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What Does it Mean to be Jewish? 15-June-11

What Does it Mean to be Jewish?

That’s a question that could evoke many answers, but I like one definition from our tradition. We call ourselves rahmanim b’nei rahmanim—compassionate people, children of compassionate people. The Talmud makes a strong statement about this in tractate Beitzah (32B), where we find a remarkable story:

Rav Natan bar Abba also said in the name of Rav: The wealthy of Babylonia will descend to Gehinnom [Hell. Rashi comments: “They are not compassionate in giving tzedakah], as can be shown by this incident involving Shabtai bar Marinus: [Shabtai] visited Babylonia and he requested merchandise from [the wealthy people who lived there, as a form of assistance. Rashi explains that he was asking them to give him merchandise to sell, and he would keep half of the profits. So they would lose nothing]; but they would not give it to him. He then asked for food [the most basic and pressing form of tzedakah]; but they also would not feed him. [Shabtai] said: These wealthy people must have descended from the mixed multitude. For it is written (Deut. 13:18): He will bestow upon you the attribute of compassion and show mercy to you [as he swore to your ancestors]. From this we learn that any Jew who is compassionate with people is certainly a descendant of our forefather Abraham; and anyone who is not compassionate with people is certainly not a descendant of our forefather Abraham.

The mixed multitude was a group of non-Israelites who joined in the Exodus from Egypt. The rabbis saw them as insincere and opportunistic. They never integrated Jewish values into their outlook or behavior. Today we wouldn’t see this as a heritable trait, but the major point of Shabtai’s rebuke is clear: by refusing to help him in his hour of need, by lacking compassion, the wealthy Jews of Babylonia were inauthentic. They violated a basic Jewish norm.

Compassion is not only expressed through tzedakah. It manifests itself in the ability to feel another’s pain and to respond to it. As Rabbi Shlomo Volbe, a 20th century teacher of Mussar wrote, “The essence of compassion is being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation. It is the resulting softness of the heart that makes one sensitive to the suffering of others.” We express compassion when we comfort a mourner, or visit the sick, or kneel to help an injured child, or listen to our spouse with empathy and concern. Every day gives us the opportunity to be rahmanim.

Think about how “soft-hearted” has become not praise, but pejorative in our times. Consider how many TV shows feature violence as spectacle, or humiliation as entertainment. Not compassion, but contempt for the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable among us is a lamentable feature of some political rhetoric today. These and other phenomena show us the compassion deficiency of today’s world. As rahmanim, this should concern us.

Because we have a window on a whole world of suffering, “compassion fatigue” is an identified consequence. But Jewish history shows us that a people can persist in living a compassionate life for millennia, despite persecution and exile. We have been and must be rahmanim b’nei rahmanim in order to serve our God who is called ha-Rahaman, the compassionate one. We must go counter to the callousness of our times in order to be authentic to our mission. It begins with each of us, in our daily lives. Say to yourself, I am a compassionate person descended from the compassionate. What does that obligate me to do right now? Think about ways to soften your heart and sharpen your insight so that you will be ready to feel and respond to the other’s pain and needs. And when you do, you will know that you are being true to your Jewish core.

Some resources:

A lovely story from Rabbi David Wolpe:

This blog focuses on Jewish compassion for all humanity:

For an enlightening (and enlightened) application of compassion to sports, go to and click on the line “JCC Maccabi Games Rachmanus Rule.”