Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the Jewish Sages?

Do you need to be religious for the Sages’ ethical values and guidelines to help you?

Is the wisdom of the Jewish Sages different from other wisdom traditions?

 

Who were the Jewish Sages?

After losing political power to Rome (~60 BCE), leading thinkers in ancient Judea focused on how to create and sustain strong personal and communal relationships, so that Jewish community could survive with its culture and religion intact. The early Jewish Sages, (called Tannaim ‘teachers,’ to 220 CE), developed guidelines for living to foster strong relationships and strong communities. The Sages developed deep insight into what human relations can be at their best, and how to create such relationships. It is a spiritually uplifting experience when we partake of their vision, and it can guide us to building and sustaining a fulfilling life.

 

Do you need to be religious for the Sages’ ethical values and guidelines to help you?

One can be committed to living the Sages’ ethical values and guidelines, and benefit from them, without having any religious faith. However, religious faith is synergistic with the Sages’ values; faith helps motivate you to live according to the values, and the values in turn help sustain religious feelings. Ethical values transcend me, now, as they call upon you to consider others and the future consequences of your actions. When you feel that you are part of something greater than yourself, and have obligations to the greater, it inspires action and can give moral courage. And, in turn, living the Sage’s ethical values develops trust in your relationships, which allows you to live in the moment, fully experiencing the sacredness of loving relationships. This experience of the sacred enhances the value you put on religious faith. Note that this synergistic effect does not depend on believing in the traditionalist concept of God as intervening to reward and punish. The feeling that we are part of, or in relationship with the One, and responsible for more than ourselves, is spiritual motivation to ethical conduct. 

 

Is the wisdom of the Jewish Sages different from other wisdom traditions?

Though the different ancient wisdom traditions have a lot of overlap, they also have significant differences. Two distinctive features of the wisdom of the Sages of the Talmud are foundational for this web site.  First, Jewish wisdom does not take the happiness of the individual to be the foundation of moral values, like Greek philosophy. Nor does it take the welfare of the group—family, clan, country—as the foundation, like Confucianism. Nor does it identify good action with self-sacrifice, either to other individuals or to the group, like some versions of Christianity. Rather, it looks to the balance and harmony between the interests of self and other, the individual and society as the goal. Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” This legitimates the pursuit of your own interest. But he immediately added, “Being for myself, what am I?” That is, what are my obligations to others in my roles, such as within the family, at work, and as a citizen? Finding this balance is a task that each of us has to take on creatively in our own lives. The need for our creativity in our lives is why Hillel puts these as questions. Further, finding the social laws and institutions that will best facilitate the balance is an evolving effort, in which each generation can improve on the last. That is why the sages record minority opinions, so debates can be taken up in a new generation, and deeper solutions found. Here, at Mentsh.com, we take up the debate for our time, primarily on the guidelines for us as individuals in our relationships.