The Fifth Vessel of Jewish Ethics: Between a Person and Her Devices

Developing an applied ethics to our behavior on the Internet is an urgent priority.

Jewish ethics is dynamic, often reinventing itself through the naming of a new arena of ethical concern. We have different ways of keeping track of these many Jewish values and sorting them out from one another. Rabbi Dr. Max Kadushin, for one, has written about the organic development within rabbinic thought of distinct notions of ethical obligations bein adam laMakom, “between a person and God,” and bein adam lehaveiro, “between a person and another human being.” This sorting of obligations becomes particularly active during the High Holy Days.[1]

The creative impulse to name a phenomenon is perhaps related to the relationship in Hebrew between shem as “name” and shem as “essence.” The more clearly we can name and delineate an ethical concern, the greater opportunity we have to penetrate its core meaning. Arguably, the more we have a named vessel, the less likely we are to lose the ethical import of these situations amid the complexity of our everyday lives.

I would suggest that this same dynamic impulse gives us five Jewish ethical vessels that we need— to mind, cultivate, and observe. (Genesis 2:25)

1. Bein adam laMakom/בין אדם למקום (between a person and God; “Biblical”)

2. Bein adam lehaveiro/אדם לחברו בין (between a person and another human being; “Rabbinic”)

3. Bein adam le’atzmo/בין אדם לעצמו (between a person and him/herself; “modern, Musar”)

4. Bein adam letevel umela’ah/בין אדם לתבל (between a person and the fullness of God’s creation)

5. Bein Adam lekelim asher beshimusho/בין אדם לכלים אשר בשמושו (between a person and her/his uses of tools and technology)

The first two of these vessels (laMakom and lehaveiro) are well-known from traditional sources. The third and fourth ones require more explanation. The third vessel (le’atzmo), between a person and him/herself, was first named (to my knowledge) by Dr. Zalman Ury, a scholar and educator working at the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education in the 1960s and 1970s.  Concerned about character education, Ury suggested that the Musar movement created an imperative dating back to its founder, Rabbi Israel Salanter, to pay attention to ethical commandments pertaining to self-care, spirituality and middot (character traits).[2]

The fourth vessel (letevel u’mela’ah), between a person and the fullness of God’s world, has always been present in Jewish life. Various midrashim emphasize our being partners with God in maintaining Creation. The current concern about climate change heightens this awareness and helps to make this fourth vessel explicit. It is an example of hora’at hasha’ah/the needs of our present moment amplifying an already existing aspect of Jewish ethics and giving it enhanced status.[3] For Maimonides this gave added authority for prophets to, as it were, create new ethical demands. Martin Buber in a variety of essays also calls this the prophetic impulse to pay attention to the demands of the “historical hour.”[4] Such attention also generates new ethical concerns that warrant new vessels.

This same attention to hora’at hasha’ah leads us to consider a fifth vessel, bein adam lekelim asher beshimusho/בין אדם לכלים אשר בשמושו between a person and her/his use of tools and technologies. So much of our life has become digital. The way we understand and utilize these tools and platforms (computers, smartphones, social-media platforms) may constitute one of the most significant challenges for Jewish ethics. 

What to Name This Fifth Jewish Ethical Vessel?

A value needs to be well-named in order to serve as a fitting vessel to receive and organize a set of ethical dilemmas. So what is the best name we can imagine for ethical dilemmas related to tools and technology? My own initial impulse is to call this category bein adam lekeilim asher beshimusho/בין אדם לכלים אשר בשמושו between a person and her/his uses of tools and technology. This choice of names draws from another transvaluation of the term keilim from simple tools to klei kodesh, instruments of holiness and the Divine will, our sancta/holy objects such as sifrei Torah, Torah scrolls. This process extended over several centuries, as discussed by Rabbi Aaron Panken.[5] This process of creative etymology takes a final turn in the 20th century, as people begin referring to rabbis and cantors as klei kodesh.

What if we thought of our instruments and tools of communication in the same way that we thought about other “instruments” of holiness in our lives? What if we thought of ourselves as creators of holiness with the technological tools we utilize? Might we achieve a balance between the six working days of the week, where we use technologies to create a Mishkan, a sanctuary for God, and the seventh day, when we desist from using those very same tools?

It turns out, however, that we have another Hebrew option: the term makhshirim. In contemporary Hebrew parlance, a makhshir is an appliance, but the fluidity of language usage allows it to occasionally be used more broadly to suggest “tools.” The term itself is rooted in halakhah and the process by which items become kasher, ritually fit. Creating kavanah (intentionality) around our use of technology might demand a similar degree of conscious attention and action.

Makhshirim might also mirror some of the deep thinking of Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT about technology. She believes that tools develop a psychic life of their own as they pass through our neuronal networks and become both personified and objectified. Our smartphone, for instance, becomes, particularly for teens, not just an extension of our hand, but our hand itself. The objectified substance of technologies (perhaps taking the form of psychic furniture) might be exactly the way we need to think about new technologies in order to understand the impact they have on our lives.[6]

The Ethical Content of This Vessel: Technology’s Deep and Constant Intersection with Jewish Life

An exploration of the nature of ethical dilemmas about technology in Jewish life is aided by two very useful articles appearing in the last several years. In their Evolve essay, “Harnessing Technology,” Rabbis Deborah Waxman and Nathan Kamesar create a values map through which we can see the interplay of any particular ethical dilemmas within a matrix of 13 core Jewish values. Dr. Brian Amkraut discusses broadly the role of technology within Jewish life.[7] Noting the constancy of both new technologies and disruptive innovation in each Jewish civilizational epoch, Amkraut also recognizes that contemporary explorations need to take into account three unique features of post-modernity: the accessibility of digital technology, the mutability of content, and the tilt of authority in directions that are radically democratic. I will add to their frameworks some of my own thinking about what is “old” and what is “radically new” in the dilemmas we face.

To my mind nothing captures the continuity of this exploration as well as the longstanding Jewish tradition of responsa literature (she’elot uteshuvot). In the 10th century, Rabbenu Gershom issued a ruling that letters are a protected form of communication. No one may open a letter of another individual without express permission. New technology shifts our focus, yet the ethical core of the dilemmas often remain. It is not surprising then to find this mid-20th-century responsum about the wide availability of telephone as a means of communication.

Someone writes to Rabbi Jonathan Steif:[8]

Question: Do you fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick, by calling the patient on the telephone.

Response: There is no doubt that calling a sick person on the telephone is considered visiting him. Rambam classifies the mitzvah of visiting the sick under the heading of “loving your neighbor.” This being the case, any favor you do for your friend, even if you do it by telephone, is a manifestation of “loving your neighbor.” Nevertheless, the essential mitzvah of visiting the sick should be done by personally going to see the patient. Seeing the patient’s suffering will stir your feelings more than merely talking to him on the telephone will. It will cause you to pray more fervently for him and you will see more clearly what his needs are.

Eighty years later, we live in an age of greater density of data and communication. What counts in 2021 as the most meaningful act of bikkur holim (visiting the sick)? Through email and texting, we can almost instantly wish a person well. What do we make of this? Is the value of “seeing” the face of the sick relative or friend fulfilled on a zoom version of bikkur holim? Will we on Zoom “see more clearly what his needs are?” Do large numbers of good wishes lessen their value? Would the “high bar” of a personal visit now be replaced by a “high bar” of a phone call? An email? A text?

Also in 2021, we enter a different world of love and romance. Whether embodied in Abraham searching for a wife for Isaac from his native Mesopotamia or Yenta looking to make matches in Anatevka in the movie The Fiddler on the Roof, Jews are concerned with ethnic, religious and cultural continuity. Like everything else, this search has been transformed by new digital innovations.

Now we can “swipe left” on the site Tinder. Swiping left is a way of instantly dismissing a person as a potential date/mate. So let us pose for Jewish investigation “Is it ethical to swipe left?” instantly dismissing a person as of no interest to us, based on a picture and the briefest of bios. By mutual consent of the people entering the site, no explanation is needed for the rejection. (The newer “J-swipe” site softens the edges of the dilemma presented below but still leaves us with a core ethical concern.)

Prior to looking at the gesture through the lenses of Jewish law and values, it is useful to imagine a spectrum of possible evaluative stances. The very positive (or at least benign) stance: This is nothing more than Yentl the matchmaker gone digital. People are always sorting and categorizing on the basis of physical attraction. This stripped-down version of other dating websites (like Jdate) simply declutters the fact that physical attraction motivates our dating behavior. As one millennial shared with me in an interview, “It cuts out the bullshit.” Particularly in an age of stress and extraordinary multitasking, we should appreciate the efficiency of Tinder. There is also a recognition here of the ultimate subjectivity of the digital matchmaker. A Hebrew saying asserts that on matters of taste and smell, there is no rational argument. It is all a matter of preference.

On the other end of the spectrum is a very negative evaluation. The very act of “swiping left” involves the rejection of individuals based on the most superficial characteristics. This, of course, raises the question of whether it matters if the person being rejected never knows of the rejection. It also raises the specter of a digital meat market where the most partial and physical aspects form the basis for judging an individual.

If we take as a given the Jewish values of betzelem elohim/people are made in God’s image and kavod habriyot/the dignity of each human drawn from Waxman and Kamesar values map, does swiping left undermine these values? What of the fine notion from Pirkei Avot/“Ethics of the Fathers” — a book of foundational wisdom of the Jewish people — that we should not judge a person by their surface but should rather discern the content of the person’s character.

A defender of Tinder might point out that it takes time and communication to get to the core character of a person. Further, not all relationships are of equal depth and intensity. Appearance and attraction may be a necessary first step. And lest we be accused of anachronistic puritanism, let’s remember that even if marriage is considered a societal prize for our relationship, commitment to life partnerships is often delayed in our day. Yet, sexual need and expression are not. Tinder is also about “hooking up,” finding satisfactory sexual partners.

Drawing from a different Jewish source, we might turn here to the work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He contrasts relationships that are deeply dialogical (I-Thou) with those that are instrumental (I-It). I-Thou relationships bring God and Godliness into our world of human relationships.  I-It relationships “thingify” other individuals. Does swiping left lead to viewing the larger circles of people we never encounter (or here, reject) as things? Buber actually finds it inevitable that we live a good deal of our life in the world of it, of things.[9] Is this an acceptable example of one of those occasions?

So far we have been pursuing our analysis from the perspective of the “swipee” and what it might mean to be objectivized, even willingly. It is valuable to flip the perspective and ask what is the impact on the “swiper” — what is the potential effect on his or her character of swiping left? Here it is useful to go deeper into our exploration of the third vessel of Jewish ethics.

One of these character traits is savlanut/patience.[10] How does swiping left affect our capacity to wait for the best things in life to slowly ripen and come our way in good time? There is arguably an impetuousness to the act of “swiping left” that creates the wrong message for us about how we get the things in life we most value. Similarly, rakhamim/compassion requires forming slow and generous judgments about fellow human beings. What is the impact (conscious or unconscious) of herding so many people so quickly into a corral of the unacceptable?

Other ethical dilemmas abound. As early as 2005, Rabbi Asher Meir, who named himself “The Jewish Ethicist” and established a center for business ethics, could include these questions in his volume of ethical challenges:[11]

Can I recommend my company’s name in a chat room? Should youngsters adopt fantasy “Cyber Selves” for online chat? Is it ethical to send blind copies of email? Can I trade songs over the net? What customer information can we collect and sell? Can I advertise my product through mass mailing?

Fifteen years later, answers to some of these questions already seem like “settled law” or at least replaced by widely held digital norms. By their very nature, some ethical dilemmas are resolved by the wisdom of practice. Yet, given our increasingly digitized lives, moral and spiritual dilemmas such as these will only continue to grow in the next decades. A digital space where ethically fraught issues can be weighed in the form of contemporary responsa seems to be necessary.

Last Word: The Importance of the Fifth Jewish Ethical Vessel

In the end, these emerging ethical sensitivities, which are necessary for leading an ethical digital life, are of great Jewish significance. Certainly, Google and other social-media giants will likely remain more interested in manipulating our algorithms to keep us constantly plugged in than in improving the content of our character. The value of perspective about our digital lives is critical.

It is useful here to connect two contemporary phenomena: the flourishing of Musar and other techniques of reflective centering and the overwhelming pace of technological change. The pace of such change is often numbing. To deal with its effect requires internal spiritual and ethical work on our part.

The following midrash about the purpose of a fence around Jewish law is illuminating and perhaps provides a fitting conclusion to this article. Often, a fence is thought of as a restrictive tool of those who wish to be makhmirim, more hardline in their interpretation of Jewish law. This midrash suggests that the primary function of a fence is actually that of bestowing perspective:

Enter not into the path of the wicked. Avoid it, pass not through it; turn from it and pass on (Proverbs 4:14-15). Rabbi Ashi said: The verse may be illustrated by the parable of a man who guards an orchard. If he guards it from without, the entire orchard is protected; but if he guards it from within, only the part in front of him is protected, while the part behind him is not protected.[12]

Adam Alter in Irresistible, a book that argues for viewing many digital behaviors as being clinically addictive, outlines the way the “cunning” of digital tools lies in the way in which they completely immerse our nervous systems.[13] Climbing out of the neural pathways we bathe in seems to be a contemporary enactment of the not being blindsided by partial views suggested in the midrash. The purpose of this ethical arena then may have already been foreshadowed by Marshall McLuhan when he famously observed, “First we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”[14] A conscious Jewish ethical will provides for the next stage, in which we can reshape the way our tools have shaped us.


1. Kadushin, Max, The Rabbinic Mind (Bloch, 1972)

2. Zalman Ury, In Their Footsteps (Torah Umesorah, 1966)

3. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, comments on Deuteronomy 18:15 and the need to heed prophetic warnings.

4. Buber, Martin, Between Man and Man (Bloch, 1985).

5. Rabbi Aaron Panken’s commencement address at Hebrew Union College graduation, June 2015.

6. Sherry Turkle, “Turkle: Ted Talk Alone Together,” 2013.

7. Brian Amkraut, “Scratches, Scrolls, Books, and Blogs: The Long History of Judaism’s Relationship with Information Technology,” in Jeffrey Schein, Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology (Hamilton Press, 2019), ch. 4.

8. Avraham Finkel, Responsa Anthology (Jason Aronson, 1990), p.167.

9.  Buber, Between Man and Man (Bloch, 1985).

10. See Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness (2007), p. 55.

11. Asher Meir, The Jewish Ethicist

12. Hayim Nahman Bialik and William Braude, The Book of Legends (Schocken, 1992), p. 464.

13. Adam Alter, Irresistible (Penguin Press, 2017).

14. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).


Four questions for dialogue about the article, “The Fifth Vessel of Jewish Ethics” by Jeffrey Schein

1. Which several of these vessels strike you as most important? In which one(s) do you spend most of your ethical energies?

2. An argument l’shem shamayim (“for the sake of heaven”) with a colleague: the colleague’s argument: the traditional two categories of bein adam laMakom (“between a person and God”) and bein adam lehaveiro (“between a person and another human being”) are all we really need. They are expansive and can cover every life situation. Do you agree with the colleague? Why or why not?

3. Is it possible that 50 years from now, people will look back and wonder how we could have imagined Judaism without these last three ethical vessels?

4. What do you think the CEOs of Microsoft (Bill Gates), Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg) and Twitter (Jack Dorsey) would make of this proposal to create a new category of Jewish ethics to deal with matters of technology?

Other Explorations of Jewish Ethics in Relationship to Technology

The website (a companion to the author’s 2019 book Text Me: Ancient Jewish Texts Meet Contemporary Technology) provides a number of resources to help tweens, teens and adults explore their relationship to technology:

The effects of technology on our inner spiritual lives (adults)

The blurring of the Divine and human in the digital age (adults and teens.)

Posting and Social Media: “To Post or Not to Post” (tweens and teens). For those familiar with the philosophical works of John Rawls, this might also be described as what it would mean to make every ethical decision about digital life with the intentionally imposed blinders of “the original position.” What would I want to be the case if I were the protagonist in the story?

The Ten Commandments of being a GJDGC (“good Jewish digital global citizen”) for teens and tweens.

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