Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Middot - Character Traits
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

There is a value in Jewish life and law that encompasses the necessity of exhibiting sensitivity towards the feelings of others. This value is not rigidly defined in halachic terms as let us say an etrog or a succah is. It exists in a far more amorphous realm, one that is almost meant to be cultural and self understood. Because it is not rigorously defined there are really no textbooks on the subject and from my years of experience in Jewish education it is certainly not part of the core curriculum of most Jewish schools. This is a pity, for the lack of sensitivity to others and their feelings and needs has certainly created a much more fractured, aggressive and badly divided Jewish society both here in Israel and in much of the Diaspora as well than is necessary In the nineteenth century in Lithuania Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant founded what came to be known as the Mussar movement. One of the values that he stressed almost above all others was the necessity for a Jew to be sensitive to the plight, beliefs and needs of others. The Mussar movement was greatly influential in Lithuanian Jewish life, especially in most of the Lithuanian yeshivot until World War II. Alas, just as almost all of Lithuanian Jewry did not survive the war neither did the Mussar movement. There are still yeshivot that pay lip service to the values and texts of that movement but in truth its influence is minimal to nonexistent in today’s Jewish world. What a pity! It is not that we are violent one to another, though that is unfortunately also on the rise, as much as are simply insensitive and unfeeling towards one another. The rabbis pointed out that even giving charity to the poor must be done in a sensitive and honorable way. Today the industrialization of charity giving has created a terrible separation between the donor and the donee, a lack of human connection and a frightening callousness to the entire subject.

For various reasons that I will not bore you with I found myself on a Lufthansa airplane traveling from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt am Main this past week. I have never flown Lufthansa before and I never visit Germany - my personal prejudice. But since I had to arrive in Chicago on that very day at a certain hour the only connection to Chicago that fit my schedule was through Frankfurt am Main and so I found myself seated in the Lufthansa airplane. As the plane took off and the steward read the stock announcements about food service over the plane’s public address system I was struck by his statement that no pig meat is served on the flights to and from Tel Aviv. This impressed me as being an extremely sensitive statement of policy, taking into account the sensitivities of the Jewish and Moslem passengers that make up the bulk of the traffic between Tel Aviv and Frankfurt am Main. Maybe the history of Germany in the twentieth century still weighs on the German psyche and has made it more sensitive to others. I would certainly hope that this is the case. A friend of mine who recently accomplished his aliyah to Israel asked me if all Israeli drivers are aggressive and discourteous. I replied that one should never generalize but there is no doubt that people who are less narcisstic and aggressive and are sensitive to the needs of others around them are much safer and saner drivers. In general a large heaping of sensitivity would do wonders for the mood and temper of our society.

Sensitivity to others creates a sense of community solidarity. Solidarity is not conformity. The right to hold differing views is sacrosanct in the writings of the Talmud. Because of this the Talmud also emphasizes that the other person’s viewpoint is to be taken account and not demonized or rejected out of hand. The schools of Hillel and Shamai disagreed over three hundred and twelve matters. Even though the school of Hillel was more numerous and authoritative it nevertheless was always sensitive to the opinions and rulings and feelings of the school of Shamai. In many instances they withdrew their opinion in favor of the one of the school of Shamai where they gathered that it was a principle that the school of Shamai could not and would not abandon. Therefore the Talmud relates that both of the teachings of Hillel and Shamai are those of the living God of Israel. In the long run of life and society sensitivity is the lubricant that gives one a smoother existence.
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