Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Standards vs. Compassion

In life, there is often a conflict between upholding standards and showing compassion. As a result, there are those who almost always side with the societal standard and those who almost always side with compassion for the individual. This begs the question: what does Judaism believe? Oddly enough, the answer is both. As will be explained below, these two values are not mutually exclusive.

One of the hot-button topics in our culture today are GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) issues, such as same-sex marriage. Jews who support these causes often point to the fact that Judaism teaches compassion. However, Judaism also teaches that sexuality should be channeled into heterosexual marriage. The Torah wants to preserve male-female distinctions and the traditional family unit. Nevertheless, this does not mean that sexual minorities should be treated indecently. Nowhere in the Torah are homosexuals called "an abomination" - only the act of male-male intercourse is labeled as such. These individuals are created in the image of God and should be treated well.

Another area of difficulty for many Jews is faith in God and ritual observance. As much as monotheism is at the heart of Judaism, not every Jew has an easy time with it. Perhaps they lived through the horrors of the Holocaust or simply have philosophical problems with the concept. Similarly, many Jews have trouble with ritual observance. Does this mean that we should either disregard our rituals or force others into observing them? Of course not. There is a famous story told of a man who approached the Baal Shem Tov with a dilemma: "My son has drifted far away from Judaism. He leads an utterly dissolute life. What should I do?" The sage simply responded: "Love him more."

It can be easy to misunderstand the verse about rebuking a fellow Jew: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and do not bear a sin because of him" (Leviticus 19:17). One might think that this verse implies rebuking someone whenever they do something wrong. However, the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) teaches that a person should only do so if the rebuke will be accepted. Furthermore, a person must not do so if their instruction will not be accepted. Our Sages teach that this is why the last part of the verse states "and do not bear a sin because of him." We must never publicly humiliate the individual and/or alienate them even further from Judaism.

Whether it be same-sex marriage, ritual observance or other areas of contention, just because individual Jews may hold a certain view, it doesn't necessarily reflect the Jewish view. Nevertheless, we have to be compassionate toward those who have trouble living up to the Torah's standards. After all, virtually everyone struggles with some aspect of these ideals. Standards are extremely important, but they must always be coupled with compassion for the individual.

As Jews, we have to constantly weigh our personal feelings against our time-tested values. It's not always easy - especially during these modern times in which we live. However, Judaism is not as harsh as some people make it out to be. All one has to do is look up what Hillel or Rabbi Akiva articulated as the primary principle of the Torah (i.e. the Golden Rule). Although intra-Jewish disputes over controversial issues threaten to tear us apart, we can always stick together through good interpersonal behavior.