One of the great tensions in Western moral philosophy is between the Aristotelian ideal of ethics based on the cultivation of proper moral virtue and the Jewish understanding of ethics as adherence to commandments. As a devotee of both Aristotle and the Talmud, Moses Maimonides tried repeatedly to reconcile the two approaches. But, argues Abraham Socher, Maimonides leaves unresolved the incompatibility between Aristotelian ethics and the Jewish ideal of t’shuvah (“repentance,” or, more literally, “return”), so central to the Days of Awe—even though he himself wrote one of the most penetrating expositions of this ideal. Socher explains:
[Although] the shadings are different, the overall picture of moral life given in [the section of Maimonides’ great legal code titled] “the Laws of Moral Traits” is an Aristotelian one. A good and happy human life is the natural result of the cultivation and exercise of the virtues, which is, more or less, equivalent to following the commandments of the Torah. Indeed, even the afterlife is a natural result of the highest of these virtues, those of the intellect. On such a picture, it is almost as impossible to have a good, flourishing life without a good upbringing, parents, and education as it would be to cultivate a vegetable garden in permafrost. This makes the religious obligation to repent a bit of a problem. . . .
But . . . would one want to live in a moral culture in which repentance was no longer a possibility for those who were badly raised, or fully formed, or near death? Perhaps what Maimonides and the Jewish tradition he is summarizing are suggesting is that if one does not have the resources to change one’s desires, then God will provide them. Or, alternatively, that in insisting that repentance is always both obligatory and possible, and that “the gates of repentance” reopen every year, the tradition itself provides the resources to “stop doing the things that [one] know[s] are wrong,” though it does not guarantee that one will.
What then of Maimonides’s virtue ethics? Perhaps his inconsistent—or at least tension-ridden—system, in which our moral lives are described in terms of both virtues to cultivate and commandments to be obeyed, is closer to our felt experience than either is alone. Moral thinking, it turns out, was always messy.