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Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein Addresses the Conscience Plenary

Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein addressed the Conscience Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

I was asked to speak about what Judaism has to say about conscience. The central concept of traditional Judaism is that out of the covenant between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai flow the Jewish people’s obligation to observe a system of laws and commandments within a theological system that would become known as ethical monotheism, the belief in the one God who is called to Jewish people to righteousness, justice, and peace. 

But from the very beginning, there was an understanding that there was a moral sense and ethical imperative within each person that flowed within the legal system and transcended it. The sense of right or wrong predates the Sinai covenant, think of Cain and Avile, the evil of Noah’s generation, the evil of people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and continues throughout history. 

To paraphrase Milton Convince, the 20th-century influential constitutional law professor, the heart of conscience is not a voice that speaks out of human beings. It is a hearing agency given to them so that they may hear the voice of God. Or as the 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber observed, conscience is that court within the soul which concerns itself with the distinction between right and wrong and then proceeds against that which was determined as wrong.

Consciousness expresses itself in many ways in Jewish thought. I’m going to mention briefly for time only three. 1500 years ago the Talmud cites the biblical verse, “You should do what is straight and good in the eyes of God.” As a source for the importance of acting on a concept known as “Lifnim Mishurat Hadin,” acting beyond the limits of the law, the line of the law, but what is the source of our understanding of what is good and straight in the eyes of God. 

The medieval scholar Nachmanides explains, “The intention is to teach that while we must keep God’s laws, we must institute what is good and straight in the many areas that the law can’t address everything in life. It commands us always to do what is good and right.” And Rambam Maimonides, a famous medieval philosopher and legal authority, says that “Jewish legal scholars should always act on the basis of Lifnim Mishurat Hadin.”

Secondly, within Jewish thought, there was an idea that this is a universal norm, conscience. Jews do not have a lock on the path to salvation or heaven to God. Anyone who believes in the one God and is an ethical, moral person has the same path to heaven. One of the reasons we’ve never been a missionary faith. Other faiths can bring people to understand what we believe God calls us to do.

And later in history, at the time of the Orthodox philosopher in the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn in the non-Orthodox streams today, the belief simply that if you are an ethical person, you can be the righteous of the nations applies to everyone everywhere. And finally, a sense of conscience beyond law and commandments. The many times in the Bible and the post-biblical literature in which people engage in civil disobedience against the law or even in resisting God’s word or God’s law and rather being condemned by God, God commends it. Think of Abraham, challenging us into more or less God’s willingness to destroy the innocence of Sodom, or two examples involving courageous visionary women, one involving disobeying powerful human rulers, the midwives, Shifre and Pua, resisting the Egyptian Pharaoh’s command to engage in genocide against the Jewish people, and in the time of Moses later, the daughters of Zalafakad appealed to Moses at the law given by God, disenfranchising them when their father died solely on the basis that they were women was in unjust law. Moses consults God and God instructs Moses to change that law going forward. We live in a time where consciousness is needed more than ever at a moment in human history when human rights and democracy and religion and political freedom are under such sustained attack.

The moral call of the global religious community to stand for freedom and justice and peace is more compelling than ever. We are the first generation that produces enough food to feed every human being on Earth. A failure to do it now is a failure of moral vision and political will. We are the first generation that can conquer malaria in an array of diseases that have plagued humanity from time immemorial. A failure to do it now is a failure of moral vision and political will. We are the first generation that can educate every child on Earth, lift every person out of poverty, undo the damage to our environment if we act fast enough, spread freedom across the globe. 

For all of these, our failure to do so at this moment in history is a failure of moral vision and political will. But acting together not only can we be more effective than any of us can be alone but we are modeling the very world we are trying to create. And this above all, we are not the prisoners of the mistakes of a bitter and unremitting past. We can be, we must be, we will be, the shapers of a better and more hopeful future for all God’s children.

Let that be the blessing of this great gathering and truly may that be the blessing of your work in your lives going forward.

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