Let My People Know

"Jewish morality contains absolute values of good and evil"

In August of 1996 Rabbi Steinsaltz delivered a lecture in Shanghai to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It was part of an unprecidented visit and series of lectures by Rabbi Steinsaltz at the invitation of the Chinese government.

Here is a excerpt from Rabbi Steinsaltz’s discourse on Pirke Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers, comparing Chinese and Jewish cultures:

Rabbi Steinsaltz said:

One major philosophical and cultural difference (between Chinese and Jewish cultures) is in the relationship between morality and religion.

In Chinese culture, there is an almost absolute separation between these two spheres, since religion — namely, the relationship between man and God — is basically ritual, and has little to do with the world outside of the Temple.

Whereas in Jewish culture, the opposite is true: morality is based upon religion, and man-and-God and man-and-man relationships are not seen as two separate spheres, but rather as two aspects of the same whole.

This difference is not only philosophical, but has also great bearing upon the development of morality and of the culture as a whole.

In Chinese culture, morality is basically a social and inter-personal relationship that has social and political meaning, but does not have a relationship with objective, abstract and absolute values.

In other words, this morality is relativistic, seeing good and evil not as absolute values, but rather as definitions of what is socially and socially politically right or wrong.

In sharp contrast to that, Jewish morality contains, from its very first beginning, absolute values of good and evil.

Chinese culture had one major encounter with a different cultural system that had an absolute value system, though it had no God, and that is Buddhism. (I am speaking now about the theoretical encounter with Buddhism, and not about what happened to Buddhism when it became a Lamaistic religion, or a Dao-Buddhist popular religion.)

In Buddhism you have this notion that certain things are bad, regardless of social context, and if one does them, it changes one’s karma, causes one to have a lower incarnation, and vice versa.

And as the respective cultures develop, this point, in itself, creates a sequence of cultural and philosophical differences.

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From “Pirkei Avot and Chinese Culture: A Comparative Survey Lecture” delivered at the Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai, August 29, 1996