For Jews, observing the commandments is the Jewish path to the divine. It is how we love God and our fellow human beings both. So the most important wisdom teaching to be practiced in the world today is the commandment “to be holy like God is holy”.
But Jews would want to know some specifics about what “being holy” entails. Let me elaborate.
The Talmud records a discussion by several rabbis in which they have Israel’s prophets reducing the number of commandments down to their essentials, which were as many as 10 and as few as one, depending on which prophet was cited.[i] Similarly, a midrash[ii] records a “debate” among several rabbis about the greatest principle in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva said “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’—that is the greatest principle in the Torah” and Rabbi Tanhuma added that one should not interpret “Love your neighbor as yourself” to mean that if you despise yourself, you may also treat your neighbor similarly. Just the opposite, he said: your neighbor is and will always be a being made in the image of God. In other words: all human beings are endowed with equal, inalienable worth and should be treated accordingly.
It is no coincidence that Jesus, as a Jewish teacher of the first century, also formulated his own summary of the commandments by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”…”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Of these he taught: “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” and “There is no commandment greater than these.”[iii]
In the Jewish tradition, the path to holiness resides in the practices of daily life, and in our relationships in particular because that is the way we express love in the world.
Of all the traditional Jewish values, I think that “hesed“ is most important for today’s topic. “Hesed” is usually translated as lovingkindness, but it has overtones of mercy, compassion, favor, faithfulness, goodness, piety, benevolence, righteousness and graciousness. It’s quite a word!
From hesed come gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, burying the dead and more. So important is the practice of lovingkindness that one sage, Shimon the Just, taught that the world is sustained by three things: by (the study of) Torah, by worship, and by deeds of lovingkindness,[iv] and a later sage, Rav Huna, taught that a person who studied Torah but did no deeds of lovingkindness was like one who had no God.[v] Deeds of lovingkindness are the quintessential, demonstrable acts of Jewish piety and the desire to be godly or holy.
There are so many opportunities in daily life to practice hesed, but none provides as frequent an opportunity as speech, particularly when speaking appropriately is a challenge. Communication and action are integrally connected because how we interact is based on how we communicate and vice versa. All our faiths have teachings about right speech.
I believe that the concept of lovingkindness is universal; it is only articulated differently. What in the Jewish tradition is called hesed is analogous to the concepts of agape and caritas in Christianity, to rakhma in Islam, to karuna in Buddhism, to ren and de in the Chinese Confucian and Daoist traditions, and to daya in Hinduism. This is the wisdom teaching that I wish to promote.
One of my rabbinic heroes is the sage Hillel, who lived from about 60 BCE to 10 CE. He is best remembered for casting the Jewish version of the Golden Rule—“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”[vi] The Golden Rule is perhaps the only universal commandment humanity has. Every religion has a version of it. It is not a difficult commandment to remember—although it is more difficult to practice than it is to preach. One scholar has even suggested a Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them meaning that you are required to enter into relationship with the other person and first understand the recipient’s needs before acting. It’s something to think about…
When we follow the way of hesed, or agape, karuna, and so on, we consciously are building bonds of connection; of unity, love, and trust. Lovingkindness is the best we are able to offer our fellow creatures and the rest of creation. Because doing lovingkindness has a positive ripple effect, we can observe the good that often results. Through caring relationships, we nurture those qualities in ourselves that motivated our good deeds in the first place and this, in turn, encourages us to continue on the path of hesed. Ideally it will also inspire the recipient of hesed to act similarly to another person thus paying that initial good deed forward.
I think that living love is what every faith ideally is all about. For example, at Multifaith Works, I saw people of many different faiths—and many of no specific faith—all come together to provide housing, care, spiritual and emotional support to people living with AIDS. The motivating factors were different but the resultant behavior was identical and based on the values I’ve discussed. This same principle of noble cooperation can apply to almost every issue confronting humanity today from environmental degradation to alleviating poverty and disease to resolving conflicts.
The easiest way to broaden knowledge of this wisdom teaching is to live it and then sharing your motivation for living it. Publicize why you do what you do.
But I think the bigger question to ask is what prevents this wisdom teaching from being practiced more diligently. We all have deeply internalized senses of fear and love, the consequences of which appear in our actions. Marianne Williamson calls fear as “our shared lovelessness” and sees its expression in a host of evils including selfishness, greed, addiction, abuse, and war. Love, on the other hand, is expressed and experienced as lovingkindness, mercifulness, compassion, joyfulness, and so on.
There is no way to measure the full or ultimate impact of our deeds and behavior because the choices we make are transformative both for their impact on ourselves and on others. I therefore think it is important to appreciate and acknowledge even the smallest actions—like acting kindly or speaking courteously—because even these simple gestures build the potential for more good will and right action.
When we choose to take positive, constructive actions in our own lives and in the lives of others, I believe we are focusing our energies on the life-affirming blessings that come from choosing to do good. In Jewish tradition, we have a saying: “One mitzvah (commandment or good deed) leads to another”—good deeds work like infinite ripples in a pond, spreading outwards, influencing others. Bad deeds also work in the same way so we choose, with every action, whether to “extend love” or “extend fear” by doing things that are either constructive or destructive, each rippling out with far-reaching consequences –and that is why the Torah asks us to choose between the good and the bad, the blessing and the curse, life and death. If we keep this choice in mind as we go about our lives, we will be participating in the transformation of the world on a daily basis.
i Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a. Daveed/David, it was said, summed up the commandments in 10 principles; Yeshayahu/Isaiah brought the number down to 6; Michah/Micah then reduced them to 3; whereupon Yeshayahu/Isaiah reduced them to 2; and finally Habakkuk summed them up with one principle, “the righteous one shall live by (or through) his faith.” The respective proof texts cited are: Tehillim/Psalm 15, Yeshayahu/Isaiah 33:15-16, Michah/Micah 6:8, Yeshayahu/Isaiah 56:1 and Habakkuk 2:4.
ii Sifra 89b and also Bereisheet Rabbah 24:7.
iii Matthew 22:36-40 and Mark 12:29-31, respectively.
iv Pirkei Avot 1.2
v Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 17b
vi Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.