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.


  1. Hi Asher, I appreciated your thoughts. If you would forgive my longish preamble, I would also appreciate your opinions.

    Re same-sex marriage, you may be aware there is currently a bill before the New Zealand government looking at changing our laws to include any relationship into marriage.

    In 1986 homosexuality was legalised, against the wishes of a massive petition. In 2005 civil unions were introduced.

    There are obviously two sides to the debate. blogger Cameron Slade is a powerful proponent. Family First Bob McCoskrie is campaigning against, as is parliamentary hopeful Colin Craig of the Conservative Party. It will be a conscience vote, but the Greens are voting as a bloc and it is very likely the bill will achieve a first reading and go to select committee to be considered further.

    The NZ cultural tradition is Christian, though much of that is being written out of NZ law. Societal Standard is being rewritten.

    About me, I am a Christian, with my faith based in the old and new testaments (see my blog).

    So, to my questions:

    Agreeing with your position that we should be "upholding standards AND showing compassion", what does that look like?

    If I were to meet a homosexual, I would want to approach them with compassion. But if we are to interact with them online, how can we respond when they try to shut down conversation with accusations of hate-speech and intolerance? Should we not debate the issues?

    To people who don't want to follow the Bible or the Torah, or who have a totally different understanding of it than me, where is the common ground?

    This current law is step three. The next might well be to make it compulsory for ministers to marry same-sex couples. Should we wait till then to protest?

    Is it treating sexual minorities indecently to say they can't be married? Conversely, does it reflect true compassion to allow and encourage what some would believe to be destructive lifestyles?

    Currently we imprison and fine and otherwise punish people who offend society, so most people accept it's okay for one man to judge another. But in matters of sexuality, those same people argue what goes on behind closed doors is no-one else's business. How can you uphold a standard that others don't accept, without imposing it?

    The easy answers are that I should look after what is mine to look after, after all, I'm not in Parliament. But I don't believe I should just bury my head in the sand and hope it will go away.

    If a standard is extremely important, should we not argue for it? with compassion...

    I should pray also for my civic leaders, but in my interaction with fellow Joe and Jo Public on this issue, how might I be the "salt of the earth" (in the words of Jesus Matt 5:13)

    How can I "uphold a standard", when they are on a different page, have a very different mind-set and are quite militantly opposed to much of what I believe?

    The Golden Rule is entirely appropriate for individual relationships. Compassion/Love is paramount. But as Joe Believer, how can I, or in your opinion even should I, consider issues that so inherently affect my nation's corporate societal standards?

    Thanks for taking the time to read this far, and I look forward to your thoughts :-)

    1. Hey Duncan -

      I'm honored that you would seek my thoughts on this matter, but my focus is simply on improving intra-Jewish relations. There is a more qualified voice on this topic whose analysis might be of better assistance to you: Dennis Prager ( He has dealt with the issue of standards vs. compassion as well as the redefinition of marriage. You can either search through his site for related material or try to contact him directly. I have a great deal of respect for Dennis and believe that he will be able to answer your questions.

      Good luck!

    2. Hi Asher,

      I appreciate your help. All the best for your endeavours.

      God bless you and yours,

      Dunc :-)