Ethical Wills in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Research -- Sightings

With Sightings back in business this week, I'm again being introduced to new concepts and ideas. I've never heard of ethical wills, but apparently this is an ancient practice that could provide important information about cultures and religions -- especially their ethical understandings. Joshua M. Z. Stanton a Rabbinic student and Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue offers us some insights as to how such a document might be of use in inter-religious conversation. I welcome your thoughts.

Sightings 9/17/09

Ethical Wills in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Research
-- Joshua M. Z. Stanton

“Have you ever had a life-altering experience or an experience that changed your life?” I was stuck on question eight and still had fourteen to go. Seated across from me was a junior at Wellesley College, with a friendly gaze and a tone indicative of her interest. She was my partner at a training session for Lessons of a Lifetime™, an intergenerational program at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. How should I respond? Was the center point of my life when my brother taught me to read? My first trip to Jerusalem? Though I was only a college student at the time, I was recording my ethical will and wanted every answer to count.

Unlike their legal counterparts, ethical wills are documents that contain the hopes, insights, and experiences that a person wants to share with future generations as a legacy of values. The origin of ethical wills is often attributed to the Biblical period, when Jacob expresses his hopes for each of his sons’ futures. Up through the Middle Ages, they remained reasonably well known among the intelligentsia of many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, both in the Middle East and Europe. After declining in use for four centuries, ethical wills have been ‘rediscovered’ in the last decade and become an increasingly popular way to provide moral guidance in an age of great change.

As I found out for myself, the process of recording an ethical will with another person can be challenging and emotional. When we set out to create our ethical wills, we are forced to look back on our own lives and size up our successes, failures, and deeply held beliefs. More importantly – and more successfully than in many other forms of dialogue – ethical wills and the process of recording them lead to meaningful and even profound interchanges about the values that each of us hold. Precisely because of the personal and theological significance of ethical wills, they may provide an effective tool for inter-religious dialogue. Through them, we can talk about our beliefs without degenerating into the platitudes or generalizations that can otherwise encumber inter-religious interchanges.

There may also exist the potential to use ethical wills to study the values that different religious groups hold. A recent article entitled, “Wisdom of Generations: A Pilot Study of the Values Transmitted in Ethical Wills of Nursing Home Residents and Student Volunteers,” uses qualitative statistics to analyze ethical wills not only as personal legacies but as documents filled with useful and enlightening information about the beliefs of two groups – in this case youth and the elderly. Researchers determined that “The 22 Questions for Ethical Wills© is a useful methodology to elicit meaningful discussions of values and life lessons in persons both young and old.” It would seem that such research could hold clear applications in the study of values that practitioners of different religions maintain. (Full disclosure – I am co-Director of Lessons of a Lifetime™ and fourth author on the research study.)

Too often we make assumptions about of the belief systems of others: “Christians believe in the importance of love” or “Jews believe in the importance of study.” Without examining – in a detailed and organized way – the values that members of different religious communities personally hold, we cannot maximize the impact of inter-religious dialogue and collaborative efforts for the common good. Even the most effective inter-religious initiatives may be underperforming because they are operating with inadequate information about the groups with whom they work. If it turns out that Jews and Muslims, for example, both care deeply about the elderly, then why do we continue to focus our energies solely on dialogue about the Middle East? If Catholics and Hindus believe in the need to care for the environment, then why focus solely on the challenges facing Indian Catholics? Fortunately, as the new study indicates, within ethical wills we may find a new means to gather the information we need about each other’s beliefs, all the while engaging in meaningful dialogue. Though we need not always agree, we must work to at least understand.

Stanton, Joshua and Hedy Peyser “Ethical Wills as Tools for the Interfaith Movement.” February 2009. The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.

Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, Natalie G. Regier, Hedy Peyser, Joshua Stanton. June 2009. The Gerontologist.

Joshua M. Z. Stanton is founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ , co-Director of Lessons of a Lifetime™, and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College.

This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


John said…
I like this. We should consider having a workshop on ethical wills. It would be wonderful opportunity to connect with some of our older members and share their wisdom and perspective. A good brigebuilder.

John, Being that you are the lawyer in our midst, would you like to take this on as a project?
John said…

This document is a reflection and has no legal significance - so no attorney is needed.

The concept of an ethical will isn't a legal one, but a spiritual one. What the testators leave to their "ethical heirs" is a legacy of experience and wisdom, as captured in the answers to the 22 guide questions.

As it was described by a friend of mine it took place in his churh ovr an afternoon and he worked on finalizing his ethical will over the next week. Then he gave to me, as a friend, a copy and asked me to make sure I gave it to his three children after he passed. The document he wrote reads more like a series of reflections on his life and his life lessons and a parting word of consolation and love to his wife and each of his children - all of whom are well grown.


(The word verification for sending this comment is "suers". Ha!)

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