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  • Is the Concept of Conscience Found in Judaism?1
  • Gilbert S. Rosenthal (bio)


Is the concept of conscience found in Judaism? If so, what are its parameters and implications in Jewish law and ethics? This is, in my view, an important and timely issue—one that has really been given short shrift by scholars of Judaism. There are those who claim that conscience is irrelevant because all that matters is what the Torah requires and what halakhah—Jewish law—demands of Jews. But there are others who insist that the ideal and goal of Jewish law is to nurture and develop in humans a sense of conscience. Some scholars maintain that in Judaism, all ethics and laws are theonomous—divinely inspired and ordained. And since conscience is an autonomous source of behavior, it is irrelevant. Others insist that heteronymous ethics, defined and legislated by society, are what matter—not autonomous ethics that are so personal and subjective.2 In this study, I propose to examine the sources that seem to prefigure the notion of conscience in the Bible, rabbinic literature, and medieval Jewish writings, and I shall endeavor to draw from the sources meaningful lessons relevant to a modern understanding of the role of conscience in Jewish individual and group behavior.

What Is Conscience?

I should start by defining conscience and citing several important and instructive scholarly reflections on this concept. The word comes from the [End Page 3] two Latin words that mean “knowing with.” Conscience is the authentic awareness of the self that makes decisions with regard to values. Its chief concerns are good and evil. It represents the totality of the human’s cognitive and judging faculties. It is generally thought of in a negative sense: it is the faculty that reminds us, by stimulating feelings of guilt and shame, that we are doing wrong. The troubled heart is a sign of conscience. Paul seems to have used the Greek term syneidesis to denote conscience.3 In the thirteenth century, Aquinas thought of conscience as “that which witnesses or binds, incites and also accuses, stings, or rebukes,” and he argued that “it must bind even in error and have all authority.”4 Sigmund Freud suggested that conscience is the product of what he called the superego. He defined conscience as that which gives our impulses “direction towards what is right,”5 further writing that “conscience is that internal perception of the rejection of a particular wish operating within us.” He connected it to the savage’s attitude to taboo and a “fearful sense of guilt.” It is “the higher side of human life; it incarnates ideals, moral decencies, as well as spiritual currents we’ve absorbed into ourselves,” and it both judges and directs humans.6 Lawrence Kohlberg suggested that conscience stands at the final stage of moral development; what is right is defined by the decisions of conscience: “At heart, these are the universal principles of justice, regarding reciprocity and equality of human rights and respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.”7 Erik Erikson wrote that conscience is the development from a child’s reaction to an adult’s autonomous values of reality and ideals and what selection to make of authoritative statements. That, he suggested, is autonomy in the moral decision-making process.8 Milton Konvitz argued that “each man has a heart, but each man is not a law unto himself.” He wrote, “The heart of conscience is not a voice that speaks out of man; it is a hearing agency given to man so that he may hear the voice of God.” He defines two aspects of conscience: the judicial aspect, which passes judgment on acts committed; and the directive aspect, which guides the person before the action has taken place. Konvitz adds that it is the role of legislation to nurture conscience, and the genius of Judaism was to translate conscience into legal principles.9 Martin Buber described conscience in these words: “Conscience is that court within the soul which concerns itself with a distinction between the right and the wrong, and proceeds against that which has been determined as wrong.”10 Abraham [End Page 4] Joshua...


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