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Kindness: One of the Five Pillars of Rabbinic Judaism

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This article is taken from DISCOVERING THE BIBLE, Vol. 3, 1991, Number 1.

by Jim Myers

Discovering The Bible’s primary objective is to help its readers reach their goal of rediscovering and more clearly understanding the meanings of the actual words written by the authors of the ancient writings, which we call the Bible.

The first step toward accomplishing this goal is to recognize that most people who say and think they are reading the Bible are, in fact, NOT reading the Bible.  They are reading someone’s translation of the specific Hebrew or Greek manuscripts.

There is a great difference between reading a document originally written in one’s native language and a translation from another language.  One must mentally prepare himself or herself prior to reading the first word.  The initial step in this phase is to familiarize ourselves with some basic principles of translation [1]Nida, Eugene A. and Taber, Charles R. The Theory and Practice of Translation (United Bible Societies, New York, NY; 1989, page 3).:

  1. Each language has its own genius. Each language possesses certain distinctive characteristics that give it a special character.  Each language is rich in the areas of cultural focus, the specialties of the people.”  As a reader of translated material one must gain knowledge of the culture from which the document originates.
  2. The languages of the Bible are subject to the same limitations as any other natural language.  Greek and Hebrew are simply languages like any other languages, and they are to be understood and analyzed in the same manner as any other ancient tongue . . . these languages, as they are used in the Bible, employ words which have meaning only in terms of the cultural contexts in which the languages were used . . .”
  3. The writers of the Biblical books expected to be understood. We should assume that they intended one meaning and not several, unless an intentional ambiguity is linguistically marked.”
  4. The translator must attempt to reproduce the meaning of a passage as understood by the writer.

Most of us have taken comfort in the fact that Principle #4 has been of utmost importance to our Bible translators.  I must sadly inform you that this is not true.  As a matter of fact it seems to be unheard of by virtually every translator of the biblical text into English.  Instead of bringing the culturally accurate message of the author from Greek or Hebrew into English, one often discovers the translator’s theological position embedded in his translation.  This will become very apparent as you acquire a basic knowledge of the culture behind all of the words of the Bible (Hebrew).

The reason for my writing this series entitled “Kindness: One of the Five Pillars of Rabbinic Judaism” is to provide our readers with a culturally accurate understanding of what most would consider the five most important concepts in Rabbinic Judaism.  Some may wonder: why study anything Jewish in the first place?  The correct response is that since the authors of all the words of all three Bibles — Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant — were from the Hebrew culture, we must turn to the Jewish people for the definitions of their words.

For our Christian readers I must stress that the central figure of Christianity — Jesus — was a Jewish rabbi, not a Christian preacher.  Of utmost importance is the fact that the words recorded in the Christian Testament are the words of Jews.  It is imperative for all Christians to commit themselves to the journey of returning to the Jewish roots of their faith.  Only then can they hope to accurately understand the messages of their Jewish Messiah and his Jewish disciples. 

As we acquire an understanding of the five principles of Rabbinic Judaism we will understand much more clearly what the Bible is all about.  These principles are:

  1. HESED (kindness)
  2. Tzdakah (righteousness or charity)
  3. Kaddasah (holiness)
  4. Din (justice)
  5. Rachmonute (mercy or compassion)

In the Jewish culture “mercy or compassion” is different from “kindness” and they are both different from “righteousness.”  Even though all of them seem to have similar qualities, they still differ.  Once we understand these basic principles we will understand the heart of Rabbinic Judaism.  Christianity and Islam have taken pieces of these principles from their time in their Jewish mother’s womb.  There is nothing in Christianity in the field of morality and ethics that wasn’t originally taken from the Jewish religion. 

The first principle is HESED and I will refer to it as “kindness” for the remainder of this article.  The intent of kindness in Rabbinic Judaism is not to produce a person who considers himself to be a highly moral person or saint.  There are no saints in Rabbinic Judaism.

The purpose of kindness in the Jewish culture is for the perfection of the human being.  From the Jewish point of view, it is not that a man is born into sin, but that a man is unable to be perfect.  Man is not born imperfect and he is not born perfect.  As he develops the acumen, the knowledge, the ability to see and to hear and to do, he accepts either imperfection or perfection.  His choice depends on two basic factors — his nature and his teachings. 

The first factor is a God given one. However, the second factor is one given by man; therefore we are to give him lessons that are called paths upon which he can walk or follow.  These paths will help him perfect the nature, the characteristics with which he was born.  This is the kindness that is the essence of Rabbinic Judaism.

Our goal is to envelope ourselves with kindness.  But the Jewish concept of kindness has to be not only in thought, but in deed as well.  There is a famous Talmudic

statement that is important:

God considers the intent of man sometimes far greater than the actions of man.  For sometimes the intent of man are stifled and stymied by the actions of others.  Where sometimes you want to do good but you are unable to, God will give you credit for that thought, for that intent. 

For that reason, in Rabbinic Judaism one cannot, ONE CANNOT, judge another person.  In order to judge someone else one must be in his position, under the same conditions and at exactly the same time in order to say: “I would have done differently.”  One might say that what that person is doing seems evil or sinful in their eyes, but one cannot declare the person as a sinner in the eyes of God.  Are we then to ignore the actions of others?  We have a right to judge him, but only by human rules.

The biblical rules of morality or ethics are for God to judge by, not for man to judge his fellowman.  Man is to establish the rules for their community fashioned after God’s rules.  It is by these rules that man is to judge his fellow man.  Even by these rules man must exercise a great deal of caution. 

This is why Rabbi Akiva, when he was head of the court in Jerusalem and case was brought to him which involved capital crime, proceeded in the following manner.  In all the years he was chief justice of the court he never put a man to death, not even for the vilest of capital crimes.

A prime example of this is seen in a case where a man killed another man.  He committed this crime with premeditation, after being warned by others, and in the presence of witnesses who told him he was violating every essence of Jewish law and that the punishment for this crime would be death.  Even after all of this he went ahead and killed the man.  He was soon arrested and brought before the court.

The witnesses testified to everything given above. There was no question as to the man’s guilt.  He confessed it in court and said that he was jealous and that he hated the man, for whatever reasons.  The judges voted, and all these but one voted to put the man to death.

Rabbi Akiva was the only one who didn’t vote for the death sentence.  His vote was determined by the witness’s answer to the following question:  “How did the deceased victim die?”  They said he was stabbed to death by this man.  He put a knife into his heart.  Rabbi Akiva’s then asked the witnesses: “Can you assure the court that in the place where the knife penetrated the heart, there was already not a puncture?  For if there was a puncture he killed a dying man who would have died anyway.”

Since the witnesses could not attest to the fact that the knife did not go through an already punctured area they could not guarantee that this man put the other man to death.  The result was that the man received life in prison.  Of course this is going to an extreme, but Rabbi Akiva was a great teacher of the concepts of justice, kindness, and compassion.  He worried over the rule that he was not allowed to judge his fellow man. 

Let me repeat a very important statement that I made earlier: Everything in the concept of kindness is intended specifically to perfect the human being.  In reality, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a commandment that we can’t live up to because human nature doesn’t allow it.

We can’t love our neighbors as ourselves.  I don’t know whether we can love our wives as ourselves (or husbands).  I know we can love them forever, but can we really love them as much as we love ourselves?  We say we love you more, until we have our first argument.  The Talmud says: “Man is closest to himself.”  That is a fact of life.  How many times have you heard someone say: “I hurt when you hurt.”  The truth is that I hurt more when I hurt, because I can feel it.” 

Can we really love God with all our “heart and soul”? probably not.  How can we love something we don’t see and touch.  Since we can’t love our neighbor as ourselves, or God with all our heart and soul, why do we find such commandments in the Bible?  The intent of the commandments is that we try our darnedest to love our neighbors as ourselves and God with everything we hast, because in doing so we will perfect ourselves.  That’s the intent of the Bible.  So if you want to know what a Jew is supposed to do if he or she wants to be a good Jew the answer is to perfect yourself.  There are five ways to do it and one of these is through kindness.

The greatest kindness is that which one performs but can’t possibly receive any reward.  An example of this is to prepare the deceased for their burial because this is an act that can’t be repaid by the one receiving the benefit. 

The term Gemilut Hasadim is very important in modern Rabbinic Judaism.   It means the performance of kind deeds.  Hasadim is the plural form of HESED (kindness) and Gemilut comes from the word that means “to reward” or “to bestow.”  One of the reasons for its importance has to do with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and, as a result, the Jews could no longer offer sacrifices to God.

A story is told about Yohanan ben Zakkai and one of his students, Joshua.  As they stood in front of the ruins of the Temple, weeping as they looked around, Joshua said, “How awful that we can no longer atone for our sins by sacrificing in the Temple.”  Yohanan ben Zakkai comforted him by saying, “God told the prophet Hosea that He prefers mercy and loving-kindness to sacrifice.   Surely we can still atone for our sins by Gemilut Hasadim.”

 The ancient rabbis wondered about the meaning of the verse found in Deuteronomy 13:5: “You shall walk after the Lord your God.”  What does it mean to walk after God?  After much study and debate they concluded that it meant:   Just as God practices Gemilut Hasadim, so should His people.  They noticed that God provided many of these acts of kindness.  Some examples are seen in God providing clothes for Adam and Eve, food for His people while they were in the wilderness, the healing of Sarah’s womb, etc.

They also saw these deeds in the lives of many of those whose are spoken of in the Bible, such as Abraham.   When the three guests came to his home he fed them and made them comfortable.  Many years later, when God gave His Torah to Abraham’s descendants, Moses reminded the Children of Israel about the importance of showing Gemilut Hassadim to non-Jews:  “The Lord your God, He is God of gods . . . He loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.  Therefore, you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)[2] Pasachoff, Naomi. Basic Judaism For Young People, Volume One: Israel (Behrman House, Inc., Publishers; West Orange, NJ; 1986, page 29)

It is very clear that the Jewish rabbi, Jesus, was very familiar with this concept.   He repeatedly exhorts his disciples to perform deeds of loving-kindness.  Aren’t such concepts as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, giving the thirsty a drink, etc. almost universally associated with the teachings of rabbi Jesus?

There is one thing that hasn’t been made clear to those of us with non-Jewish cultural backgrounds — the reason for doing acts of kindness.  The Jewish culture provides us with this invaluable insight, to perfect ourselves.  No longer am I burdened with the absolute impossibility of perfecting the world with all the factors over which I have no control.  My assignment may also seem to be an impossible task — perfecting myself — but I definitely have a great amount of control over this task.

Suddenly Jesus’ words take on a new meaning and challenge: “Be ya’ll therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  Can I become perfect? probably not, but I can try my darnedest to better myself through acts of kindness.

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