What does the religion teach about how members of the community
should treat one another?
by Howard Greenstein
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be withheld or withdrawn from anyone.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.”
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.
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.”
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:
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
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
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”
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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
©2006 Howard Greenstein
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).
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.