“The world is built on chesed” (Psalm 89:3), best translated when dealing with Jewish thought as loving-kindness, or a loving approach towards other people. Maharal (d. 1609) sees our acts of chesed as flowing from the chesed shown to us by God. This is made a principle teaching of musar teachers of Judaism, especially those including Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his Miktav mi-Eliyahu and Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky in his Netivot Shalom. The emphasis is that it is not enough to do acts of chesed, but one must be a chesed personality.
Rabbi Dr. Shai Held considers that chesed as love and kindness is the core of his Biblical message, along with the corollaries of gratitude and responsibility toward others. The “heart of Torah,” of the Torah and of all religion is “about softening our hearts and learning to care.” To present these ideas, Held has recently published a two volume set, The Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus; The Heart of Torah, Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy both (The Jewish Publication Society, 2017). Shai Held is President, Dean. and Chair in Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute. Rabbi Held has twice graced this blog with interviews. Seven years ago, he was interviewed as an introduction to Hadar and then in 2013 he was interviewed about his book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence. Much that I could say in this introduction was already covered in the prior interviews.
In the interview below, I treated the book less as a Biblical commentary and more as a musar book exhorting us to lead a life of showing chesed. The two volumes allowed Held to work out his moral vision. I tried to capture that moral vision in the interview. In many ways, I see this work of Held’s as a midpoint on the theoological way to his next book to be published by Farrar, Straus, &Giroux (forthcoming in two years) about the centrality of love in Jewish theology, spirituality, and ethics. For Held, Judaism is, at heart, a story about a God of love who summons us to lead lives of love.
How do you know that one has this obligation of showing chesed? For Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, these imperatives are known through reason and intuition, for the Musar masters, following Maharal, these imperatives are a divine decree of how the world is structured, and for the Religious Zionist Moshe Unna, they are a conscious choice to read the texts in a moral, rather than immoral way. Held accepts all of these approaches in his moral theory.
Another major point in the ethical theory in the book, similar to the musar masters use of Maharal, is that God’s love for Israel is not on account of Abraham or Israel’s merits but is “pure grace.” God chooses humanity, Abraham, or Israel as an act of giving of himself. In addition, biblical chosenness requires a higher degree of demand, accountability and moral responsibility. In Held’s reading, that choosiness in the Biblical message is not limited to Jews, rather it extends to humanity.
In addition, Held emphasizes the dialectic of God’s as both transcendent and immanent. God is known in both forms. But he does not work with the midrashic-kabbalictic-musar dialectic of din and rahamin, judgment and mercy, and hate and love. His vision is on the love. At points, the volumes can be sermonic and moralistic as a work of musar homilies. But he is motivated by a sincere quest to restore the concern with chessed to the Jewish community. The reader should also be aware that the style of the writing is of long independent essays with footnotes, to scholarship, to Christian theologians, and to many commentaries. The work is not short paragraphs to read in synagogue, but something to savor on the long Friday nights of the winter.
Chesed is not just volunteering for a synagogue chesed project or writing a check. For Held, chesed is an entire approach to life. One is to be like Abraham, an embodiment of chesed. When one hears about events in the news, or government policy, or the affliction of contemporary poor and afflicted then one should respond from the responsibility of living a life of chesed.
In this book, when Held writes about society, the discussion in this book goes to the ideal Edenic society and not the realistic politics in our 21st century American long after Eden. In our after Eden American life, Held affirms that attacks on “other people’s humanity is by definition an assault on God.” Nevertheless, this book with its emphasis on a Biblically mandated concept of human dignity lets the reader understand the basis behind his reactions to contemporary American politics. This is how to respond to God’s gift to us by showing responsibility to act with chesed. Held certainly has an ideal communal project, but his political vision is best known from his public actions and posts on social media.
If one wanted an Existential reading of the weekly Torah portion, then one turns to Martin Buber. If one wants a psychoanalytic literary reading, one turns to Aviva Zorenberg, If one want a Neo-Hasidic reading, one turns to Arthur Green (among others). If you want a reading about continuity of a covenant people, one looks at Jonathan Sacks. But if one wants a modern ethical reading, this is the book.
In the amusing picture below featured in the local paper, Held is portrayed as balancing in his thought the works of Rabbis Heschel and Soloveitchik. After this book, we should add a third picture to the image showing him also balancing the musar masters. Held’s book is an appropriate book to buy for the High Holy Days and then to be used throughout the rest of the year. Or at least, print out this long interview to read during this penitential period.We can certainly use a moral vision.
(Larry Yudelson/Graphics: Jerry Szubin/The New Jersey Jewish Standard)
1) What is the role of Hesed and Compassion in the Chumash?
I have always been struck by one particular law in parashat Mishpatim. The Torah declares: “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets” (Exodus 22:25). So far, so good– a concrete law aimed at protecting the impoverished borrower. But what follows is unexpected, and frankly stunning: “It is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shell he sleep?” (22:26).
Rather than just laying down the law, the Torah makes an emotional appeal– understand the predicament of the poor and respond in ways that reflect that understanding. This is not the kind of language that one would expect to find in a dry code of law. It’s as if the Torah can’t contain itself, can’t limit itself to delineating the laws. It is unwilling just to demand that we act in ways that are sensitive to the plight of the needy; it wants more from us, and so it reaches in and makes a claim on our emotional life, on our inner world: you have to care about people, even and especially those who are powerless, and all too often forgotten and neglected.
The same type of emotional logic animates the prohibition on oppressing the ger, or stranger/sojourner, in Mishpatim: “You shall not oppress the ger,” says the Torah, “for you know what it feels like to be a ger.” Why so? “Because you yourselves were gerim in the land of Egypt” (23:9). Here again we are commanded not just to avoid oppressing the stranger, but also to avoid doing so at least in part with a deep understanding of the experience he or she is presently enduring. (As Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi notes, it’s important to be clear: the experience of suffering in Egypt is not the source of the law. After all, no one can legitimately say, “Well, I wasn’t a stranger in Egypt, therefore this prohibition does not apply to me.” Rather, I think, our experience– or better, the way we choose to remember our experience– intensifies a moral obligation that is always already in place.)
What we see in both these laws, and in many other places in the Torah, is a commitment to compassion as a virtue, as a disposition integrating both emotion and action. If we care for people but do nothing for them, then our care is not really care. Conversely, if we act on people’s behalf but feel nothing for them, we have done concrete good (returned their garment, treated them with dignity), but we have not yet reached the Torah’s ideal of integrating emotion and action.
The same will be true in Rabbinic texts where the mitzvah to walk in God’s ways is interpreted both in terms of virtues/character traits– “just as God is merciful, so too should you be merciful, etc.– Sifre Devarim, Ekev 49), and in terms of actions– “just as God clothes the naked, visits the sick, etc. so too must you clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. (Sotah 14a). As Rambam notes in Sefer HaMitzvot (Aseh #8), we are bidden to emulate God both in concrete actions and in “noble attributes.”
Ultimately, from a religious perspective, compassion becomes a kind of ethos, a way of carrying ourselves in the world and responding to other people in moments of suffering and vulnerability. The fact that the Sages call this walking in God’s ways points to its enormous importance but also to its difficulty– growing in compassion and the capacity/willingness/eagerness to be present with others when they suffer is the task of a lifetime. And there is no higher form of serving God than this.
2) What is the role of human responsibility in the chumash?
I think the answer to this question is wonderfully encapsulated in another law from parashat Mishpatim: “You (plural) shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you (singular) do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you (plural) to the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exodus 22:21-23). Ibn Ezra was struck by an obvious grammatical anomaly in the text: why do the verses move back and forth between addressing Israel in the plural and addressing the individual oppressor in the singular? His answer is at once arresting and daunting: the Torah wants to teach us that the legal status of those who witness oppression and keep silent is equivalent to the legal status of those who commit the oppression themselves.
Put in more contemporary language, the Torah wants to teach us that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If we see cruelty and abuse and we do nothing about it, then we too are implicated in the crime. (Imagine how differently we would all live if we truly took what Ibn Ezra is saying to heart.) In other words, we are responsible even we ourselves do not directly participate in the oppression.
This is true all the more so, presumably, when we ourselves behave in ways that are unacceptable. As I show in the book, Bereishit repeatedly holds characters accountable and exacts retribution from them when they act in problematic ways. Perhaps most famously and powerfully, Yaakov pays for his act of deceit (taking the blessing from his brother by deceiving his father) doubly– when Lavan deceives him into marrying a woman he does not love, and when his brothers deceive him into believing his beloved son is dead. As the Mishnah puts it, “A person is always responsible/accountable [for their actions]” (Bava Kamma 2:6).
3) What is the role of gratitude?
One of the most fundamental intuitions a religious person has, I think, is the sense that none of us did anything– none of us could ever have done anything– to earn the gifts of life and consciousness. As the Rambam, following R. Saadia Gaon, notes, the existence of the world is entirely an unearned gift, as a hesed or grace, that which we receive although we did nothing to deserve it (See Guide 3:53). The urge to worship and serve God begins, very often, with the realization that we did not create ourselves (Bereishit Rabbah 100:1, following the ketiv of Psalm 100:3, “[God] created us, and not we ourselves.” ) Perhaps not surprisingly, according to the book of Yehezkel, Pharaoh, the great biblical villain, brazenly declares that he did indeed create himself—see Ezekiel 29:3 (The Hebrew “ani asitini” can be rendered either as “I created it [the Nile] for myself” or as “I created myself.”
Why is this so important? Because the religious person begins with an awareness of how much she has been given, and therefore of how much she owes. It is not a coincidence that for the past several hundred years, Jews have begun their day with the first word we utter being ”grateful” (modeh, or modah).
The main point about gratitude, as I understand it, is that it is not just a feeling that I have that I’m glad that x or y happened. Gratitude is constituted, in part, by an urge to repay or pay forward what the giver (or Giver) has given to us.
As Rav Yitzhak Hutner wonderfully puts it, when someone does an act of hesed for us, a seed of hesed is planted within us, and if it is allowed to flourish and blossom properly, it cannot but elicit more hesed from us. In other words, hesed flows through the world, from God to us and onward to others. To borrow an image from Maharal, we must not become dams that impede the onward flow of God’s gifts. That’s why, as I’ve argued in the Heart of Torah and as I argue at greater length in the book I’m currently writing, from a Jewish perspective gratitude and generosity are inextricably intertwined.
4) Your commentary seems almost a musar book about compassion gratitude, and responsibility.Do you have a worked out moral path or path of growth behind your exegesis?
I don’t think I yet have a worked out moral path in the way I suspect you have in mind. What I have, so far at least, is a series of mandates that have the potential to help us grow kinder, more compassionate, and more generous.
That includes things like cultivating gratitude through awareness of breath (if you find it hard to access gratitude, notice your next inhalation and ask, who made that?– see Rabbi Levi in Bereishit Rabbah 14:11). It includes working to restore the flow so that gratitude becomes generosity, and asking ourselves on a regular basis what it is within us that blocks or impedes the onward flow of Hashem’s hesed. It is also crucial to develop an awareness of our own suffering and wounds so that we do not inflict them upon others (I take “you know what it feels like to be a stranger” not just in the indicative but also an imperative). We also have to learn to sit with fear so that we don’t flee opportunities to be with people in their pain. More generally, we have to believe, in our guts and not just in our minds, that we are in part authors of our own character, shapers of our stories who decide what to learn from past experiences, etc.
I think a lot of one of the ideas attributed to the Kotzker: we are forbidden to ever see ourselves as finished products. We are capable of growing in love and kindness. Yalkut Reuveni offers an beautiful reading of the idea that God wants to create us “in our image, after our likeness.” God creates us in God’s image (tzelem), he says, but whether we become a likeness (demut) is in our own hands. That is not a bad description of the spiritual life as a whole: a journey from tzelem, which is a fact, to demut, which is a project, a task, and an aspiration.
5) How is Torah an ethical challenge?
We learn from Tanakh that God loves widows, orphans, and strangers. God sees those whom other tend to neglect, or worse, exploit. (Recall what Hagar, “oppressed” by Sarah– Genesis 16:6– calls God: “You are the God who sees me.”) To worship a God who loves the vulnerable is to strive to love the vulnerable ourselves.
One of my greatest anxieties as a religious person is that I don’t know whether I’ve ever truly served this God, the God who loves the weak and downtrodden and summons me to do the same. And since I want to love God and serve God, I have to strive to do just that, hard as it is, demanding as it is, unpopular as it might make me in some quarters.
And then there’s the mitzvah of walking in God’s ways. The God of Torah asks us to live lives of hesed, of love and kindness and compassionate presence with others.
Every once in a while, when I teach sources about this aspiration, someone will try to blow it off with a platitude like “So, basically, you’re saying I should be a good person.” But this is a profoundly cynical response, one that indicates an unwillingness to really hear the challenge Torah lays down before us.
In a world suffused with suffering, are we committed to visiting the sick and comforting the mourners even when it’s inconvenient, or tiring, and even when it scares us? In Ashrei (Psalm 145) we say that “God is good to all” and “God’s mercy is upon us all.” We usually take that to mean that God is merciful to all of God’s creations, but in a stunning passage in Bereishit Rabbah it is taken differently: God is good to all, and God has given of God’s capacity for mercy to all of us, so that we are capable of treating others with compassion.
As Musar teachers like Rabbi Yehezkel Levenstein teach, that is real devekut, or cleaving to God. We attach ourselves to God’s mercy and become merciful ourselves. Needless to say, this is far more demanding than “be a good person.”
6) Can Judaism be reduced to ethics?
I think morality and concern for others is at the heart of religious life, but it most certainly does not exhaust it. The idea that Judaism is ultimately only about ethics is a distortion of Torah (I admit I much prefer it to some other common distortions of Torah, but it is still a distortion). In the long run a Judaism that is only about ethics, even radicalized ethics, is an assimilatory, self-liquidating Judaism
But I want to be clear here: the answer is not to swing to the other pole. Michael Wyschogrod writes at one point that “ethics is the Judaism of the assimilated.” Well yes, but (as he well knew) it is also at the heart of the Judaism of Moshe Rabbeinu, of Amos and Hoshea, and of Rabbi Akiva and the Rambam. Torah without ethics is not Torah at all. But Torah that’s only ethics is an incomplete Torah too. We have to live inside that tension, not attempt to dissolve it.
7) Can you explain God’s love and the relationship of love to Torah?
Rabbi Akiva teaches that every human being is beloved simply because we were created in the image of God. Note: we are loved by God before we do or accomplish anything in the world. God creates us, cares about us, wants us to flourish, and has expectations of us. We don’t earn God’s love; rather, we strive to live up to it.
This idea has revolutionary implications. First, if we are, all of us, loved by God, then we don’t need to spend our lives competing and comparing ourselves with others. We can cultivate an ayin tovah, a generous eye, and we can avoid envy and schadenfreude, because other people’s successes don’t undermine us or call our worth into question. In other words, having a sense of being loved by God enables us to more fully fulfill the mitzvah of ahavat ha-rei’a, loving our neighbor.
Judaism has always treasured the life of the mind, and the Beit Midrash has accordingly been one of the centers of our religious life as a people. But without developing the heart, without growing our capacity for compassion, and love, and mercy, we will be humanly stunted, and hence our Torah will be, at best, a distorted reflection of God’s Torah. Remember: Hazal say that “the beginning and end of Torah is love and kindness” and this is a statement of what Torah is truly for, and what it’s ultimately about. A God who loves us summons us to live lives of love.
8) What is the role of anxiety, anguish, and struggle in the religious life?
Torah is about relationship with God, and yet our world can appear totally godless. One of the reasons I fell in love with Tanakh is that it is so honest about the tension—it often feels like a chasm– between the story it tells about the world, on the one hand, and much of what we experience, on the other. Faced with enormous, unbearable suffering, Tanakh does not revert to a “gam zu le-tovah (this too is for the good) theology” but instead protests and screams. One psalm tells us that the Guardian of Israel does not sleep, yet another laments, “Wake up! Why do you sleep, O Lord?!” The anguish of that psalmist is part of biblical faith, and it is part of our lives.
In the modern world, our questions are not new, but some of the answers we are willing to consider are. Writhing in pain, the author of Psalm 44, for example, could ask why God had forgotten God’s people; when we writhe similarly, the possibility that there is just nobody out there looms real to most of us. We fear not only that God has abandoned us, but that the sky might be empty, as it were, that there might not be a God at all. And so our anxiety and anguish has a different texture than the anxiety and anguish of ages past.
9) How can moderns without a yeshiva background love Torah? What do you say to those contemporary Jews who think Torah study is only for the day school educated?
I almost never talk to Jews about learning Torah. What I attempt to do instead is to invite them into the conversation itself, ask them to experience being inside the conversation rather than standing outside it and looking in on it (or looking down at it). It’s like the difference between hearing a friend describe someone he thinks you should meet and actually meeting them. The latter is so much more real, and so much more powerful. That, and that alone, gives you a real sense of what Torah is.
There have been occasions when a day school-educated Jew has asked me, with some condescension, whether I really believe it’s possible to learn Torah with Jews who have little or no Jewish textual education. And my answer is that as long as you have a heart, a soul, and a mind, you can learn Torah. Now, the deeper you want to go, the more you have to learn the language (both literally and metaphorically), but you can encounter Torah and be transformed by it without that too. And conversely, by the way, you can spend years in a Beit Midrash and not really learn Torah in the sense that I mean it, with a truly open heart and a truly open mind. Recall the well-known quip of the Kotzker, “I know how many times you’ve been through shas, but how many times has it been through you?”
When I learn with Jews who do not have vast background in Jewish learning, one of my hopes that they will each catch at least a brief glimpse of heaven from the Torah and that will inspire them to want to make Torah more deeply their own.
10) What is the role of your quotes from scholarship and history of the Ancient Near East, if in the end you always give a modern ethical reading?
Well, first, I think there are theological and ethical dimensions of the text which we cannot fully understand without considering its ancient Near Eastern context. For a long time, I kicked and screamed against this position, but now it seems obviously correct to me.
Let’s return to Genesis 1 for a moment. The Torah teaches that we are all created in God’s image. But a look at the context reveals the idea in all its revolutionary glory. In other places in the ancient Near East, it is the king of a society who is created in the image of the god that that society worships. That means, in part, that he is destined from creation to mediate God’s blessings to everyone else, and to rule over them. The Torah comes along and says, It is not the king who is created in God’s image, it is every human being on the face of the earth. This is a radical democratization of an ancient notion and what it means is that we are all royalty, all kings and queens, and that none of us is destined from creation to rule over the rest of us.
This also translates to the realm of moral responsibility. In much of the ancient world, it is the king who is responsible to look out for the widow and the orphan. But in Tanakh moral responsibility is democratized– you and I too are responsible for the fate of the downtrodden.
The same democratization takes place in terms of the Jewish people. Instead of the king alone being God’s son– see Psalm 2 for a biblical reflection of this idea– all of Israel are now considered God’s children– banim atem.
I would also add– and I mean this sincerely– that I don’t set out looking for a modern ethical reading. I set out to read, to learn, to struggle with the text. Very often, that process leads me to, and leaves me with, a modern ethical challenge. But that’s not because I care about ethics but because Torah does. Now, I am not naive– I realize that we bring who we are and what we care about to our encounter with Torah and that these exert great influence on what we find there. But I still think a certain kind of integrity and radical openness in reading is necessary. Otherwise, why bother reading at all?
11) Can you explain your use of Moshe Unna concept of Jewish humanism?
Moshe Unna (1902-1989) was a fascinating person, a visionary of a kind of religious Zionism that has largely and tragically now passed from the world. He was a Member of Knesset from the NRP and a founder of the religious peace movement (it’s more or less impossible to imagine such a combination today).
In addition, he was a serious educator and educational theorist. He worried that Torah could be interpreted in all kinds of different ways, some that would sanctify God’s name and others that would desecrate it. More concretely, he believed that Torah sources could be marshaled to demand love and justice and moral goodness but also that they could be used to legitimate hatred and bigotry and every form of cruelty. We know from the Talmud that Torah can be an elixir of life but that it can just as easily become a deathly poison (Yoma 72b).
But Unna felt that as inheritors of tradition we need to be conscious of our moral commitments as we go about interpreting sources. Without that, we will open the door to all kinds of barbarism being perpetrated in our name, and even worse, in the name of God and God’s Torah. So he stated, without equivocation or apology, that those who interpret Torah ought to be committed to a kind of Jewish humanism– a commitment to the dignity, worth, and moral standing of every human being, and a resolve to interpret Torah accordingly.
Unna’s formulation is stark and powerful, but it also dovetails with the ideas of many other Jewish thinkers. He was not a Kookian but Rav Kook also talked about how yirat shamayim must never lead you to act in ways that you know are inhumane and immoral; yirat shamayim that leads you to act less morally than you’d have acted without it is what he calls yirat shamayim pesulah, an illegitimate fear of God.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Unna on almost every conceivable issue, argues similarly that we needed Avraham before Moshe because without a prior commitment to hesed and moral goodness (Avraham), Torah (Moshe) would be a dangerous and potentially even toxic thing.
I think about Unna’s ideas often as I read sources, because I believe we are mandated to ask ourselves at all times: are we reading in the most humane, compassionate ways we can? This is not a secular import to tradition– far from it, I think it’s the natural consequence of believing that we interpret in order to serve a God of love, hesed, and moral goodness.
12) You seem to desiccate the elements of historical narrative and collective nationalism from the Biblical text. Is this intentional?
That’s an interesting question and one that I’ve struggled with myself as I look back on the 101 essays that make up the book. Consciously or not, my goal was to find something striking about the text that would leave people with a non-cliché challenge of some sort– an action to take, a new way to think, a feeling to cultivate, or whatever. That ended up yielding a fairly ethical approach rather than a historical or national one. It’s not that I don’t think the latter two are important– quite the contrary; it’s that given the nature of the project I was engaged in, they ended up taking a backseat.
I am increasingly drawn to and preoccupied with questions of moral philosophy. Universal questions- about compassion, and gratitude, and the quest for a more just, equitable society- tend to end up front and center, while some of the more particularistic pieces of Jewish theology, which are in fact crucial to me, end up getting short shrift. This a problem I feel I need to attend to in my writing and thinking.
Autobiographically, I’ve come to realize that I am still seeking to make space for some of the things I felt were missing from my own religious education. Some of the schools I attended– day schools, yeshivot in Israel, etc.– accentuated the particular to such an extent that the universal human was often lost. (I also witnessed no small measure of explicit racism in various yeshivot.) When I came to understand over time just how distorted a picture of Jewish theology that really is, I set out to highlight some of those more submerged themes. Yet, most of my teaching takes place within the American Jewish community, which presently struggles with too much emphasize on universalism so that the particular threatens to become submerged (a trend of which I have been extremely critical). That requires some re-calibrating on my part, I think.
13) Which are your favorite Jewish sources to use?
In terms of classical commentaries, I’ve always felt somewhat more drawn to Talmudic and midrashic elaborations of biblical stories than I have to medieval commentaries. I regularly consult and learn from the latter, but the midrashic openness, playfulness, willingness to look at a problem from multiple angles simultaneously and to flirt with the theologically outlandish make the latter more compelling to me. I could happily spend my life just reading Bereishit and Bereishit Rabbah together. Ruth and Ruth Rabbah is another stunningly provocative pair.
I love the moments when classical commentators discuss ethical issues. So, for example, Radak on Genesis 16:6, where (in the wake of Ramban) he argues that when we finally have the power to cause suffering to someone who has hurt us, the ethical ideal is to refrain; or Ibn Ezra’s insistence that the purpose of Torah is to “straighten out our emotions,” or his claim about innocent bystanders that I mentioned above, etc.
I find myself frequently coming back to the commentaries of Abravanel, Netziv, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Malbim. In terms of Musar, my interests (reflected more in my current book project than in The Heart of Torah) are in more recent musar figures: R. Eliyahu Lopian, R. Yehezkel Levenstein, R. Chaim Friedlander, and R, Shlomo Wolbe. In all kinds of ways, I inhabit a very different universe from theirs, but I consistently learn a lot from them and feel challenged by them to grow as a person and as a Jew.