Though not what’s considered an observant Jew, I’ve done some unsystematic reading about Judaism, and once was lucky enough to be the private editor of a Judaic scholar for a few years. I find that certain traditional Jewish insights about everyday life, not necessarily available in the current psychological or self-help literature, have stuck to me, influencing, I hope, my behavior. The more time goes by, the more impressed I am by their astuteness and scope. And, living in a country that makes a fairly sharp distinction between religious and nonreligious Jews, it strikes me that these insights aren’t, strictly speaking, “religious,” and could form part of a common heritage of wisdom that could include the “secular” as well.
The grouping below is rather random and consists of maxims that, for whatever reasons, have impressed me personally in a lasting way. Most of them are from the rabbinical literature, that vast corpus of commentary on the original biblical revelation.
1. For domestic peace, it is permissible to erase the name of God. For anyone who has ever known domestic strife, this is a strikingly powerful statement. The name of God has tremendous valence in Judaism, and observant Jews refer to God as “Hashem” — “The Name” — rather than speak that name. To erase God’s name is an unimaginably appalling act. Yet this maxim says there is one thing that is even worse — domestic strife. Domestic strife removes the foundation of life, severs all connection to harmony and peace — or, if you will, God. An adage that is all too relevant in an era of family breakdown.
2. Do not engage in slander and malicious gossip. How many of us, who aren’t murderers or thieves and consider ourselves civilized, do it? What workplace wouldn’t be a much better place if people would refrain from it? Some observant Jews apply the principle almost absolutely and strive to avoid saying anything bad about anyone in almost all circumstances. To me it seems that, in close relationships, saying what we really think about someone else is legitimate and necessary, and I also like to mouth off about public figures who anger me. But casually denigrating private individuals in public settings is bad practice, without exception.
3. No grudges, no revenge. According to traditional Judaism, a wise, moral person never holds a grudge and never takes revenge. Again, this seems to be on the mark. If someone you respect offends you, you have an obligation either to try to get over it, ascribing it to imperfection, or, if you can’t, to talk it out with that person. If someone keeps offending you, that’s someone you probably can’t be friends with and should keep your distance from if possible. But nursing grudges is a devious, cowardly thing, never a solution. Similarly with revenge. It’s sometimes necessary, of course, to act against aggression; Judaism is not pacifist and recognizes this necessity both in the spheres of violent crime and warfare. But the purposes of such action are self-defense and justice; to act with revenge as a motive risks sinking to the brutish level of our enemies.
4. Do not exult in an enemy’s demise. The civilized countries now face enemies of such savagery that it may be hard to live up to this one. When the Israeli army knocks out a bloody terrorist in a precision strike, I admit to feeling a certain elation. Still, Judaism’s concern is to civilize us, not just in the fundamental ways expressed in the Ten Commandments but in more mundane ways as well, and being civilized means striving to be as different from cruel enemies as possible. Exulting in someone’s death risks impairing our basic humanity and morality. The same would apply to taking pleasure in, say, the fall of an odious business or political rival. (Can we make an exception for Rathergate?)
5. Do not shame people in public. Jewish tradition is unequivocal on this one, saying hyperbolically that it’s better to die than to do it. Unfortunately, it’s done all the time — not only by the news media, who are the champions, but in everyday life. I’ve known people who habitually wait for a social gathering to really let someone have it. This is particularly reprehensible because it leaves the attacked person mortified and helpless; if the accusation has some substance, then his failings are suddenly exposed in public, and if they’re not, he can only worsen the already-ugly situation by defending himself. Strictly to be avoided.
6. Greet everyone cheerfully. This simple piece of advice encapsulates an optimal approach to living and dealing with other people. It has to do with putting aside your own inner state — which can’t always be sunny –and becoming a positive force regardless. It’s a recognition that people have moods and inner perplexities that they may or may not show, and the more an individual radiates pleasantness to others, the better it is for everyone. A cheerful greeting puts people at ease, is likely to make them more confident and candid, and improves the whole atmosphere of a place.
7. Helping people help themselves is the highest form of charity. The Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, essentially means “justice” — a profound idea in itself, saying that charity is basically a way of rectifying the world, an ontological requirement. Jewish tradition says, though, that while helping someone desperately in need of money is one thing, putting him back on his own two feet — by encouraging him, helping him find a job, etc. — is a greater one. Judaism emphasizes this even though there clearly are cases of incapacitated people who can’t help themselves. While both kinds of charity are important, making it so someone else no longer needs charity seems to have a special weight.
8. Avoid being dependent on others. Concomitantly, Judaism advises you even to take lowly work rather be dependent. Clearly, this can’t be applied across the board; people, for instance, usually need their parents’ help to pay for college. Still, the insight here is that the dependency relationship is too easily corrupting, both for the helper and the helped. The former is in a position of power, the latter in a state of subservience. Indeed, few people can be trusted with the former status; almost inevitably, maybe even unintentionally, they will humiliate the dependent one. On a larger plane, this insight applies very acutely to the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
9. If you save one life, it is as if you’ve saved the whole world. This one seemingly has limited applicability, since most of us are never in a situation where we save someone’s life. The point, instead, seems to be the mysterious profundity of moral acts. I’ve experienced it often enough; if I correct a lie about Israel, feed a stray cat, or even just give directions in the street, I can get a sense of the whole universe being right for just that moment, of endless resonance. The idea that everything we do is meaningful is very therapeutic, and makes ennui, apathy, and nihilism out of the question.
10. Good and bad fortune are often indistinguishable. I’ve lived long enough that this observation is a major factor enabling me to take things more in stride and not react unduly to (apparent) ups and downs. It happens again and again, especially regarding supposed bad fortune. The loss of a job or client, the end of a relationship, often looks like a good thing in retrospect — either in itself, or because it opened other doors. It can happen in the other direction too, of course: you can jump for joy at what looks like a wonderful new development, later come to lament it. Here, too, we benefit from a sense of not quite understanding the world, not knowing how or why it works — instead leaving something to mystery.
To repeat, except in the subjective sense of having special resonance for me, this is a random assortment, like digging a few marbles out of a very large container of them. I would like to think such insights could form the basis of an intellectual-philosophical Judaism in which “nonreligious” Jews, too — those not at home with traditional practices or, perhaps, beliefs — could participate. Also, with a popularized form of Kabbalah making the rounds, this is not a bad time to remind people in general that Judaism has many sober, shrewd things to say about everyday life.