A Mensch in Election Season

Image: “2016 Election,” flag background. Art by MIH83 on pixabay.com.

In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch. – Pirkei Avot 2:5

A mensch is a decent human being, someone with integrity and a heart. The Hebrew in this ancient saying translates as “man,” but I find that mensch is a better translation. The general idea is, when everyone else is misbehaving, be a decent person.

I’ve written little about the current U.S. election on this blog. My topic here is “Basic Judaism” and I mostly try to stick to it. I certainly have opinions about the election, which I look forward to expressing on the mail-in ballot resting on my table as I type this. However, there are things that I feel I must say:

Hateful language is wrong, no matter how correct we believe our opinion to be. Hateful language takes many forms. Any time we choose to see another human being as less human than ourselves, we stray into the territory of hate. If we vocalize that belief, it’s hate speech.

It’s fine to disagree; Jewish tradition has long supported the idea that it is in disagreement that we often can find our way toward the truth. The sages spoke of “an argument for the sake of heaven” – one like that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who argued in the academy but who respected one another in the street and in their homes. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to “crush” the other but to find a way towards a future that will serve all of us.

“They started it” is not a good excuse on a playground. It doesn’t wash for adults. “They are just as bad” isn’t an argument, it’s a cop out.

How can we be menschen?  Here are some ideas:

  1. We can listen more than we speak.
  2. When the discussion falls below our standards, we can raise it up by asking questions that focus on values: “Why is this so important to you?”
  3. We can seek common ground: what do we share?
  4. We can vote for candidates who have behaved like menschen, in our opinion.
  5. We can refrain from spiteful language and behavior.
  6. We can be very careful about the stories we pass along via speech and social media: what’s the source? Does this really need to be passed along?
  7. We can be supportive of others who are trying to be constructive, even if we don’t agree with them about everything.
  8. If we hear someone else indulging in hate speech, we can challenge it effectively.

This has been a strange, horrible election cycle. As individuals, it is tempting to despair.

At times like these I look to the wisdom of the rabbis, and this quote from Shammai comes to mind:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant face.” – Pirkei Avot 1:15

  • Make your Torah fixed – Don’t lose your grip on Torah!
  • say little and do much – Listen more, speak less. Do good deeds. VOTE!
  • Receive every person with a pleasant face – Give everyone a chance to be a mensch, too.

May we survive this season, and move into better times as soon as possible!

Remembering Leonard Nimoy z”l

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP – @TheRealNimoy

That was the final tweet from Leonard Nimoy, who used Twitter like the artist he was in so many other media. Like most people, I first encountered him playing Spock, the misfit officer on the Starship Enterprise. Like any good actor, he used pieces of himself to give life to that role. Two years in the US Army as a Jew must have been great preparation to play the only Vulcan on the Enterprise.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Nimoy but I know several people who did meet him in various settings. What strikes me now is that I’ve never heard anything bad about the man: he was kind and polite in his dealings with fans and he was a pillar of his synagogue. I gather from his artwork that he was a good Reform Jew, asking questions of the tradition at every turn. If you doubt that, check out The Shekhina Project (NSFW.)  He had a true artist’s eye, seeing beauty where others refused to see it: check out The Full Body Project (also NSFW.) He and his wife Susan gave generously to their communities via the Bay-Nimoy Early Childhood Center and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles – and those are just the gifts of which I am aware. Everything I’ve heard suggests that there were many small generosities that will never be public.

All of this is to say that the man was a mensch. He played a role that became a big deal in pop culture, but it was only one of many roles he played in his life. Some had more artistic merit, perhaps, and one was the role we all should play, that of Human Being.

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch! – Hillel, in Pirkei Avot 2:

If those of us who never met the man are sad to see him go, I ache to think of the grief his family and friends are feeling. May they be comforted among all the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem.

Perfect moments and good people are with us only for a moment. We can preserve them only in memory. Thank you for all you taught us, Leonard Nimoy.


Learn from the Best

Image by Tony Alter

Today I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman. It was sad, as all funerals are sad, but it was also a celebration, because Henrietta Garfinkle, or “Hank,” as her friends knew her, had been waiting for this day. She buried her great love, Vic, 18 months ago, and while she was not a person to grieve herself to death, she looked forward to spending eternity with him.

A lot of people avoid funerals. It’s too bad, because at the funeral of a mensch – a deeply good person – you can learn a lot about how to become a mensch yourself. We heard stories from Hank’s children, and her children’s spouses, about how she had been with them. We heard from her rabbi. And as is the case with Jewish funerals, they told the truth about her. That is actually a rule about a Jewish hesped, or eulogy: it has to be true, even when the truth is difficult.

I can’t remember everything that was said. What I know is that I left that funeral with a clearer idea of exactly the sort of mensch that Henrietta was, and that as a result, I know some new things about how to be a good Jew and a good person. I learn not only how the person was good, but I get a sense of what their challenges were in being a good person. This happens every time I attend a funeral.

So the next time you hear of a funeral in your congregation, consider attending. It is a mitzvah to attend a funeral, even if you didn’t know the person well. If they were part of your community, it is a mitzvah to go, period. If they were especially beloved in your community, be SURE to go, because it’s a great opportunity: you’re going to learn from the best.

The Perfect Word

Image: Plate from a copy of the Mishnah, Frankfurt am Main, 1720. Public Domain.

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I taught a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, a few years ago. One day we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” A student ventured the following translation, which I much prefer:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?