the philosophy of judaism
Rabbi Israel Chait
Student’s transcription of the Pirkei Avos Lectures (1990)
Sometimes you find a Torah verse that embodies Judaism’s philosophy:
When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and you will refrain from helping him, you must certainly assist him (Exod. 23:5).
Rashi says “and you will refrain from helping him” is rhetorical. Rashi means this:
You “think” you will refrain from helping him? No. You will help him!
I was thinking of another explanation. “And you will refrain from helping him” describes human nature. The natural response is not to help your enemy. The mitzvah however is to overcome that emotion. Unkelos learns this way:
Abandon what is in your heart and assist him.
This verse displays Judaism’s psychology. Judaism does not deny human emotions; that is what other religions do and that is impossible [denying reality must fail].
This verse refers not to an enemy of the Jewish nation, but to someone you personally dislike. With the words “and you will refrain from helping him,” Torah teaches one to first recognize the emotion to refrain from assisting one’s enemy. Torah then teaches “you must certainly assist him” which directs us to overcome that emotion and assist the person. Torah teaches not to deny your emotion. This is a tremendous principle.
In our society, one of the greatest detriments to perfection is that we are raised with this type of thinking, acquired from gentiles. Tehillim says, “You mingled with the nations and learned their ways” (106:35). The wrong attitude is to deny one’s dislike of another. This behavior presents itself as a value: “Hatred is evil.” But you see from the gentiles, how, with their denial, they performed the most heinous murders. Denial allows the emotions to be expressed in other areas without one realizing it. The gentiles’ denial of hate with their [self-proclaimed] “religion of love” allowed them to massacre without any compunction. Nazi Germany was the climax of Christianity’s denial of hate, and Nazism was based on Christianity. If it wasn’t for Christianity, I don’t think you could have had a Nazi Germany. Nazism didn’t come about from thin air. It was due to centuries of denial of human nature.
Chazal say regarding Jacob’s wrestling with the angel that it appeared to Jacob in the form of a talmid chocham. This means that the evil inclination doesn’t always appear as an evil type of force, as people typically expect. But sometimes it appears in a veil of religiosity and that is the most dangerous form of the instincts. [In a different shiur, Rabbi Chait explained the gemara
(Sanhedrin 64a) describing how the instincts emerged from the Holy of Holies as a fiery lion. He asked what was most significant about that gemara. He answered that the location from where the instincts emerged was the holiest religious site. He meant that the instincts have their strongest expression in religious matters. A “fiery lion” is a dangerous and fierce force.]
Thus, the verse does not say to deny one’s feelings. The words “and you will refrain from helping him” instruct us to recognize the emotion and overcome it, and act in accord with objective righteousness. The parsha Mishpatim (judgments) were the first matters given to the Jews after they received the Torah. This is an important principle [that matters of justice were given to the Jews first, before other matters]. The greatest hurdle to teshuvah is the inability to recognize one’s sin, which is the first step of teshuvah.
If a person finds difficulty performing a mitzvah, he must examine his psyche as there is something wrong with him. There is no mitzvah that should burden person where he feels bothered by it. Torah is a diagnostic system; if a mitzvah disturbs you, there is something detrimentally wrong.
Hillel told the Gentile that the essence of Torah it is to “love your friend as yourself” (Lev.
19:18). This means that the most powerful emotion is feeling special; [expressed by] one’s friends share your psychological makeup [they share your likes and dislikes]. This is the emotion behind cliques, friends, and “my group.” Those not in one’s close circle are viewed as enemies and worthless. Thereby, one favors his friends and feels enmity towards others. This “reality” which is a most powerful force opposes Torah. Torah demands that we look at others with only one barometer: Torah observance. Following Torah demands that we love others just as we love our best friend, even though psychologically one dislikes others. One must abandon such a psychological framework where he dislikes others because they said this or did that. And it is most difficult to do as it concerns one’s ego.
People take pride in the self and the self is defined by how a person distinguishes himself from others. King Solomon said this about the dead:
Also their loves, also their hates, also their jealousies have long since perished…(Koheles 9:6)
King Solomon said that people identify themselves by their likes and dislikes. Be it food, music, etc., people consider what they like to be objective reality. When people hear a song that they do not like, they say [condescendingly] “Do you really like that music?!” They reject anyone who likes what they dislike. The self is identified by that part of the psyche that has likes and dislikes. A person [in his need to satisfy his ego] says, “How am I different than others? It is through the sum total of my likes and dislikes.”
Judaism asks a person to rise above this psychological plane, for the essence of a person is [not the psychological component, but] his metaphysical component. This part of man is expressed in the system of Torah. We are obligated to love those who keep the Torah, whether or not they share our likes and dislikes. And if your best friend violates Torah, the mitzvah is to destroy him and hate him. It is not a personal hatred. To have peace in society, this principle must be followed, and it is impossible to have peace otherwise. You might have degrees of tolerance, but not peace.
Torah’s ingenuity is seen just from these mitzvos alone. Torah provides the precise formula to produce a peaceful society [viz. assisting your enemy with is overburdened animal]. This is based on the removal of psychological identification with others and establishing a new kind of identification based on Torah observance. Study parshas Kedoshim regarding laws of refraining from revenge and harboring hate, and you will learn that every emotion is addressed. Only through observing these mitzvos is a peaceful society established.
Most people think only about themselves. But a gadol [Jewish leader] thinks in terms of the nation. It is a burden he is concerned about. Moshe said:
Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,” to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? (Num.
A gadol feels responsibility and compassion for the nation. And when he sees a destructive force in the nation, he is angry and this anger stems from his greatness, which most people cannot appreciate. He wishes to remove evil from others. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was a gadol and was angry about conservative Jews [their distortions of authentic Judaism threatened Judaism].
If a person was raised in a home where Torah was not presented properly, and he thereby develops a hatred for Torah, it is not his fault.
The Torah’s stories of individuals perfect us. That is why Torah includes those stores. There is some correction that takes place in our minds when we understand, as much as we can, Torah’s accounts of individuals.