Digging wide and deep for the essence of Jewish character

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What made Maimonides say the highest form of charity is to teach someone a profession or loan him money to lift him out of poverty? What allows us to break any commandment but three in order to save a life?

What makes us not stand idly by the blood of our brother (including treating the wounded and ill among our enemies)? What makes the Israeli government among the first to send disaster relief teams and mobile hospitals to earthquake-devastated Haiti and other disaster sites?

What makes us remember (and care for) the stranger, the widow and the orphan? What requires us to have honest weights and measures in business?

What did our oppressors lack that made it easy for them to deny our humanity and crush us like insects? What is the root meaning of “What is hateful to thee, do not do unto others?”

The answer to these and other questions of everyday Jewishness is compassion — a feeling of deep sympathy for others accompanied by a strong desire to relieve their suffering.

In Hebrew, we use the word rachmanut, the root of which is rechem (“womb” in English). Another sense of compassion is the quality of tender nurturance we associate with the womb of a loving mother.

In Yiddish, the word is rachmones. In “The Joys of Yiddish,” the late Leo Rosten wrote, “This quintessential word lies at the heart of Jewish thought and feeling. All of Judaism’s philosophy, ethics, ethos, learning, education, and hierarchy of values are saturated with a sense of, and heightened sensitivity to, rakhmones. God is often called the God of Mercy and Compassion: Adonai El Rakhum Ve-Khanum.”

Our highest ideal and the first lesson to teach our children (and adults with no Jewish education) is compassion for others. Without compassion and the actions it stimulates, what remains of Judaism feels like an empty show.

Yet, search Jewish literature in English, and it’s hard to find “compassion” or its synonyms. In my few books on Jewish practice, observance and values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Arthur Waskow and others, I cannot find “compassion” in any index.

Searching Amazon for books on compassion, I found 20 pages of websites with not one title related to Judaism. The vast majority of book authors writing on compassion come from the realms of Buddhism, Christianity, the hospice movement and medical practice. What happened that non-Jews “own” the foundational humane attitude of Judaism?

One Jewish anthology stands out among the Buddhist writings: “Comp-assion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition’’ by David Sears (Jason Aronson Publishers, 1998). A summary and review by Richard H. Schwartz appears on a Buddhist website: www.bodhicitta.net. Rabbi Sears also has his own website for the book: www.compassionforhumanity.


Compassion does not mean, however, mush-brained lack of critical thinking or an unwillingness to see the evil in others. Nor does it mean lying down and letting the world roll over you. Compassion does not exclude self-defense.

What destroys the credibility of J Street and others who attack Israel while claiming to support it is their devoted compassion for the Arab narrative as “victims of Israeli occupation.” Yet they show no compassion for the Israeli narrative as “victims of relentless Arab hatred and terror since before 1948.”

Compassion does not mean agreement or uncritical support, but if your compassion has the narrow focus of a telescope, it hardly merits the name. (One wit has written, “Saying ‘My country right or wrong’ is like saying, ‘My mother drunk or sober.’ ”)

An un-Jewish lack of compassion is also what we find so offensive in the violence and hatred of the religious right (haredim in Israel) who burn fashion advertising on bus shelters and attack peaceful women attempting to pray at the Western Wall. A Jew who lacks compassion, no matter his knowledge or observance level, lacks the essential quality of Jewishness.

During the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, as Jews embraced Western education and customs, progressive men wishing to appear modern trimmed or completely shaved their facial hair. In his Yiddish short story “Dos Kleyne Menshele,” the writer S.Y. Abramovitsh (pen name Mendele Moykher Sforim) has a traditional rabbi say of a follower of the Enlightenment, “Better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew.”

Dennis Briskin is the chief writer at Catalyst Creative Services in Palo Alto. Email him at [email protected].