Friday, January 25, 2008

The Genius of Judaism: Kindness

[Jewish charity collection box]

I recall speaking to my parent’s Presbyterian minister when I was a teenager and he told me that he saw himself as being part of a continuous tradition of kindness going back to Abraham. Basically, he was correct.

Judaism invented the obligation to do kindness.

Leviticus 19:18 states “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

Leviticus 19:34 states “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 26:12 mentions the tithe of crops which must be given to the poor in the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle while Leviticus 23:22 states that the remnants of the harvest must be left for the “poor and the stranger”.

Deut. 15:7 mentions the obligation to give loans to the poor according to their needs. This loan must be given without interest (Leviticus 25:36) and it must be forgiven in the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15:1).

We are obligated to celebrate our holidays together with the strangers, orphans and widows (Deut. 16:14).

Even in the present day, Jews are disproportionately represented among major philanthropists.

Based on various blogs, there would appear to be many Jews who have been raised Orthodox and lost faith in Orthodoxy, yet continue to pose as Orthodox, apparently because the secular world is so much more harsh and unkind. I am not aware of the opposite happening too often – secular Jews, who believe in Orthodoxy yet wish to remain secular because they do not want to leave behind the warm and loving secular community.

In contrast, primitive peoples were and are very violent. Infanticide was almost universal. (Today, abortion is the slightly more civilized alternative.) My pre-Christian Scandinavian ancestors murdered and robbed with no hesitation. In the ancient pagan world and in East Asia, the concept that the powerful and wealthy were obligated to help the weak and the poor was virtually unknown. The most popular entertainment in ancient Rome was gladiatorial combat. The only possible example of kindness outside the Abrahamic tradition of which I am aware is found in Stoicism.

In the modern world, kindness actually runs counter to Darwinism, which teaches that biological progress is the result of weaker individuals dying before they are able to reproduce (“natural selection”). Kindness stifles (the fictional process of) evolution.

Many non-Jews have, however, been impressed by the beauty of the concept of kindness. Christianity considers charity to be an important virtue, as does Islam. Secular humanists believe in the value of “working to benefit society”. The idea of kindness being a basic human obligation is something that has been adopted by perhaps the majority of mankind today and there can be little doubt that most of whatever kindness exists in the world is a direct result of the Torah and its influence.

However it all began with a few Jews in the Middle East a few thousand years ago.


natschuster said...

Lets not forget the Torah requires humanitarianism towards animals. Does noyone know of any legal, ethical, or religious system that requires kindness to animals that predates the Torah? I don't

natschuster said...

I understand that infanticide is stll a widespeard practice in Communist China. The government stongly discourages people from having more than one child. Chinese culture has a sexist tradition. SO, if a couple's firstborn is a girl, they somehow "lose" her. Its not legal, but it is widespread.

James Pate said...

I don't think so, since Hammurabi also talks about looking out for the poor. But I do agree that the Jewish religion was ahead of other nations on social justice.

jewish philosopher said...

"Hammurabi also talks about looking out for the poor"


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Duh… so what about Hammurabi?

This all goes back to our holy forefather Abraham, kindness, "love of the stranger" is what we Greeks call it — φιλοξενια — though it is often translated impoverishedly as "hospitality".

The Orthodox Christians (I am one of them) depict G-d primarily in the ikon called "Η Φιλοξενια του Αβρααμ". This icon shows three "men" seated around a low table upon which lie the food items prepared for them by Sarai. Behind them, Avram and Sarai are depicted in a posture of serving. Behind all five of them rises the Oak of Mamre. It is this ikon that reveals that G-d is first and foremost "ο μονος Φιλανθρωπος", the "only lover of mankind."

Yes, kindness comes to us from G-d on High, revealed through the holy forefathers, starting with Abraham.

Emet! Αληθεια!

James Pate said...

In Code of Hammurabi 1:1, he says God called him to punish evildoers so that the strong would not oppress the weak.

But, seriously, do you think that no one had any moral sense at all before the Jews came along?

jewish philosopher said...

You mean "When Marduk sent me to rule over men, to give the protection of right to the land, I did right and righteousness in ..., and brought about the well-being of the oppressed."? It does show some sympathy for the weak, I suppose. Perhaps that what's called "politically correct".

"do you think that no one had any moral sense at all before the Jews came along?"


david said...

I think that since the Bible records a definite knowledge of what is moral and what is not, before Gods promise to Abraham, and before the revelation at Sinai, we can assume that people had a moral sense prior to the Jewish nation being established.
Further more the moral sense that we see in the Torah is not in my view something we should try to credit to the Jewish nation. Rather we should be recognizing it's beginning with God. The Jews are every bit as fallen as any race on this earth, and were simply Gods vessel in which he made himself known, including what he regards as right an wrong.

DrJ said...

"Lets not forget the Torah requires humanitarianism towards animals."

Such as mass slaughter of animals in the sanctuary in order to pacify God.

Truth be told, JP, that the bottom line in Judaism, as evolved through the centuries, is to be kind and compassionate, while we maintain a balance with the needs of the community as well. We include God in the vocabulary, as a synonym for "that which is good", and it helps give us purpose. The ultimate veto power, no matter what a rabbi or book says, resides with our scruples and morals--whether we realize it or not. You filter what you choose to listen to or follow based on this moral compass-- which SUPERCEDES religious code. I would make an analogy to computer terminology, where your moral compass is your BIOS/CMOS, and the religion is your operating system.

jewish philosopher said...

DrJ, I think the concept of the Noble Savage, or that people naturally possess strongly positive morality, has been largely discredited today.

Without the Torah’s concept of kindness, kindness would seemingly be very foreign to us. That’s the point of this post.

Rebeljew said...

Many Jewish communities definitely excel in this area. I am proud of those who seek out people in need to help, and I know many such folks in frum communities.

In fact, I do not need to amplify their truly outstanding midos by putting down non-Jews or people who do not care one way or the other about G-d, and they are many as well. Needless to say, this slap at nonreligious philanthropy is just another example of why you are a putz.

natschuster said...


youu are not addressing my point, which is that the Torah was the first document ot require humane tretament of animals.

As far as whether the sacrifices were cruel, the Torah permits humans to make legitimate use of animals. If you are not a vegetarian, or if you wear leather shoes, or wool clothes, the you agree with the Torah. The Torah considers sacrifices legitmate use.

Prisons happen to be filled with people who decided to follow their individual moral compasses. It doesn't always seem to work out.

DrJ said...

"DrJ, I think the concept of the Noble Savage, or that people naturally possess strongly positive morality, has been largely discredited today."

That concept was more about attitudes of colonizers than anything else. It doesn't say anything about the ability or trend of a society to organize around itself so people get along with each other, which is what morality is about.

jewish philosopher said...

Altruism seems to be rare outside the Abrahamic traditions. Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche were explicitly against altruism and believed it to be destructive. It is probably only because the influence of Judaism is so widespread we might think that altruism is natural and universal.

natschuster said...

I understand that the concept of the noble savage was a reaction to the horrors of the early industrial age.

DrJ said...

"Altruism seems to be rare outside the Abrahamic traditions."

What about the eastern religions, such as Buddhism?

"It is probably only because the influence of Judaism is so widespread we might think that altruism is natural and universal".

I would say that kindness can be enhanced by the combination of faith and moral compass. Sometimes they're not in agreement, or sometimes human progress resulted from our own sense of decency and not because of the Bible. If we define kindness broadly, for example, the transition from polygamy to monogamy. Why did we do that? Because society eventually felt that it was unfair and unkind to treat women that way. It came from our own moral compass, not from any religious directive or principle. Even if it were legal now, would you do that to your wife?

What about taking care of weaker segments of society-- the disabled, minorities, etc. This has become institutionalized kindness--not from any religious sense.

You could claim that the "feeling" of altruism comes entirely from religion. I would argue that altruism is just an extension of our natural caring for those we love, to a larger and larger circle as society becomes organized. I do agree that religion can enhance altruism and give it structure, but it is not the source of it

jewish philosopher said...

Is altruism practiced by Buddhism?

I think that polygamy would be unwise for the average man just like buying a private jet would be unwise. You need a lot of money to make plural wives happy.

Societies which had no contact with Judaism I think just disposed of the elderly, handicapped, etc.

badrabbi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
badrabbi said...

Is Judaism altruistic? Yes. Over all, the religion has enormous merits. This is the reason why I am proud to be a Jew.

Keep in mind, though, that other religions also advocate kindness and compassion. Whether they copied from one another, I am not sure.

Altruism and kindness, though were not invented by religion. It would simplistic to say that men were essentially animals with no morality until religion came along.

Take, for instance, Cain's killing of Able. Cain knew very well that killing was wrong, and lied to cover it up. One might ask how he knew, given that no religion was yet invented.

jewish philosopher said...

In this post I was careful not to mention the prohibition against murder, theft, etc. which are probably to some extent universal. I mentioned specifically the obligation to be kind as a Jewish invention.

badrabbi said...

I appreciate the last comment.

Whether kindness is a Jewish invention or not is not at all clear to me. I am by no means an expert in history in this area, so I am open to be convinced. But it seems to me that there are other societies in which kindness existed prior to the Jewish civilization. Take for example the Greek society. In the Greek writings, there are myths that contain compassion, charity, etc.

Similarly, within the writings of the Roman empire, civil rights, compassion, caring, etc., are well described. As to whether there is any evidence of altruism prior to the Jewish civilization, I am not sure. Are there any writings, for example, of the Eygyptian empire, pointing to compassionate acts?

jewish philosopher said...

To the best of my knowledge, the concept that government or religion would obligate people to help the poor, widow, orphan and stranger is a novel Jewish idea and if it exists elsewhere, it has been copied from the Torah. The norm has been "might makes right".

zdub said...

Humane treatment of animals has been a long and emphasized ethical obligation of ancient Egyptians. As early as the Pyramid Texts, we discover that part of the righteousness the departed kings claimed was not having mistreated even animals.

jewish philosopher said...

This seems to have more similar to the concept of a sacred cow than to the idea of altruism.

natschuster said...

Outside of the Torah, (even today) kindness and altruism are abstract ideals that are sort of nebulous and vague. The Torah actualizes them and puts them into concrete laws. In this sense, I do believe the Torah is unique.

Anonymous said...

I think, Friends of Efrat is the best Jewish charity around. It simultaneously achieves major religious and political aims. I found it here and donated that same day which is sort of unusual for me.

scott gray said...

'the problem in thinking that you, or your people, are superior, is that you must then spend the rest of your life making sure that everyone else is inferior.'

there is no 'kindness' in this.

itrade4real said...

Jews are one messed up family, for sure. "Kindness to animals? Well, if Goyim are cattle, should you not be kind to Palestinians?

Fucked up little tribe you are.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm kind to Palestinians.

Anonymous said...

Your not fooling Jesus one bit with this blog entry.

We all know that kindness to others in the jewish OT means "kindness to fellow jews only"

You did not invent that racial concept!!

jewish philosopher said...

Jews are not a race and Jesus is dead.