Strengthening Ethics to Strengthen Community

Ethics are the cement of a community. As Isaiah advises, they must be learned, and, as educators, we must be intentional in the way that we teach them.

The same Isaiah warned us to be unambiguous in setting educational expectations when it comes to the moral life: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (1:17).

Some will argue that this is not a community problem but a plague afflicting certain individuals with a lot of press coverage. In my book Confronting Scandal, I argue that these are not merely isolated instances of crime but represent a fundamental shift in the way that we think about self, community, money and responsibility.

We live within a larger societal context that values the individual above the community, as demonstrated powerfully in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and, in a Jewish context, Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s The Jew Within. Our culture places great emphasis on consumerism, personal empowerment and self-esteem, trends that when manifest in the extreme often push aside the needs and wants of others by making ourselves a primal focus.

In his book On Character, James Wilson writes compellingly that “Modernity…involves replacing the ethic of self-control with that of self-expression.” Self-control is critical in tempering personal impulses in the presence of others; self-expression can sometimes come at the expense of others. In the past decade several books have been written about incivility but fewer about the associated ethical costs of self-oriented cultures that we are only now coming to terms with in the classroom.

The Community as Insurance Policy

For educators, imparting Jewish life to the next generation is not only or even primarily about teaching Jewish law and ritual. Most of that will be picked up mimetically or through books, websites and conversations. What we often mean but rarely articulate is that we hope our students will value what it means to live in community and to contribute as active and valued members. Many of us take the presence of community for granted until we are in situations where we acutely feel its absence. We know that it is virtually impossible to define community; one philosopher calls it an “essentially contested” concept because anything you can say about the nature of community can be debated. Another scholar of the philosophy of education believes that community is a label we give entities to mask the divisions within them. Articulating what a community is and what our responsibilities and benefits are is elusive; this is problematic if we believe that you cannot be Jewish alone.

We cannot assume that children will value living in Jewish society and around Jewish friends and neighbors simply because many of us do today. In fact, current research on the Jewish community suggests the opposite—that we are less particularistic than ever and have weakening ties to Jewish peoplehood. In other words, our commitment to living and strengthening Jewish communal life is on the decline.

From an ethical point of view this is deeply concerning if you consider one of the primary reasons to live within community is as an insurance policy for goodness. In Psalms and Pirkei Avot we are repeatedly told not to separate ourselves from community, to be thoughtful in our choice of neighbors and to distance ourselves from bad influences. In constructing community, we are advised to choose the company we keep carefully because those around us exert a moral influence, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we seek it or not.

Ethics are the cement of a community. As Isaiah advises, they must be learned, and, as educators, we must be intentional in the way that we teach them. If it is true that nothing breaks up communities more than internal ethical fissures, then perhaps nothing strengthens community and inspires membership more than a posture of goodness.

As a result of the level of scandal in America, in Israel and elsewhere, Jews are in the unenviable position of having to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that to be Jewish means to live a life of goodness inherent in the Torah and inherited from those who came before us. In response to public breeches of morality, we must go out of our way to stress the centrality of ethics in Jewish life.

So What Should We Teach?

In the nineteenth century, the Mussar movement, an influential educational trend to promote spiritual self-improvement, was largely a historical response to the over-intellectualization of Judaism. It tried to refocus its adherents on the challenges of being a good person. As educators looking for some practical guidance in the fight against immorality, dishonesty and criminality, we can look back at the Mussar movement to see how it promoted personal goodness as a way to strengthen community. Speaking of fights, one of the most famous texts of the Mussar movement from Rabbi Eiyahu Dessler puts us all on the moral battlefield and can prove instructive as a “lesson plan” for educators who are struggling to teach goodness in a time of relativism.

Rabbi Dessler was born in 1892 and grew up in a well-known rabbinic family. He founded the Gateshead Yeshiva in the north of England and in 1947 moved to Bnei Brak to learn and teach in Israel. One of his disciples, Aryeh Carmell, used notes of his lectures to form the basis of Strive for Truth.

Jewish educators should see themselves on the frontlines of the moral battlefield, strengthening the moral muscle of our students (and ourselves, of course) in order to strengthen our communities.

Rabbi Dessler’s observations on behirah, moral choice, were among the most notable contributions to the world of Jewish self-improvement, pitting self-control against self-expression. Rabbi Dessler compared our moral choices to life on a battlefield. He wrote, “When two armies are locked in battle, fighting takes place only at the battlefront.” Any territory behind the lines of either army is assumed to be in possession of that army. If one army pushes the other back, then that territory, too, becomes the assumed possession of that particular army. He compares the point where the troops meet to choices that individuals make: “Everyone has free choice—at the point where truth meets falsehood. In other words, behirah takes place at the point where the truth as the person sees it confronts the illusion created in him by the act of falsehood.”

Most decisions we make, Rabbi Dessler argues, are not a struggle for us. For example, a person raised within a framework of strict Sabbath observance will usually not think twice about whether or not to travel in a car on Shabbat. There is no struggle for that individual; therefore, the behirah point is not activated. Our habitual behaviors take over. Rabbi Dessler believes that “any behavior a person adopts as a result of training or by copying others is not counted as his own.” Real choices, however, are not automatic.

The moral battlefield is one that we create and one that we largely control. We do not control what we are up against, only how we respond to it. When we battle the forces against us and make good choices, we can get to the point that Rabbi Dessler calls compulsion. We have integrated good decision making to the point where we feel utterly compelled to make the right ethical decision; it would not occur to us to make a poor one. In essence, we have changed the battlefield.

When it comes to education, we are trying to teach people to get beyond the freedom that every choice—both good and bad—is equal to a place of compulsion to do good instinctively, automatically and naturally. Imagine a recovering alcoholic in front of a drink. Everyday, he battles with his drinking problem. Every time he sees a beer or a glass of wine, the battle wages within him. He makes a decision: “I no longer want to be this person.” After extensive personal work with a support group and rehabilitation, he gives up drinking for years. Even in front of alcohol, this individual no longer faces the same battlefield because he or she has integrated more healthful habits and understands the painful consequences of his past behavior. He knows intellectually that he once had a drinking problem, but he has become such a different person that he no longer emotionally sees himself as someone fighting that temptation. Rabbi Dessler calls this level of spiritual achievement “higher unfreedom.”

Compulsion is an active force, a decision, even if it is a decision for good. At a certain point of commitment, individuals do good simply for the sake of goodness; there is no compulsion at all. Doing right is simply natural. “Compulsion only applies where there is resistance. One cannot speak of compulsion to do something one loves.”

As educators, we want to help people understand their own personal behirah points, where they stand on the battlefield and what the forces are that press upon them in their own moral decision-making. It may be helpful to visualize this with students by asking them to draw a battlefield and actually place toy soldiers on it. Label the soldiers on opposing sides with tags where students identify the battles they are personally fighting. What will help each student move the lines of battle and feel the force of their own control in ethically demanding situations?

The more that doing good becomes instinctive, the more able we are to move the lines on the battlefield so that we possess more moral territory. When we can habitually conquer desire and selfishness through active choice, compulsion turns into freedom. Freedom turns into love. At that point, the individual has achieved Rabbi Dessler’s goal: “The man of the spirit is the truly liberated man.”

Jewish educators should see themselves on the frontlines of the moral battlefield, strengthening the moral muscle of our students (and ourselves, of course) in order to strengthen our communities. Every time we make a decision, it has consequences for ourselves and others. Helping our students make better, more ethical decisions and with greater ease of moral certainty will turn them into better, more civil, more honest and more thoughtful human beings. Those are the kind of individuals who create inspiring and morally strong, sacred communities. ♦

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who serves as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency. Her most recent book is Confronting Scandal. She can be reached at

Erica Brown
Strengthening Community
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership, Teaching and Learning
Published: Fall 2010