Varda Books

 View book pages:
 Buy this book:

Ethics of Responsibility: Pluralistic Approaches to Conventional Ethics

by Walter S Wurzburger

Bibliographic information

TitleEthics of Responsibility: Pluralistic Approaches to Conventional Ethics
AuthorWalter S Wurzburger
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


In Ethics of Responsibility, Walter Wurzburger develops a convincing statement for the role of the human conscience in determining right and wrong, good and evil. Building upon the writing of many traditional Jewish thinkers who contend that only halakhic norms dictate matters of ethics and morality, Wurzburger believes that the cultivation of an ethical personality is religious imperative. He suggests, for instance, that ecological considerations by taken into account when making ethical judgments.

Further, Wurzburger maintains that halakhah serves as the matrix of a distinct ethical approach. Although his commitment to a theocentric ethics leads him to reject the position of liberal Jewish thinkers who rely on the human conscience as an autonomous authority, he does assign to the dictates of conscience a vital role in religious life. Ethical beliefs not only influence the halakhic process, he asserts, but in areas where specific halakhic rules are not available, such beliefs are our exclusive source of guidance as to what is demanded by God, whose ethical properties we are to imitate.

Ethics of Responsibility bridges the gap between liberal Jewish philosophy and modern Orthodoxy. It is thoughtful reading for both the Jewish and non-Jewish scholar, teacher, and for all readers interested in the study of ethics and morality.

About the Author 

Walter S Wurzburger ---

Walter S. Wurzburger is adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University and Rabbi of Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Lawrence, New York. He received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University. He is a former editor of Tradition and a contributing editor of Sh’ma.


Preface and Acknowledgments



Foundations of Jewish Covenantal Ethics


Ethical Intuitions


General Welfare and Morality


Pleasure and Goodness


Act-Morality and Agent-Morality


Moral Dilemmas





Index of Names

Index of Subjects


Both Jewish and non-Jewish religious writings abound with attempts at theodicies, purporting to show why various particular evils were necessary for the world to contain maximum goodness. In the wake of the Holocaust, theologians were challenged to explain how such horrendous tragedies could be reconciled with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God. Discussion of this issue is beyond the limited scope of this book. Suffice it to state that it makes perfect sense to argue that from a divine perspective all evil must be necessary, even if, from our limited understanding, we cannot fathom the reason for its necessity. Rabbi Soloveitchik has argued that instead of engaging in a futile search for metaphysical explanations of evil, we should respond to suffering as a challenge to convert it into a source of some good that otherwise would not have been obtained.

The belief that suffering may be necessary to realize the greatest possible good by no means justifies apathy to avoidable suffering. We must not lose sight of the fact that, however beneficial the ensuing consequences, intrinsically, any form of suffering is an evil. For example, sickness may arouse us from our spiritual slumbers and induce contrition, repentance, and spiritual regeneration. We are, nonetheless, mandated to heal the sick and alleviate their pain. As a matter of fact, Jewish law waives many requirements and lifts many restrictions in situations where compliance with Rabbinic ordinances would cause considerable pain or excessive discomfort.

Because of its aversion to unnecessary suffering, the Jewish tradition frowns upon excessive self-denial and self-mortification. Asceticism has been encouraged only to the extent that it serves as a means to attain higher spiritual values. Representative of the highly ambivalent attitude displayed toward asceticism as a spiritual discipline are the sharp differences of opinion as to whether Nazarites who voluntarily deprive themselves of legitimate pleasures should be regarded as saints or sinners. But it is apparent that even those who recommend asceticism as a religious ideal do so only because they deem it useful as a means to attain piety, not because they grant suffering the status of an intrinsic value or of an end in itself.

Similarly, unlike some other religions, Judaism does not look upon poverty as a badge of merit but as a challenge to overcome it. The solicitude that the Torah and the rest of Scriptures express for the weak, the poor, and the disadvantaged reflects not their superior status but rather God’s profound concern for their suffering. Since God cares so much for their plight, human beings have a special responsibility to ameliorate it.

Despite the fact that the Bible and Rabbinic literature time and again warn against the hazards of affluence and extol the spiritual benefits that may accrue from poverty, we are obligated to help the indigent and, for that matter, to refrain from practices that result in our own pauperization. In the words of Maimonides:

A person should never give all his property to the sanctuary. He who engages in this practice transgresses the intent of Scripture. . . . This is not piety but folly because he loses all property and he will have to depend upon others. . . . It is with regard to him and similar other cases that the Rabbis stated that pious fools destroy the world.

Judaism looks upon wealth and power as blessings that must be handled with care lest they wreak havoc with our spiritual well-being. But it does not subscribe to the Calvinistic doctrine that material success is an index of spiritual worth. Equally unacceptable is the Lutheran conception that as stewards of God’s blessings, human beings have a religious obligation to augment them as much as possible. On the contrary, excessive preoccupation with material success is regarded as a serious impediment to the study of Torah, which, in the Jewish hierarchy of values, ranks above contributions to the enhancement of the material welfare of society. “To make possible the concentration upon the study of the Torah, the ideal religious personality . . . is urged to forego, if necessary, the satisfaction of many legitimate needs.”

The recommendation to suffer deprivation for the sake of spiritual gains, however, does not indicate a negative attitude toward material well-being as such. It is simply a case of sacrificing a lower value for the sake of a higher value, for spiritual satisfactions rank higher than material satisfactions. Far from being a spiritual handicap, material well-being may even be a boon to spiritual growth. This becomes evident from the fact, according to a talmudic opinion, that affluence is a necessary qualification for prophecy.

Notwithstanding the Midrash’s assertion that the spiritual gains of the donor outweigh the benefits derived by the recipient, the main goal of charity is not the improvement of the spiritual well-being of the donor, but the reduction of the suffering of the recipient. This approach differs from that of some Christian sects. Because of their other-worldly orientation, they are basically indifferent to deprivation or want. To them, alms-giving primarily is a religious exercise yielding spiritual benefits to the donor—not an activity designed to alleviate the plight of the needy.


This very thoughtful book attempts to correct certain misconceptions about ethics in the Jewish tradition. The author writes from the orthodox perspective, which views Jewish law (Halakhah) and scriptures as the will of God. Heinsists that ethics is central to Jewish piety and that there is a distinctive Jewish ethics he calls 'covenantal ethics.' . . . Not just acts but character and disposition also play an important role in making moral judgments. Ethical conflicts cannot be resolved easily, but the author is firmly committed to an objective concept of right and wrong. This work is not easy, but the careful reader will be amply rewarded.

- M. Scult, Choice

A professor of ethics and an Orthodox rabbi, Wurzburger evaluates the relationship between human ethics and divine law. He explores the pluralistic ethics of Judaism and discusses the resolution of apparent conflicts through casuistry or the recognition of context and the application of ethical intuition. Wurzburger's chapter on moral dilemmas explores some of the most common areas where casuistry is needed to resolve conflicts of values, such as sanctity of life issues, environmental issues, allocation of healthcare, and the withholding of information. Recommended for academic and seminary libraries.

- Library Journal

Walter Wurzburger’s Ethics of Responsibility is a major contribution to the literature of Jewish ethics, on that bears the imprint of his eminent teacher, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Wurzburger’s “conventional ethics” is based on Halakhah and essentially theonomous yet leaves room for specifically Jewish intuitive moral judgments. This is a challenging and fulfilling volume.

- Dr. Norman Lamm, President, Yeshiva University

Sensitive and erudite, challenging and perceptive, Ethics of Responsibility is a natural outgrowth of Walter Wurzburger’s dual career as a prominent pulpit rabbi and a distinguished academic. … Wurzburger infuses the real world with the insights of his keen intellect and presents us with an original, thought-provoking meditation. …

- Dr. Emanuel Feldman, Editor, Tradition Quarterly

 Already viewed books:
Ethics of Responsibility: Pluralistic Approaches to Conventional EthicsEthics of Responsibility: Pluralistic Approaches to Conventional Ethics