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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What does the religion teach about how members of the community should treat one another?

by Howard Greenstein

Mitzvah is the word Judaism invokes to describe an act of ethical distinction. Any act of kindness or support for a deserving cause, for example, is called a mitzvah. The Talmud teaches that it is even a mitzvah to keep one’s body clean, to reconcile those who quarrel, to feed animals before one’s self, to visit the sick, to bury the dead and to comfort the mourners. Whatever dignifies or enhances life is a mitzvah.

The performance of mitzvoth (plural) is also the basis for righteous conduct between one person and all others. Whatever spark of divinity one person possesses, all people possess. It cannot be withheld or withdrawn from anyone. It exists equally in people of all races, colors, creeds and faiths. Economic class or social status is irrelevant in addressing the divine endowment of every human person. If there is one God, there can be only one humanity. The biblical passage that best contains the meaning of mitzvah is the imperative of Leviticus 19:18 that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In its practical application the performance of mitzvoth forbids the use of any individual as an instrument in the service of any other. The Torah teaches (Leviticus 19:14) that “You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.” Rabbinic tradition adds that one is not permitted to injure another in any manner, or to oppress, exploit or humiliate him/her.

Consequently, one may not deceive a person or even withhold the truth from him/her, since, as the sages explained, words may cut and kill just as savagely as any sword of steel. The rabbinic sage Hillel defined that distinction clearly when he noted, “Do not do unto other what you would not have them do unto you.”

Righteous living in terms of mitzvah is more than just a matter of abstaining from evil. It requires active protest and performance in defiance of evil. The rabbis taught that:

Whoever can protest and prevent his household from committing a sin and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could protest and prevent his fellow citizens (and does not), he is accountable for the sins of his fellow-citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world. (Shabbat 54b).

One of the axioms of rabbinic ethics is that a society that does not allow protest is doomed. One source (Seder Eliahu Rabbah 8) contends that the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea because they blindly followed Pharaoh’s unjust decrees, while another (Shabbat 199b) concludes that Jerusalem fell to the Romans because her people failed to rebuke each other.

The performance of ethical mitzvoth, however, does not demand inordinate courage or uncommon heroics. Righteous conduct is much more a matter of the constant, continuous practice of good deeds. It is a timeless prescription for a healthy society. One such principle is tzedakah. This Hebrew term is best defined not as “charity,” but, in faithfulness to its authentic root, as “justice” or “righteousness.”

Giving to those in need or to urgent causes is not for Judaism simply a matter of love or compassion. Tzedakah is an obligation required by law as something that is right, not just kind or thoughtful. As early as the time of the Mishnah, Jewish communities organized systems of progressive taxation to meet the needs of their indigent neighbors. The Mishnah instructs every person to leave unharvested at least a sixtieth of his field; how far one’s obligation might exceed the minimum depended on the size of the field and the extent of poverty among the people.

The highest form of tzedakah was a concerted effort to restore to the poor the dignity of their own independence. Moses Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish authority, declared that:

(The highest level of charity) is to anticipate charity by preventing poverty; namely, to assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift or a loan of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood, and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity.
— Yad HaHazakah, H. Tzedakah 10
, as translated in Union Prayer Book 2, Cincinnati, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1949, p. 118)

Even as the donor was expected to contribute his best, so too was the recipient subject to the same obligation. Moral integrity in Judaism required a poor person to accept any kind of job, however menial, in preference to any charitable gift. According to Talmudic law, the community was not required to support one who was able but who refused to work. In the Middle Ages, justice yielded to compassion and pity in gradually evolving the legendary figure of the professional schnorrer, a kind of lovable beggar.

Whatever the mitzvah of moral obligation might entail, the property rights of any individual never superseded basic human needs. Jewish law endorsed the principle of private ownership and guarded the rights of an individual to manage his own property. Nonetheless, ownership was ultimately construed in terms of stewardship. Wherever people lived, they were basically tenants subject to God who alone was literally the ultimate land Lord.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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