Please answer a question from an artist in Denmark whether there is such a thing as "typical" Jewish catchwords pertaining to ethical values in the Jewish tradition.
An artist wishes to use the Hebrew words or acronyms for a memorial for Danish Jews who perished during WW2.
You are trying to do a beautiful thing, and I am confident that you wish to do it sensitively, and profoundly. In that spirit, let me explain what I see as key components of the task you have assumed, and what might be necessary to properly answer your question.
The creation of memorial art is often a sacred trust. Fulfilling that trust requires the artist, as best he or she can, to see the memorialized both as they saw themselves and as the artist wishes others to see them. Seeing the memorialized as they saw themselves requires commitment to understanding of the truths, beauties, complexities, and ambivalences of their cultural contexts, and of their own relationships to those contexts. Reducing Judaism to catchwords for ethical values may ultimately be a necessity of the form, but that reduction must be the end product of intense study and reflection rather than a substitute for them.
As a downpayment toward that study, I will say the following: One conception of Jewish ethics that I find compelling begins with the Biblical phrase tzelem Elokim (Genesis 1:27 and 9:6). One translation of that phrase (please note that the translation is greatly disputed, and not all Jewish commentators agree even that the two words are part of the same phrase) is “mold of G-d” (not image, which is more likely a translation of the Hebrew demut from Genesis 5:1). One Jewish tradition teaches that this refers to the irreducible uniqueness and unity of each individual human being, and a possible understanding of that tradition is that this uniqueness is absolute – it is not that each human being has something about them that is unique, but rather that everything about each and every human being is unique because it cannot be separated from their whole being.
And yet (here the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, especially his “Lonely Man of Faith” are invaluable) human beings are capable of forming communities, which are built on commonalities. This paradox is at the core of Jewish ethics, which recognizes that ethical obligations are grounded both in commonality and in difference (here the works of Emmanuel Levinas, and/or perhaps Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference, are essential). This dual grounding is a Jewish solution to the problem of how ethical obligations can be universal and yet affected by relationship.
Perhaps it also offers a guide to how one can memorialize a population that was murdered because it was different, when the impetus for memorialization is almost certainly grounded in a recognition of sameness.
The Jewish sage Hillel once responded to the challenge of reducing Judaism to one principle by saying “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others; the rest is commentary; go learn!” Hillel used reduction to generate a pedagogic process rather than an artistic product. My hope is that my own words here can generate such a process, in which case I would look forward with great anticipation to the product.
Please answer a question from an artist in Denmark whether there is such a thing as "typical" Jewish catchwords pertaining to ethical values in the Jewish tradition. An artist wishes to use the Hebrew words or acronyms for a memorial for Danish Jews who perished during WW2.
My Orthodox college gave a wonderful answer so I will simply add some terms to consider that have meaning pertaining to ethical values in the Jewish tradition: Musar, Midot, and Aarachim are all words in the Jewish tradition that pertain to values with different etymologies and different connotations. Etikah (ethics), is a word in modern Hebrew. Pirkei Avot is a seminal Jewish work from the 3rd century containing material dating back the pervious several hundred years that contains statements of Jewish values and is often loosely translated as “The Ethics of our Ancestors (or Fathers)”.
I hope this helps and I wish you blessings in completing such an important project.
A number of Jewish "catchwords" come to mind related to the Jewish ethical tradition. Here are a few thoughts:
• tikkun olam, literally "repairing the world", comes out of a mystical belief that we each have a divine spark to reunite with the source of all light. In recent decades this term has come to be synonymous with doing community service and advocacy to create a more just and peaceful world.
• tzedakah, often translated as "charity," actually means "righteousness." This speaks to the Jewish belief that giving is an obligation that we do for the common good and for those in need.
• tzedek tzedek tirdof from Deuteronomy 16:20 means, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." It has come to be a watchword of the Jewish commitment to fighting injustice. One interpretation of why "justice" is repeated is that it teaches us that, even in the pursuit of justice, we must act justly.
• v'ahavta l're'acha kamocha, "love your neighbor as yourself," is found in Leviticus 19:18 among other places in the Bible. It is also the punchline of the famous story of 1st century Rabbi Hillel who was confronted by a cynical person who told him to explain all of Torah while standing on one foot. "Love your neighbor as yourself," he said. "The rest is commentary -- go and learn it."
• in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hillel made the famous statement: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"
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