Compassion--The Jewish Tradition

I loved these passages from Armstrong's book:

from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong

Building on the insights of the Pharisees, the rabbis of the Talmudic age were able to transform Judaism from a temple faith into a religion of the book. Hitherto to the study of the Torah (the teachings and laws attributed to Moses) had been a minority pursuit; now it would replace temple worship. In the course of a massively creative intellectual effort, the rabbis composed new scriptures: the Mishnah, completed in about 200 CE, and the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, completed in the fifth and sixth centuries respectively. Compassion was central to their vision, as we see in a famous story attributed to the great sage Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus's. It is said that a pagan approach Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg.  Hillel replied: "What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man.  That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it."


The great Rabbi Akiva, executed by the Romans in 135 CE, taught that the commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" was the greatest principle of the Torah. Only his pupil Ben Azzai disagreed, preferring the simple biblical statement "This is the roll of the descendents of Adam" because it emphasized the unity of the human race.  In order to reveal the presence of compassion at the core of all the legislation and narratives of the Torah, the rabbis would sometimes twist the original sense and even change the words of scripture.  They were not interested in merely elucidating the original intention of the biblical author.  Midrash (exegesis) was an essentially inventive discipline, deriving from the verb darash, "to search," "to investigate," or "to go in pursuit of" something that was not immediately self-evident.  A rabbi would be expected to find fresh meaning scripture, which, as the word of God, was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation.

I love the observation of Ben Azzai as it is both salutary and terribly necessary in the world today.  We are all part of one human family.  If we could remember in the time of heated encounter that the person we are facing is indeed a brother, indeed loved of his mother and brother and sisters--it becomes more difficult to regard such a one as a stranger.   Compassion starts with realizing our common humanity and our common brokenness.  There are those who think they are not broken and often, they are the most aggravating and difficult to deal with.  But the reality is that once we see who we are and how broken each person is--either compassion or contempt must follow.

What I find difficult in the post-modern world is that too often it is contempt and not compassion that emerges from this realization.  How often do I read a book in which the authors too obviously hold no love whatsoever for his or her characters?  Such works are trials--even if they are well done--they are trials.  We seem to have something of a void in the way of compassion in serious literature.  Perhaps that is why I like Yiyun Li and Maaza Mengiste so much--their compassion and love for the characters whose stories they tell is so large and so encompassing and so beautiful. 


  1. On the continuing theme of connection to others, have you seen About a Boy? If not, please do so soon. The entire theme is "no man is an island." If you have, then watch it again ... I just did and was blown away for the fifth time (probably). So funny and yet so very true.

    On the theme of having to always be right, which means that one can never make mistakes ... have you read this simply wonderful piece featured at The Art of Manliness? It starts out like this and just gets better: "There are only two classes of people who never make mistakes—they are the dead and the unborn. Mistakes are the inevitable accompaniment of the greatest gift given to man—individual freedom of action."

    And mistakes lead us to compassion for others ... in my experience ... if one learns what one should from them.


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