Let’s Not Let War Brutalize Us: ‘Pearls of Jewish Wisdom on Living with Kindness’

In the words of King David, “The world is built on lovingkindness—hesed.” (Psalms. 89:2) In our troubled time we need a sharp reminder of this truth.  
November 2, 2023

As Jews around the world sit transfixed by images of Hamas’ barbaric massacre of innocent Israelis and the subsequent war in Gaza, violence dominates our minds and hearts. Inevitably, this war has brutalized all of us. It seduces us into thinking that the real narrative of humanity is chaos, death, and destruction. Perhaps Thomas Hobbes was right centuries ago when he observed that human life is short, nasty, and brutish.   

Yet Jewish tradition insists that a worldview dominated by death and destruction is incorrect; indeed it must be incorrect: In the words of King David, “The world is built on lovingkindness—hesed.” (Psalms. 89:2) In our troubled time we need a sharp reminder of this truth.  

Shmuly Yanklowitz’ recent book, “Pearls of Jewish Wisdom on Living with Kindness,” is such a reminder. An Orthodox rabbi who is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash in Scottsdale AZ, Yanklowitz was named one of the top 50 rabbis in America. He is also a living model of hesed, having donated one of his kidneys to a stranger and who now cares for a number of foster children. His book is a treasure trove of hallowed rabbinic teachings in addition to modern commentaries on the value of hesed, caring, social responsibility and supporting our fellow human beings. It quotes and explains formal halakhah regarding interpersonal mitsvot and extra-legal Jewish ethics, and it also provides modern reflections on the power of treating others with kindness, concern and sensitivity. 

Here is one of the book’s pearls:

“Rabbi Joshua beheld the Temple in ruins. ‘Woe unto us!’  he cried, ‘that the place where the sins of Israel were atoned for is laid waste’ ‘My son,’ Rabbi Yochanan said to him, ‘be not grieved. We have another atonement. And what is that? It is acts of kindness, as it is said, “For it is hesed that I desire and not sacrifice.’” (“Avot d’Rabbi Natan”.) 

The book’s strongest asset is its ability to set the topics in authentically Jewish contexts and teach us uniquely Jewish interpretations of these ideas.

Just scanning the mini-chapter headings tells you the impressive scope of the book: the mitsvot to visit the sick, to honor one’s parents, to love the stranger, to respect elders, and to assume responsibility for the community (arevut), plus meaningful modern texts on the virtues of patience, recognizing goodness in our lives, restraining anger, living with joy, and maintaining faith and trust in both God and our fellow neighbors, to name just a few.  While many of these topics are universal, the book’s strongest asset is its ability to set them in authentically Jewish contexts and teach us uniquely Jewish interpretations of these ideas. These topics are dealt with in short and easily digestible units, so the reader can ponder the teachings one at a time without losing the overall direction of the book. Though much of the material is rabbinic and scholarly, its style makes it accessible to laypersons and scholars alike — indeed to anyone who is aspires to live a committed and productive Jewish life. I found the book both informative and inspirational.      

Pearls of Wisdom is also a welcomed correction to another problem in contemporary Jewish life. If you peruse the libraries of traditional synagogues and of many learned Jews, you are likely to find an abundance of books of medieval text commentary and ritual law examining kashrut, the do’s and don’t’s of Shabbat observance, and prayer; and in Israel, there will be numerous volumes about the Sabbatical year (Shmitah), which occurred last year. You will probably you will find fewer books dedicated to teaching the values that should guide Jews in their personal relations with other people — despite these values constituting a large part of both Jewish law and tradition. This imbalance illuminates where the focus of traditional Jewish religious life is today. 

Much of this for the good. One need only observe the tumultuous vicissitudes (and questionable futures) of movements whose interpretations of Judaism fail to take Jewish law and ritual seriously.  Historically, rituals have always been the essential mode of our religious expression and still are a necessary aspect of our lives as a people. Yet our great sages in both ancient and modern times all understood that ritual law is not enough. The Talmudic rabbis attributed the destruction of the Temple to the fact that the Jews of that time were concerned exclusively with formal law at the expense of concern for other Jews (Baba Metsi`a 30b). In the 12th century, Maimonides taught that when a Jew does not act with kindness (hesed) toward both Jews and gentiles, he is no better than an uncircumcised pagan. The famous 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew (The Maharal) insisted that “standing on strict law entails ruin,” and even the consummate halakhic man, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, recognized early in life that an exclusive diet of halakhic analysis makes a Jew “a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”

Chapter 19 of Leviticus opens with the Torah’s challenge to Jews to lead lives of holiness. The chapter then proceeds to tell us how we can realize that religious ideal. It is no surprise that 18 of the 21 mitsvot that follow are teachings about Jewish values that should shape our actions that affect the interests, feelings, and well-being of others, such as don’t bear grudges, don’t mislead people, act to help those in distress, and love your neighbor. These are not marginal to religious life, but central to the Torah’s ideal of what the Jewish people should be. In this sense, “Pearls of Wisdom on Living with Kindness” can be understood as a contemporary commentary on this portion of the Torah.

There is a beautiful passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 7a) that tells us that, like us, God prays. It even gives us the text of God’s prayer: “May it be My will that My mercy conquers My anger and dominates My attributes, that I behave with kindness towards My children, and that I go above and beyond the call of duty in relation to them.”  

If so, Shmuly Yanklowitz’ uplifting new book will help us to live a godly life, one filled with kindness, sensitivity, and responsibility towards every person, each of whom is created in God’s holy image. It surely will help us to become better Jews and better human beings.

Dr. Eugene Korn is an Orthodox rabbi who lives in Jerusalem. He is the former Director of Interfaith Affairs at the ADL. His recent books include “To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values” and Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis, and Jewish-Gentile Relations.”  

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