Tuesday, June 22, 2010

J-BOM: a Torah of lovingkindness

Rabbi Elazar quoted this verse: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of lovingkindness is on her tongue" (Proverbs 31:26). What is the intent of this verse? Is there a Torah of lovingkindness and a Torah which is not of lovingkindness? Torah which is studied on its own merit is a Torah of lovingkindness, whereas Torah which is studied for an ulterior motive is not a Torah of lovingkindness. And some say that Torah which is studied in order to teach is a Torah of lovingkindness, whereas Torah which is not studied in order to teach is a Torah which is not of lovingkindness.
Sukkah 49b (Siddur Sim Shalom)
I used to think I had this one in the bag--after all, one of the things I love about learning is sharing with others! But I came across a passage in this month's J-BOM selection As A Driven Leaf which made me think again. A renowned philosopher asks Elisha ben Abuya:
Can we withdraw into books and their abstrusities when men need insight into their souls, balms for their wounds, and healing of their sorrows? . . . if you and I were the gods, as Epicurus describes them, we might devote our lives to debating the question whether or not Platonic ideas exist eternally in realms beyond space and time. But we are flesh and blood. We dare not, for an intellectual luxury, forget our aches or those of our brothers.
Steinberg's words (through the mouth of this Greek philosopher) point to my own shortcomings: am I content to retreat to a book when I should be transforming what little knowledge I have into something helpful to someone else? Messianic Jewish blogger Benjamin E. frames the question in the form of a challenge in the latest post on his new blog Living Torah (which I highly recommend!):
It seems like higher education is not going to take care of this one for us. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the higher education. In fact, It is vital that we be an educated community. I just want to suggest that it would behoove us to be about our Father's business and at some point that means stepping outside of our classrooms/meetings/conferences into the world...And we're not handing out those tracts again!
How does a Torah of lovingkindness translate into real life? What does rising to Benjamin's challenge look like?


Peter Dickson said...

Hi Y-tan. I apologize for not keeping in contact. Hope all is well back east.

I've been periodically checking your blog when I think of it (usually every few months, very sporadically) and thought I'd weigh in on this one.

This is from Proverbs 31 where it's talking about the excellent wife. Whether you take it as an actual idea of what a wife should be or as an allegory for Israel, or the church, or whatever, the idea is that the woman's wise words are teaching those around her to be kind. The word "torah" here is probably used generically instead of referring to the Pentateuch or Tanakh. It's not necessarily about teaching people verses of scripture with the right attitude, it's about showing people what God is (love, kindness) through your conduct, which in this case includes how you speak to them. I think Paul referred to people as "living epistles' at one point... that's the idea here.

Which brings us right back to the practical question: how can you do that? How can the way you speak build people up, show them what kindness is, and reveal the love of God to them? Some really basic things come to mind. Like treating people decently. Not saying negative things about people but only what will build up. Listening to people before speaking and then giving advice or opinion out of a spirit of love and grace. It might even involve confrontation when necessary to attempt to keep someone from hurting themselves. The general concept is basic, it is the implementation that is hard.

The best model for it probably looks like this: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."- Jesus

combined with

"Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." -Confucius

derek4messiah.wordpress.com said...


I think the ultimate and best answer is corporate. It is not, What can I do? but, What can we do?

The answer in simple terms is: form communities, support teaching and pastoral care, love one another, welcome others, be contagious and encouraging to the people in our circle, and to be in the most authentic sense disciples of Yeshua.

Many people look at this problem individualistically (what can I do to win people to faith and help them have inner healing?) and despair. We aren't meant to do it alone. I wrote recently in favor of synagogues and churches as the agents of transformation in our society.

Just today I read the words of Yeshua, "Love one another as I have loved you. By this will all people know you are my disciples" (Jn 13:34-35).

Derek Leman

Carl Kinbar said...

I read "As a Driven Leaf" some time ago. Was the philosopher cast as a good guy helping Elishah or a devil's advocate greasing the way into deeper apostasy?

Anyway, the dichotomy drawn by the philosopher is a bit strained. Understood in its broader Torah context, chesed is a larger category that includes both "Torah of chesed" and "deeds of chesed."

Sanhedrin 27a is a good starting point. There it is said that that one who studies Torah but has no gemilut chasadim (superficially, "deeds of kindness") is like one who has no God.

A work of chesed is pure, without desire for reward of any sort, issuing from an expansiveness of generosity governed by the wisdom, insight, and knowledge of Torah. That is, IF any of our works could be so pure!

Getting back to Sukkah 49b, our rabbis bring the phrase from Proverbs 31 into a complex discussion. It typical rabbinic style, the phrase "torah of kindness" (which Peter correctly interprets) is brought into the discussion in order to look at the idea of motives for learning and teaching. As you've quoted, their conclusion is that only learning and teaching that is "lishma" can be considered "of chesed." So, learning and teaching are considered "chesed" just as visiting the sick, etc.

So you enjoy study and teaching. And perhaps you study and teach more for the sake of that joy than you would like. All this means is that you're in process toward purity.

That said, Derek is so right about the communal context of Torah and gemilut chasadim. As I read somewhere recently, "A Jew alone is lost" (meaning adrift and disoriented).

Yahnatan said...

Peter: great to hear from you, and that you check my blog from time to time. I definitely like what you said about "showing people what God is...through how you speak to them."

Yahnatan said...


I'm totally with you on the importance of community. And while my post was framed in terms of my individual self, I think it can just as easily be framed in terms of our communities: our love of Torah must be translated into love of our fellow humankind.


Yahnatan said...


To answer your question: this particular conversation happens late in the book. Elisha goes to the noted Cynic philosopher Demonax hoping for help. However, Demonax tells Elisha that he can be of little help, as he is more interested in aesthetics than in developing a Euclidean philosophy of the world.

At the end of their conversation, Demonax makes a reference to the tower of Babel, without citing the source. When Elisha asks him about it, Demonax is very complimentary; he says: "I am pleased that you too have discovered this book [he doesn't know that Elisha was formerly a rabbi]. It is a sublime creation, rich in moral truths that mankind needs more than metaphysics. But then, let us not begin our controversy again."

The following sentence closes the chapter: "And Elisha was startled and strangely confused to hear a commendation of the Tradition he had abandoned coming from the lips of the foremost exponent of Greek thought."

But you're right: Demonax's earlier dichotomy is strained. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben E: study is a vital part of loving God with everything in our being.

Thanks as always for your (encouraging) words.