Home Bodhicitta Teachings Buddhist Teachings Meditation World Religions About this site

Part 1(book review) & Part 2 (essay)


Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition

(Northvale, New Jersey and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson,1998)
by David Sears

Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz

One of the main reasons the world faces so many crises today is that the ways of society are generally contrary to fundamental Torah values. Even many people who are committed to Judaism often stress ritual observance but fail to place sufficient emphasis on Judaism's powerful universal concerns.

In his very well researched, organized, and written book, Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition, David Sears takes a major step to correct this situation. The book is a compilation of translations from classic texts of Jewish thought, from Scripture through the Talmud and up to contemporary rabbinic leaders, on Judaism's teachings on how Jews should relate to other people. The book also includes a number of essays that serve as general overviews and prefaces to the translations, discussing and analyzing the source material.

Among the themes that the quotations superbly amplify are: the Jewish mandates to be a "light onto the nations" and to work for tikkun olam (the healing, repair, and perfecting of the world); the mitzvot to pursue justice and righteousness and to emulate God in His attribute of compassion; the implications of such mitzvot as "love thy neighbor as thyself", "be kind to the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt", and "seek peace and pursue it"; Jewish business ethics; treatment of converts; how the ultimate goal of Jewish particularism is to benefit all of humanity and all of creation; and the ramifications of the Jewish "Messianic Vision."

David's background in both secular and Jewish areas gives him unique qualifications to write this trend setting book on Jewish obligations to humanity. His initial education was in the liberal arts and in the fine arts and music, and for a time he taught at the college level. Later, he studied at several Chassidic yeshivas. He has written several books on Chassidic leaders and teachings, including The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chassidic Teachings and Customs (Jason Aronson, 1997) as well as several books for Jewish young people, including Tales From Reb Nachman (Artscroll/Mesorah. 1987). He has illustrated a number of books, including The Artscroll Youth Haggadah (Artscroll/Mesorah, 1987), as well as over 20 "kosher comic books". He has also made substantial contributions to various phases of Jewish music, has had exhibits of his paintings and photography, and has contributed a wide variety of articles to Jewish publications.

I hope that this book will be widely read in the Jewish community (and in other communities), because it has the potential to have a major impact on the future of both Judaism and our imperiled planet. Since this review is for a vegetarian publication, I will indicate one example of a quote from the book that can be tremendously helpful in efforts to put the treatment of animals on the Jewish agenda:

Love of all creatures is also love of God, for whoever loves the One (God) loves all the works that He has made. When one loves God, it is impossible not to love His creatures. The opposite is also true. If one hates the creatures, it is impossible to love God Who created them. (Maharal of Prague, Nesivos Olam, Ahavas haRe'i, 1)

If aware of such a teaching, how could committed Jews square it with the cruel treatment of over 9 billion animals annually on factory farms prior to their slaughter for a diet that also has such negative health and environmental effects. Of course the fact that over 70% of the grain produced in the U. S. and 40% produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die every year from hunger and its effects is also sharply at variance with many of the quotations in the book.

What God must think of the widespread mistreatment of animals today is indicated in another of the book's quotes:

This may be likened to an expert goldsmith who fashions a vessel with great skill, but when he displays his work, one of the people begins to mock and scorn it. How angry that goldsmith would be; for by disparaging his handiwork, one disparages his wisdom. Similarly, it is evil in the sight of the Holy One, blessed be He, if any of His creatures is despised. (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, Chapter 2).

PART 2 (Essay)

Choosing Judaism: Jewish Concern for 'TZEDAKAH" (Charity) and Social Justice Most Jews are aware of the traditional story about the great Jewish scholar, Hillel, who was asked by a Roman soldier to summarize Judaism "while standing on one foot"–in other words, to put all of Jewish theology in a nutshell. Hillel’s response was to repeat Judaism’s original "Golden Rule": "That which is hateful to yourself, do not do unto others. That is the heart of the Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study!" The "Golden Rule" is in that portion of the Torah known as "The Holiness Code" (Leviticus, Chapter 19). It is a basic principle underlying the traditional Jewish commitment to fairness, human responsibility, and social justice. These fundamental values, rooted in the Torah, have led Jews to establish relatively high standards of generosity for charitable causes. Actually, the concept of tzedakah extends beyond charity–its usual translation–and includes the dual concepts of righteousness and human responsibility–something a Jew is required to do as a part of her or his Jewishness, not simply a voluntary act. The great Jewish scholar, philosopher, and rabbi, Moses Maimonides, who lived 800 years ago, delineated eight different levels of charity. As you read these words, consider how relevant these Jewish teachings are today, more than 800 years later: Going from the lowest level to the highest: 1. One who gives unwillingly. 2. One who gives cheerfully, but not enough. 3. One who gives enough, but not till he is asked. 4. One who gives before being asked, but directly to the poor person. 5. The poor one knows from whom he or she takes, but the giver does not know who is receiving. 6. The giver knows to whom he or she gives, but the receiver does not know the giver. 7. The giver does not know to whom he or she gives, nor does the poor person know from whom he or she receives. The highest form of charity is to strengthen the hand of the poor by giving a loan, or joining in partnership, or training out of the individual’s poverty, to help become independent. The highest level of charity–helping a person establish herself or himself–is the foremost ideal of our modem social agenda as we address the complex issues of poverty and welfare and seek the best ways to help people break the chains of poverty. The words of Maimonides exemplify the compassion of Judaism and also vividly show how Jewish sages have sought to point the way for Jews to help make our world a better place in which all people might live with dignity and self-respect. Some people are surprised when they learn that Judaism embodies compassion and love, for language in the Torah often appears harsh to the modem ear. However, one must remember and understand that the Jewish Bible–what Christianity called the "Old Testament"–was written 3,000 years ago. Just as it is important to judge Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, in the context of the times in which he lived, and not in absolute terms of his having been a slave owner, we must judge the Jewish Bible, including the first five books known as the Torah, in terms relative to what was taking place in society 3,000 years ago. By that standard, the Torah was remarkably progressive. (For instance, the well-known adage, "an eye for an eye," by contemporary times may seem harsh, but this concept was an improvement over the mores of Middle Eastern society 3,000 years ago when one could be killed for injuring another person’s eye.) Actually, although the Torah is an ancient document, there is in Judaism a process of study, commentary, and re-interpretation that has allowed the Torah to continue to speak to Jews in every generation. Even though Christianity’s "New Testament" was written more than 1,000 years after the Jewish Bible, nevertheless both have passages that are harsh by modern standards. Both also have language of love and compassion, and there are many important similarities such as the Golden Rule. These similarities are not surprising since Jesus was raised as a Jew as were all of his contemporary disciples. On the other hand, there are major philosophical differences, the most fundamental being that Jews did not, and do not, believe that Jesus, who lived and died a Jew, was the Son of God. Another central difference was that Christianity asserted that an individual had to "believe in Jesus in order to be saved," therefore denying any life in "heaven" to non-believers. In sharp contrast, the central theme of Judaism was one of universalism with the "gates of heaven" open to all who lead an exemplary life of good actions and deeds, regardless of religious creed. Although the Jewish Bible was written nearly 3,000 years ago, much of it still speaks directly to us today. For example, in an ancient world in which slavery and injustice were rampant, the Jewish prophets were among the first to call for social justice–for everyone, not just Jews. One of the most meaningful aspects of Judaism is that it offers a religious and cultural environment and a structure in which these moral values can be enhanced and also transmitted from one generation to the next. Some people assert that there is no longer a need to have any religious identity and that these values can be transmitted automatically without the need for a religious framework. However, most thoughtful Jews believe the remarkable extent of active involvement of modern Jews in support of charitable causes and issues of freedom and social justice did not arise in a vacuum but rather developed out of a religious and cultural heritage and faith, nurtured and refined over a period of 4,000 years. This Jewish heritage has been a very important factor in influencing and encouraging individual Jews to speak out on behalf of freedom, compassion, love, peace and justice for all. Therefore, committed Jews seek Jewish continuity, not just for themselves, but for all humankind.