Ethics, we all have them, although some may embrace them more strongly than others. But how do ethics mesh with individual concepts of religion? We asked our clergy to shed light on the two.
Rabbi Meir Mitelman, rabbinical educator, Hofstra Hillel and Hofstra University Jewish chaplain, Hempstead:
In Judaism, there is no difference between religion and ethics. Being an ethical person (relationship with other people) is as much an integral part of being religious as observing ritual commandments (relationship with God).
Unfortunately, the word religious is often associated only with ritual observances. For example, some people consider a person religious if he strictly observes the laws of keeping kosher, Shabbat and other ritual commandments, even if he is not honest, not kind to others and not charitable. On the other hand, someone can be a fine, respectful person, deeply caring about and being there for others, but would not be considered religious if she does not observe the ritual commandments. According to traditional Judaism, such judgments are antithetical to basic Jewish belief. Being religious means observing both the ritual laws and the ethical laws regarding relations between human beings.
At the beginning of Genesis, we learn that human beings are created in the (spiritual) image of God, meaning we all have inherent, infinite value. Since we all descend from Adam, and since God breathed the breath of life into Adam, we all have that Godliness in us and we are all equal. These ideas are foundations for the primacy of ethics in religion, and because each of us has the breath of God in us, we must treat every person with dignity and respect.
A poignant question as 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan recovers from a Taliban bullet to the head. Horrifyingly unethical as it is to us, this was clearly a religious act. Or at least, an act borne of religious ideology.
Religion is a complex and contradictory impulse which is shaped by the actual or perceived ordering of the cosmos, whereas ethics concern the ordering of human relations and actions. The latter is clearly part of the former, though religion, like the cosmos it attempts to understand, can seem indifferent to the details of individual suffering. The long history of sacrifice and scapegoating, of radical injustice in the context of religion attests to this.
Today, in the West, ethics tend to focus the suffering of the individual at the hands of the larger community, the weak at the hands of the strong. While religion has focused on this as well at times, it historically often favors the interests of the community at the expense of the individual.
So religion and ethics, while they overlap and are often aligned and intertwined, can also be wildly at odds. For example, one's ethics may say that a woman has a right to chose what happens to her body, her religion may say differently, showing how religion and ethics can contrast.
The Rev. Eric J. Rey, Hampton Bays Assembly of God:
Ethics can be situational. Religion is clear about right and wrong, and based on religious teachings. In the case of Christians, that is the teachings of the Old and New Testaments.
Ethics often are a part of religion. Yet, there are people who are not religious but who are ethical. Just as religion deals with right and wrong, ethics also deal with right and wrong. God put in all of us a conscience where we know right and wrong. Religion helps us to define our ethics.
Christianity deals with absolutes. Ethics may not always lead you to the right decision, from a religious point of view. As a Christian, we base our ethics on what the Scriptures teach us. We can look to Scripture for guidance.
I really don't think a religious person can separate their religion from their ethics. People who don't hold to religion also have ethics, but theirs may be more situational. From a Christian standpoint, one has to be very clear about right and wrong. For Christians, ethics are not situational.