Joseph Telushkin is a spiritual leader and scholar, the author of 15 books including Jewish Literacy. He is convinced that one of the most important contributions Judaism can make to the world is its emphasis upon ethics as being of supreme importance for individuals, communities, and nations.
A Code of Jewish Ethics is the first book of a three-volume set. It covers Jewish laws and suggestions on "how to improve our character and become more honest, decent and just people." A tall order you say? Well Rabbi Telushkin has plenty of help from the Torah, the Prophets and the later books of the Bible; the Talmud and Midrash; the medieval codes of Jewish law; the teachings of the Mussar and Chasidic movements; and the writings of contemporary Jewish scholars. The ambitious author covers a lot of territory with chapters on judging others fairly, gratitude, repentance, forgiveness, humility, anger, envy, hatred, fair speech, leading a holy life, and much more.
Telushkin points out that Judaism has always been defined in ethical terms and that "loving our neighbor as ourselves" is the major principle of the Torah. In addition, the Prophets emphasize that being good to others takes precedence over rituals devoted to God. The Talmud states that compassion is the defining characteristic of being a Jew. The rabbis define heroism as controlling our selfish urges. How many children do you know who define heroism in this spiritual sense?
According to the Midrash, improving character is the goal of life. That is why it is good to take a hard look at whether we are growing in honesty, kindness, and compassion as we age. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe suggests that one way to start the process of improving ourselves is to keep a journal focusing on the area in which we wish to improve. For example, if we have a tendency to speak negatively about other people, we can practice not saying anything bad about anyone this week and look for things to praise in others.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is quoted on the common tendency to judge others quickly and without mercy: "We can use [this capacity] to distinguish between good and evil, but so often we misuse it by making judgments without knowing enough facts, or without the sympathy and the empathy that we ought to show other human beings." Telushkin recalls a time when he and his son had to go back to a hospital to retrieve a jacket: "It took us about a half-hour to return to the hospital, and several times I pointed out to my son how much time his carelessness had cost us. Finally, when we reached the hospital, and the nurse returned his coat, she also gave me back my watch, which, until that moment, I had not realized I had left. My son had hardly been the only one who was careless."
We liked the suggestion that people leave tips for the unseen individuals who clean hotel and motel rooms. Most people tip the bellhop who helps them with their bags but then leave nothing for the chambermaid. Telushkin concludes: "It is good for your character (and obviously good for the maid) to acknowledge the good someone has done you, even if you don't meet the person." Many other practices make it possible for us to demonstrate responsibility in this world based on the spiritual imperatives of love, compassion, humility, and gratitude.