are some of the key differences between the way morality is defined in the Bible and Rabbinic Literature and among modern thinkers? Why do you think these differences exist?
  • How should we act morally in times of struggle and conflict? Who do we direct our morality towards – people like you or people who aren’t like you?
  • Ask students to comment on a situation unfolding in the world today – either in Israel or any other country. How would they find the most moral approach to conflict?