‘I Will Sing of Love and Justice’: Jewish Responses to the Theological Roots of Contemporary Virtue Ethics

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Franks, Paul


This dissertation puts Jewish philosophy into conversation with contemporary ethical theory in order to develop a novel account of the relationship between moral rules and character development. I begin by showing that anti-Jewish rhetoric that criticized Judaism as overly concerned with rule-following has contributed significantly to the prevailing assumption that virtue ethics and deontology are two mutually exclusive ways to understand ethics. I then use Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, and the nineteenth-century Musar thinkers Israel Salanter and Simḥah Zissel Ziv as case studies to show that Jewish thought combines virtue ethics and deontology in ways that contemporary ethical theories have ignored. In the final chapter of the dissertation, I show that the assumed distinction between virtue ethical and deontological moral reasoning hampers moral discourse in the public sphere, especially surrounding issues of race and gender. Using examples including sexual assault and police violence, I show that when someone is accused of committing a moral wrong, they often respond by claiming that they are “a good person,” thereby shifting from a deontological to a virtue ethical mode of analysis. This prevents the actor from doing the moral work of becoming the kind of person who would not have committed the moral wrong. I then use my case studies in Jewish thought to address the moral evasion that these shifts from deontology to virtue ethics (and vice versa) allow.

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