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Volume 9, No.1 Fall1990 TEACHING JEWISH ETHICSVANDERBILT UNIVERSITY Peter 1. Haas Peter J. Haas is a professor at Vanderbilt University. The author of a number of significant studies on responsa literature, he has recently written Morality AfterAuschwitz: The Radical Challenge ofthe Nazi Ethic. Dr. Haas is editor of the Newsletter of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association. 71 A governing assumption in designing the following course on Jewish ethics at Vanderbilt University was that part of what I had to teach lay in the medium. That is, from the outset I felt that a course in Jewish ethics must do more than give the students information about this or that Jewish position on selected topics. It must also introduce the student to the underlying structure of Jewish ethical and halakhic thought. It needed, I felt, to expose the students along the way to the process by which Jewish ethical and halakhic decisions were reached. To achieve this goal, I had to decide on a model of Jewish ethical thinking. My choice, almost immediately, was the responsa literature. This literature has a number of heuristic advantages for my purposes. First of all, the responsa literature is a characteristic, I am tempted to say the paradigmatic, form of rabbinic normative discourse. In my view, both the philosophical ethics of Maimonides, Buber, and others on the one hand and the pietistic literature-such as Musar-on the other represent marginal forms of Judaism. This is not to say that philosophical or pietistic ethical speculations are inauthentic or of no importance. But it seems to me that the world-constructing myth of post-70 Judaism is captured and exploited most completely in the rabbinic rhetoric of the responsa. In fact, I felt that in many ways both philosophical ethics and pietistic ethics should be understood in Judaism as reactions to the mainstream rabbinic concern with halakhah, and so the halakhic system had to be taught first for these other streams of Jewish ethical rhetoric to be understood in context. This was my 72 SHOFAR first reason for deciding on responsa as my governing paradigm for the course. The second reason had to do with the mechanics of teaching. It would be difficult, to say the least, to have students duplicate philosophical or pietistic ethics. I would be forced back to teaching substance to essentially passive students. But the writing of responsa is another matter. At least on some level, I could give them a firsthand experience of what it is like to write a responsum, to start with the chaos of a morally difficult situation and emerge with a Jewishly justifiable sense of what ought best to be done. To make this work, I would have to give the class a basic understanding of the issues implicit in a moral problem and provide them with basic texts and precedents. I recognized that I would not produce a Waldenberg or a Feinstein, but I could make the students confront the issues as a rabbi might, find guidance and warrant in the literature, and piece together an answer that was Jewishly coherent. Once this was decided, I needed to form a strategy for giving the course coherence and progression. Consequently, I decided to organize the material around one major theme. The course could approach the theme simplistically at first, conveying the gross parameters of the rabbinic understanding. Once this foundation was laid, we could move on to more subtle points and ancillary considerations. Hopefully by the end of the semester I could make the students aware of all the contrasting views and myriad considerations out of which realposldm have to create real responsa. My central theme, I decided, would be the ending of human life. This topic has the dual advantage of on the one hand leading into the center of the rabbinic myth, and on the other of embracing burning modern concerns such as abortion and euthanasia. As the course took shape, a rather logical progression of subtopics presented itself. I begin, as the syllabus shows, with the question of abortion. This being the very beginning of life seemed like a logical starting point. The discussion of abortion brings up the question of what type...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 71-77
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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