Thursday, October 27, 2011

What is Goodness?

Given that this blog focuses on increasing goodness between Jews, perhaps some clarity on goodness is warranted. Its importance is stressed throughout many of my posts, but there's usually not much elaboration. So what exactly is goodness? Obviously, a smile, kind word or helping hand would fall under this category. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anything that makes us feel good is goodness. Therefore, there has to be a more objective definition from a more reliable source.

People of different political ideologies and religious backgrounds have come up with very different ways of defining what is good. On the one hand, there are secular individuals who claim that goodness is about having certain political positions or protecting the environment. On the other hand, there are religious individuals who claim that goodness is about ritual observance or sexual purity. As a result, it's easy to be confused as to what goodness actually is. Yet, there is a very simple explanation offered by God via the prophet Micah:

"It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Here are the three characteristics mentioned in the verse, with some elaboration:

Justice - do what is right, regardless of whether it happens to benefit your "team"; we must be ethical people who judge behavior instead of socioeconomic status, political affiliation or level of religiosity.

Kindness - the Hebrew term used here is ahavat chesed, which means more than being merciful by doing kind deeds; we should train ourselves to love doing acts of kindness.

Humility - if we are certain that God is always on our side, it's easy to become arrogant and cruel; it's important not to look down upon others while striving to live righteously.

Notice that the common denominator among all of these attributes is how we treat other people. God is primarily concerned with interpersonal decency and character development. Also notice how the verse states "only" these three qualities. The prophets consistently affirm that while Bein Adam La'Makom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, it is not as important as Bein Adam La'Chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people). Unfortunately, too many people haven't yet made God's top priority their top priority.

A good example of someone who embodied God's definition of goodness is Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Confidants of Rabbi Levin have explained that he viewed life's main purpose as helping others. If a few days passed without an opportunity to give someone advice, charity or just a kind word, he started to wonder if his existence on earth was no longer needed. Furthermore, Rabbi Levin never felt that the people he helped owed him anything. In fact, he felt indebted to them. Thus, he treated everyone fairly and mercifully without ever boasting about it.

So there you have it. Although fulfilling God-based goodness can be difficult, understanding what it entails is rather simple: act justly, love kindness and remain humble. If we all followed these three basic qualities, the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Three Levels of Conversation

"Great minds discuss ideas;
Average minds discuss events;
Small minds discuss people."
- Author unknown (although it's often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt)

Some people take this proverb to mean that there are gradations of intellect revealed through our topics of conversation. Yet, what this saying truly demonstrates isn't how smart someone is, but rather what kind of person they are. The things we talk about reveal a great deal about our character.

Great people think for themselves, take the initiative when there's a problem, and aren't bothered by the negative things others say about them. Thus, they usually talk about ideas. Average people won't take the initiative to come up with new ideas, but will discuss subjects once they're already out there. Thus, they usually talk about events. Small people take the lowest road of all by talking about neither ideas nor events but other people. Consciously or not, they are using their energy to take others down instead of propping themselves up.

At one time or another, all of us have probably engaged in each type of conversation. After all, nobody is perfect and it's difficult to maintain lofty topics of discussion. Nevertheless, the more noble our conversations are, the less likely we will be to denigrate or otherwise harm someone else. As you climb higher up the levels of conversation, there tends to be an improvement in character and a deflation of ego; and the lower you go, the easier it becomes to be cruel and self-centered.

Throughout the Jewish calendar, there are all sorts of social gatherings that take place, from Shabbat and holiday meals to weddings and school dinners. During these get-togethers, it's important to remember how a single remark about another person can cause a great deal of trouble. Just as one positive comment can improve someone's reputation, one negative comment can ruin their future. So when in doubt, try to avoid talking about other people. It's a lowly activity at best and a destructive practice at worst.

That old mantra really does ring true: think before you speak. Not only should we consider our words carefully, but we should also consider the topics we talk about. If that sometimes means keeping quiet or overtly changing the subject, so be it. It's better to do what is right than to worry about self-image. And in case you happen to have been on the wrong end of someone else's conversation, don't sweat it. There is another instructive proverb (and it also happens to be attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt):

"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Israel, Apartheid and Unity

Throughout history, there have been many false allegations made against the Jewish people and the Jewish state. One of the most recent contends that Israel is a systematically racist country. The very accusation wreaks of ignorance and anti-Semitism. But since most of the world is either antagonistic toward Jews or doesn't know any better, a thoughtful response is necessary. Here is a good one:

From the old libel that Jews used blood in matzah to the modern libel that Israel is racist, we are compelled to defend our values and our people. Yet, if these malicious claims are a reminder of anything, it should be that Jewish unity can - and will - eventually happen. It's only a matter of whether we decide to do so under our own volition or if we will be forced to do so because of the tactics of our enemies. One way or another, our petty quarrels can easily be cast aside.

God has interesting ways of reminding us that we are all part of the same people. Despite the deep religious, political and personal divisions that have transpired over the years, all it takes is one extreme event (or libel) to bring us back together. As Herman Wouk writes in This Is My God (first edition (1959), page 265): "No matter how bitter the differences are over day-to-day method–and the bitterness now and then rises near the red line of civil commotion–the aim is one, and the people in extremity become one."

Jewish infighting is old, almost always counterproductive, and usually about a bunch of egoistic nonsense. Let's leave the strife and divisiveness to our enemies, and pursue interpersonal decency among ourselves. We can respectfully disagree over particular religious or political methods without forgetting the big picture (i.e. the survival of Jewry and ethical monotheism). There is no need to exacerbate our personal and national problems. Jews in general - and Israelis in particular - have enough to deal with.