The Wisdom
of Judaism
An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud
By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins
Jewish Lights Publishing

Dov Peretz Elkins: Toll Free: 1-866-DOV-TORAH (1-866-368-8672)

Sample Chapters

Essence of Religion

The Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness.
Sotah 14a  

The Torah bases itself on two stories: in Bereshit God clothes the naked (covers Adam and Eve with a leaf), and in Devarim God buries Moshe. [See a similar statement in the early morning Shaharit service, from Shabbat 127a – “Elu d’varim she-adam okhel perotayhem….”]

Clothing the naked and burying the dead are among the acts of kindness frequently mention when the ancient rabbis discuss the daily acts of goodness that every human being may be called upon with some frequency to perform.

There are several things that stand out regarding this Talmudic passage.

First, it is not the gigantic, heroic, once-in-a-lifetime things we do that Judaism (and all religions, I believe) demands of us. It is the simple daily acts, the repetitive acts of goodness, thoughtfulness and concern for the other, that make us “religious,” – i.e.,
ethical and spiritual.  Helping a neighbor, providing food for the hungry, clothes for the needy, assistance with a life-cycle event – such as birth, wedding, burial – are the mark of the religious person in Judaism.

Second, what we call “the essence of religion,” in Judaism is what we do for others. In a famous passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, God asks that, if necessary, it is more important to treat our fellow humans well than it is to treat God well. God says: “I wish that when necessary, My children would forget me, and pay more attention to the Torah’s ethics about treating one other.” (Halevai otee a-ZA-vu ve-torati sha-MA-ru – 
J. Hagigah 1:7).

As Martin Buber points out, this is one of the primary characteristics of Hasidic philosophy, which is to say that it is a Jewish doctrine that Hasidism emphasizes. In Buber’s words, the core teaching of Hasidism is that “One cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. One can approach God through becoming human. To become human is what this individual person has been created for.”


Three Important Jewish Values

This [Jewish] people is recognized by three qualities:
They are compassionate, they are modest,
and they perform acts of loving kindness

Y’vamot 79a

This passage is a powerful statement of the mission of the Jewish People. Does it mean that every Jew in the world possesses all three of these qualities in full measure at all times?  Doubtful. I see these as a combination of an historical judgment and as an ideal.  The rabbi who wrote this is saying that our Tradition asks of every Jew to try to emulate these three qualities as much and as often as possible.  I think he is also saying that if one looks back at the history of our people, these are the qualities we have lived by (if not always in perfect measure, for certain), more than most peoples.

First and foremost, one should notice that there is no ritual performance listed in this litany of qualities that a Jew must live up to. They are all moral qualities, or ethical values.

Next, let’s look at each of these and see if we can flesh them out a bit.

Compassion is a quality that covers a multitude of moral qualities. It really embraces almost all other honorable traits. One who is compassionate is empathic, understanding, caring, and loving. One who is compassionate will be slow to anger (understanding, rather than condemning or criticizing), patient, and focused on how one might help. In the Jewish heritage, action is primary; thus, compassion must include a strong component of reaching out and doing concrete acts of caring and helping, not just feeling good thoughts in the heart. A compassionate person is one who is ready and willing to stand up and be counted when help is required.

Modesty is not a precise translation of the Hebrew “bayshan,” but it comes as close as is possible.  “Bayshan” is used in modern Hebrew to mean one who is shy or bashful. In the context of this statement, that is clearly not the intention of the author. The connotation here is one who is “modest,” which might mean a person who displays characteristics of decency, dignity, integrity, and high moral principles, including such things as appropriate dress, language and demeanor.  It would rule out the kind of things we see in the media today, in Hollywood and on TV, in terms of dress and language.  The Hebrew word “tz’niyut” comes to mind.  “Bayshan” also connotes behavior that is reserved rather than boisterous or loud, one who is modest, humble and unpresumptuous. Too often modern Jews take on the qualities of our neighbors and lose these pristine moral qualities.  This Talmudic statement might serve as a good corrective for modern society’s looseness and laxity in these matters.

“Acts of loving kindness” includes a wide range of behaviors that are characteristic of traditional Jews. The Talmudic passage quoted in the Shaharit service includes some of the primary acts that encompass the meaning of “Gemilut Hasadim,” or “acts of loving kindness.”  The Talmud  informs us (Shabbat 127a) that we receive special rewards for doing things such as honoring parents, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, helping a needy bride, attending the dead, and making peace between people. There are special societies in Jewish communities whose mission is to perform such acts, known as a “Gemach,” – an abbreviation of “Gemilut Hasadim.”

Any time one wants to know what it means to be a good Jew, this Talmudic statement gives an answer that is sound, traditional and fulfilling.


Embarrassing Others

Whoever shames another in public
Is like one who sheds blood.

Bava Metzia 58b

It is true that the ancient rabbis, who were superb pedagogues, had a predilection for hyperbole. Just about the worst thing one can say about another is that a crime committed by that person is equivalent to murder. There is a clear implication in this case, that embarrassment resembles murder since shaming one in public causes the person’s face to whiten, caused by that individual’s facial blood to restrict within the arteries. This is literally “shedding blood.”

But in addition to the metaphoric implication of “shedding blood” by altering the visage, the rabbis surely believed that shaming another is one of the most serious sins one can commit. A book can be written about all the statements made by the Talmud and Midrash that relate to shaming another person. The rabbis were extraordinarily diligent about preserving the self-respect and dignity of the other. Their high ethical standards went far beyond the prohibition of physical harm. Psychological harm, they correctly understood, was as bad, and sometimes worse, than physical harm. Would you not prefer to have someone punch you in the stomach, than humiliate or shame you before friends, colleagues or community?

Shaming a person leaves an indelible scar. A physical wound may heal in time, but a wound on the soul is less likely to fade and heal. Perhaps it all goes back to the biblical notion of the worth of a human being. We humans are made “in the image of God,” and any diminution of one created in the image of God is no different than demeaning God. Preserving the dignity of a fellow human, despite the effort and cost, is always considered worth the endeavor. No child of God should be subjected to an act of shame or humiliation by a fellow human being. I’ve heard people say, in exasperation, “I’d rather die than be embarrassed in public.” This is precisely the intent of the rabbis – that public humiliation is as bad as – nay, worse than murder. This seemingly harsh warning is not too stern when one considers the high level of dignity with which the sages considered the worth of each of God’s creatures.


Personal Growth

Improve yourself,
And only afterwards, try to improve others.

Bava Metzia 107b

As a trained marriage and family counselor, I have noticed that the prevalent attitude of people in a relationship is: “If only he/she will change, everything would be fine.” We are always pointing our fingers at the “other.”  Sometimes, when trying to make the point that we need to start with ourselves, I ask people to stretch out their hand and point with their index finger.  Then I ask them to notice where the 3rd, 4th and 5th fingers are pointing.  The answer is that these three fingers are pointing back at themselves. Whenever we point the finger at someone else, I explain, we are at the same time pointing three fingers back at ourselves. In truth, the only person we can truly change is ourselves.

There is a wonderful Hasidic tale that illustrates this point. A famous Hasidic rebbe once proclaimed that when he was a young rabbi, his idealistic and romantic goal was to change the world. After a while, he realized that his aspiration was too grandiose, and so he lowered his expectations and said that he would be satisfied if he could just change his own community.  After a while, realizing that even this goal was too ambitious, he settled for a wish to change his own congregation. Soon after, seeing that this was not so easily done, he said he would be satisfied if he could change his own family. When that task became a bit daunting for him, he finally confessed, “Now my goal is to change only myself – and – do you know – I am not so sure any more if even that is possible!”

The Talmudic statement we are examining is based on a common human tendency to view all wrongs in the world as the fault of everyone but “moi.” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” Truth to tell, it is much easier to ascribe fault to others than to accept responsibility on oneself. The Jewish rite of passage that marks the entrance into adulthood, bar/bat mitzvah, is one that differentiates the time when responsibility for one’s actions is transferred from one generation to the next. Responsibility is the operative phrase. Bar/bat mitzvah is a major ceremony in Jewish life because it marks an emotional, spiritual and halakhic milestone whose primary goal is to help a young person begin the life-long process of what Carl Jung called “individuation.” In like manner, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan once said that we are not yet human, but rather we are candidates for humanity.

One of my teachers in the counseling process described the process of psychotherapy as “the unfinished business of growing up.” It is my belief that very few people are truly grown up.  Most of us remain throughout our lives in a state of stretching toward a higher level of maturity. We humans are too prone to be self-serving, self-focused, and, at bottom, afraid of facing reality.  The easiest way out of these constant dilemmas is to point a figure and blame others.  The wisest way, according to the Talmud, is to face up to the truth and begin the arduous life-long process of changing ourselves. It is truly amazing what the effect of changing our own behavior can have on another’s actions. Changing ourselves, after all, is really all we can really do. The rest, we hope and pray, will follow.


Private Morality

Whatever behavior the Sages forbade because of “appearance sake,”
Is also forbidden in complete privacy.

Shabbat 146b

The Sages were keen students of human nature, and of our proclivities to moral failure. There are two levels (at least) of judging human behavior, in their view. One is doing the right thing, and the other is the appearance of doing the right thing.

I confess to being a bit surprised at the mention of “mar-it ayin,” appearances, first.  But I suppose this is part of the rabbis’ finely honed understanding of human habit and normal interest. They start with the known, and go to the unknown, as any good teacher would do. In this case, they start also with the interesting, and then go to the less obvious.

We mortals, all of us, admit it or not, are concerned with how others perceive us. We do so many things simply because we want to appear a certain way to others.  This applies to clothing, decorum, attendance at meetings, choice of car, home, and a host of other important, and not-so-important preferences in life. The rabbis were not insensitive to the fact that people like to be liked.  Many statements in rabbinic literature testify to their realistic recognition of the human need for approval. So they begin with the premise that we all like to be liked, and that since that is the case, there needs to be a regulation (a moral law, even if it has no “teeth” or enforcement attached to it) regarding behavior that is public.

To start with, therefore, the rabbis insisted that their followers behave in a way that will be perceived as moral and fitting for a Jew. Moral and fitting, that is, for one who is bound in covenant with a God Who demands moral behavior from participants in the Covenant.

In an unusual passage in the Talmud, the rabbis make a distinction regarding immoral behavior by a rabbinic scholar when it is done publicly and fragrantly, and on the other hand when it is carried out in a “private” fashion. They offer this advice: 

Rav Ilai the Elder said: If a man sees that his evil urge is overwhelming him, let him go to a place where he is unknown, don black and cover himself with black, and do as his heart desires, but let him not publicly profane God's name (Kiddushin 40a and Hagigah 16a). It is clear to the Sages that many mortal persons will on (rare) occasions commit some act that is a departure from acceptable norms – some worse than others. If it has to be so, and let it be known that they did not condone this behavior, then let it not be seen or known by others. The act is unacceptable by itself, but would be far worse if done in a way that let others know, which would bring shame to the Jewish People, and thus to God. The statement we are studying is an ideal, and what Rav Ilai suggests is a failure to reach this ideal, but, he seems to be arguing, there are degrees in failure.

Then the Rabbis move to the next level. Is it enough to behave morally in public, and not be concerned about what we do in private? Obviously not!  In the Shaharit service we pray each day: “May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui].  It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?”  That is abstract philosophy – this is concrete morality.

There is also the question of proper behavior when we think that no human is watching, but we behave morally because we know that God is watching. Or, put another way, is there such a thing as “When no one is watching?”  In other words, God knows what we’re doing even if no one else does. So when we behave morally because God is watching, is that also called “for the sake of appearance.” When God is watching, should our behavior be the same as it would be when humans are watching. Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and assume that if we do something because no human being is watching, but because we know that God IS watching, that is still a very high moral level. It implies that we care about being moral, even if on some level we feel that there will be consequences from on high, if not from down here.

In sum, rabbinic morality is concerned with both public and private behavior. What is objectionable in front of others is also objectionable in front of no one (or no One?). We should do the right thing because it is the right thing, not only because of what others might think or say, or how they may or may not react. That is a higher level of ethics than is currently honored by most politicians we know, and ought to be the level which defines and dictates all of our actions.