Judaism’s Special Sensitivity in Human Relations
December 27, 1985
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
A person who is insensitive to the feelings of others does not merit the gift of life. I know of no tradition that makes this point as strongly as does the Jewish tradition. The more one studies Torah, the more one realizes how true this is.
It may be impossible to love one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self. It may be difficult to wish for one’s neighbor what one wishes for one’s self. But it is imperative that one’s pare the feelings of one’s fellow men and not cause them hurt. A decent human being never forgets this and exercises maximum self-control not to be guilty of embarrassing another.
One well-known Talmudic text tells us that one should even opt for suicide rather than humiliate another in public. (Berachot 43b) But sensitivity to the feelings of others was not a rabbinic invention. The Bible is also rich with illustrations.
For example, the Bible commands farmers not to harvest all their crops. They must leave a share on the edge of the field for the poor to come and take. (Leviticus 19:9; ibid. 23:22) The rabbis noted that the order was to leave that share uncut.
One might have expected that the farmer would be accommodating the poor if he completed harvesting what was available for the poor and then handed it to them. Nay, said the rabbis. The Bible ordered him “to leave” that share to leave it and let the poor come and take it themselves.
The poor take what God gave them, not what the owner of the field dispensed. The owner may not even choose the poor whom he wants to favor with what he has made available. He is not the owner of that share, and he has no power whatever over its disposition. This was sensitivity for the feelings of those who had to live on “leavings”!
Another command in the Bible involves the sensitivity of the hired man who helps the owner during the harvest. (Deuteronomy 232526) As he works, he can eat as much of the crop as he wishes. Of course, he can take none home with him, but as he works, he cannot be told by the owner to keep hands off the grain or the fruit because they are not his.
If an ox may not be muzzled as it threshes the wheat, so the worker cannot be muzzled on the job. (Deuteronomy 25:4) This would be cruel and demeaning, and the Bible prohibits such behavior. It would make the employee feel so much more disadvantaged than the employer, and this would be foul.
There is only one reference in the Five Books of Moses to road maintenance and directional signs. If a man kills another accidentally, he has a way to escape the wrath of the victim’s kin. He can flee to a city of refuge. The roads to the many cities so provided were to be kept in good condition, with signs at crossroads to indicate where to go. (Makkot 10b) But the obvious question is why were similar provisions not made for the Jews who thrice a year were ordered to go to Jerusalem. Why the concern only for those responsible for a homicide?
The answer, too, must be obvious. If a pilgrim en route to Jerusalem should lose his way, who would not help him find it?
He could ask, and his fellow Jews would be delighted to assist him. But if a fugitive asks about a city of refuge, he may frighten people away. They will know he is a killer. Doors may be locked in his face. In any event, he must be spared confessing to the misdeed.
It would be terribly embarrassing to him. And this the Torah sought to avoid. Again, concern for the sensitivity of a human being.
When there was a Temple in Jerusalem, Jews would bring many kinds of offerings, especially offerings to atone for sins, usually for sins against God. But the Bible prescribed that none other than the sinner and the priest were to know the character of the offering. A sinner did not have to share his awareness of guilt with others in the Temple. This too was sparing him embarrassment and humiliation.
I could go on and on. However, my purpose is simply to query why it is that in the study of Talmud wherever it is taught so little attention is given to the Jewish tradition s concern for the sensibilities of others and its centrality in the texts themselves. Why are teachers of Talmud preoccupied with communicating the unique jargon of the texts, the methods of exegesis, the reconciling of contradictory passages and other elements which one must master if one is to become a master of Talmudic discourse, but which cause one to lose sight of the law s real objectives? They are the cultivation of a saintly personality constantly aware of God and His will. This I call the teleology of the law, the law’s purpose, the law’ s ultimate. To fathom this does not require the genius and concentration which the other goals require.
Most beginners in Talmud study are now required to master a few pages dealing with lost property. (Baua Metzia Chapter 2) They are difficult pages. They involve concepts with which sophisticated lawyers deal, such as title to property, passage of title, abandonment or divesting of ownership, etc.
Perhaps I would not be competent to study Talmud now if I had not been exposed to these abstruse analyses early in life. But I was already a teacher of law in a college before I realized the purpose of the analysis which I had been expected to master as a child. It was to communicate the idea that, according to Jewish law, he who finds property had better exert himself to the maximum to return it to his owner. He should not indulge himself the illusion that he may be able to keep it for himself. It would be almost impossible for him to retain it for himself even if the owner could never be ascertained. Perhaps he would have to store it until the Messiah came. For what good reason should one assume that responsibility?
To the child student, however, that idea was never presented. Is it any wonder then that one does not often see a correlation between Talmudic learning and ethical behavior in matters pertaining to man’ s relationship with his fellow-men?
I do not demean the importance of other ways of studying Talmud. Without the other ways, there would be few who would be masters of Talmudic wisdom. But for the overwhelming majority of Jews, Talmud should be taught to reveal its concern for the welfare of human beings, and that is the better way. It will attract rather than alienate students and perhaps even change them for the better.