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What is the Right Path?

In every profession, questions arise regarding professional ethics. It’s worth taking a moment to consider when they do so.

Ethical dilemmas arise when value systems clash. They are not a choice between good and bad, but between two different goods. For a person committed only to one system of values, there is no clash, and thus no ethical dilemma. Such people might have pragmatic questions—legal questions, or questions of book-keeping or of public relations. They might even have questions about how to appear committed to a system to which they are not really committed, or of how to adapt to the demands of such a system. But these are not questions of ethics.

Jews who lived in Christian Europe prior to modernity had no ethical dilemma, for example, about charging their gentile neighbors interest or about avoiding the military draft. These actions were permissible by halakha (Jewish law). The only question that concerned the rabbis at that time was whether there might be pragmatic reasons not to do them, such as to avoiding tensions with their gentile neighbors or with the authorities.

With characteristic pithiness, Rabbi Judah the Prince conveys all of this in a single question in Ethics of the Fathers (2:1): “What is the right path that a man should choose?” Rabbi Judah's question presumes that there is more than one path. The question he asks is: How shall we choose the straightest among them?

Unlike the American poet Robert Frost, in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” and unlike many Jews in the modern age, the leaders working today to address the challenges of Haredi life in contemporary Israel do not automatically choose the new path just because it is new. At the same time, and unlike Haredi leaders in other places and at other times, they do not automatically choose the old and familiar path just because it is old and familiar. Instead, they pause at the crossroads, and ask themselves: What is the right path?

Take note: They do not ask what is the easiest path, or the most attractive path, or the safest path, or the most accepted path. They ask: What is the right path—even if it be more difficult or more dangerous.

May this path bring, in the words of Rabbi Judah the Prince, “honor to those who take it.

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