The Law of Kindness
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Law of Kindness
The last few weeks, I’ve been really engrossed in watching BBC’s ‘MasterChef’. As we speak, the final has been aired (on Friday night) and as soon as Shabbat goes out, I’ll watch it on iPlayer and can’t wait to find out who wins!
I love watching the show for its adventurous and creative cooking. It’s a guilty pleasure because, as a religious Jew, I can only have 10% of the dishes they prepare! It’s a true celebration of treyf: the episode where they cooked the giant prawn with urchin sauce and noodles flavoured with octopus ink powder really took the proverbial cake!
What I’ve really enjoyed about MasterChef is its unexpected and counter-cultural message of kindness. This is a Reality TV competition where the prize opens the doors to a career that could change contestants’ lives, where judges from the best and brightest of the food industry submit the contestants to their unrelenting judgement. There’s no denying that the contestants are in it to win.
Yet, the interactions between the contestants and the judges, Gregg and John, have been invariably kind, respectful and warm: group hugs, supportive words and friendly gestures.
They openly celebrate each other’s successes. In a recent episode, one of the four finalists fell ill. Instead of seizing her moment of weakness as an opportunity to push themselves ahead of her, the other three contestants pulled together to support her and complete her part of the competition. It was a remarkable moment in Reality TV.
Kindness is a virtue that we as a culture simultaneously admire and undermine. We teach our children to be kind yet our society rewards people for avarice and ambition. With the rise of social media, there are ample opportunities coupled with zero accountability for ‘trolls’ who bully others. A lack of kindness is of all times, of course, and not new to ours, but it does seem that the instruments of cruelty have become more sophisticated and readily available.
In sharp contrast to our daily lived experience stands Parashat Kedoshim. Where we usually associate Leviticus with ritual minutiae, the heart of the book is this week’s portion: the Holiness Code, Leviticus chapter 19, and deals with ethics. This chapter is considered so essential to the Jewish tradition that the Rabbis liken this chapter to the Ten Commandments.
Midrash Rabbah imagines Rabbi Chiyya teaching us that ‘all of the community’ (‘kol edat b’nei Yisrael’) is present for the revelation of this Parashah’s commandments because they are akin in theme and importance to the Ten Commandments. In the Rabbinic imagining, the Ten Commandments (or Utterances) are the ‘klal’ – the general principles and the Holiness Code is the ‘prat’ – the specifics. Whereas the Ten Commandments are universal principles, Kedoshim tells us in vivid colour and painstaking detail how we as a society should comport ourselves.
It seems counter-intuitive somehow, doesn’t it? After all can we really legislate for kindness? Isn’t the ability to be kind something warm and fuzzy? Not in the Torah’s worldview. The obligation to be kind has real life implications and kindness as a spiritual discipline is not just a ‘nice idea’. Undergirding the spirit of kindness woven through the Parashah are practical considerations that we can apply to our own lives today.
Let us examine some of the parallels between the Ten Utterances and Kedoshim and what they can teach us about the law of kindness.
‘Say to the entire congregation’: don’t think it applies only to other people. Everyone has the ability and the obligation to practice kindness, regardless of our position.
‘Be holy for I, the Eternal am holy’: morality is not contingent upon religion, but religion without kindness is both soulless and dangerous. Kindness is not just a ‘nice thing to do’ but fundamental to our understanding of the Divine.
‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind’: we are not to exploit the vulnerabilities of others, on the contrary. If anything, the Torah commands us to be fully inclusive of all people, regardless of status or ability.
‘Do not be a tale-bearer among your people’: the charge to engage in ethical speech, to be mindful of the words we use, is perhaps one of the biggest challenges yet but also one of the most effective ways to demonstrate consideration for others. What’s the point of being kind to someone if we turn around to say things about that person that can be hurtful? The reverse is also true: a kind word offered freely and generously can mean so much to the listener.
‘Do not hate your fellow in your heart; reprove your fellow’: sometimes kindness means ‘tough love’. Kindness can mean confronting a person when you feel there is a problem in the relationship. Bearing a grudge or suffering passive-aggressively is not kind. Kindness requires bravery and a desire to repair broken relationships. As Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Character (chapter 6):
‘If a person is wronged by another, he should not hate him and remain silent, as is said in regard to the wicked.. Rather, it is a mitzvah for him to make this known to him, and say to him, "Why did you do this-and-this to me? Why did you offend me in this way?", as it is written: "Rebuke, rebuke your fellow." And if that person expresses regret and asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive him...'
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’: you cannot be truly kind to others, if you cannot be kind to yourself! Sharing love and living ethically also requires you to protect your own boundaries – to sometimes say ‘no’, to take good care of yourself, to find support where you need it so you can give back those very same things to others.
I would love to hear from you what some of the ways are that you practice kindness in your life or perhaps an example of how someone else practiced kindness in your life.
Look out for it: you may find random acts of kindness in unexpected places, such as a TV show or while stuck in a traffic jam or rummaging through your grocery cart in the supermarket.
The Torah’s core democratic message is that we can all strive to be holy – ‘kedoshim teyihu’ – to be personally transformed by the Torah’s ethics in every fibre of our being and every aspect of our life. The Torah trusts us with the mission to put high principle into practice. Only through giving us the details of Leviticus can we train ourselves to look out for opportunities to be good, kind and fair: to the stranger, the friend and our own selves.