Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Man Emulating God- Righteousness and Loving-Kindness

As discussed in the previous post, Rambam understands the verse in Yirmyahu 9:23

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ
כִּי-בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּי, נְאֻם-יְהוָה

…that I am the LORD who exercises loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD

to be an admonition for man to emulate God by doing loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness. Rambam spends a whole chapter, MN 3:53, defining these three words - חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה - how they relate to God’s actions and consequently how to emulate Him.

Rambam understands the word חֶסֶד to mean –

In the prophetic writings, the term Chesed occurs mostly in the sense of showing kindness to those who have no claim to it whatever. For this reason, every benefit that comes from Him is called Chesed: "I will make mention of the loving-kindness [Chasdei] of the Lord" (Isa. 63:7). Hence, this reality as a whole – I mean that He has brought it into being – is Chesed.” (MN 3:53)

Chesed as defined here would be better translated as “perfect altruism”. “Perfect” because in general, human altruism contains an element of self-interest and self-satisfaction while in the case of God, that is not possible for there are no feelings or emotions in a transcendental entity. We see this altruism in the act of Creation in general, not necessarily only as related to human existence. The simple existence of our reality is a mystery that can only be understood as “perfect altruism” as far as God is concerned. For humans to emulate God in this way is quite difficult if not impossible. Note that when God describes the greatness of Avraham who teaches his descendants to emulate God, he ignores Chesed.

יט כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה
אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה
לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

19 For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice. (Breishit 18:19)

Apparently, perfect altruism cannot be transmitted but must be self-taught and can only be properly understood once one reaches stages of great perfection, where self-interest is completely sublimated.

The word צְדָקָה is defined as righteousness and as a derivative of justice.

“The word Tzedakah is derived from Tzeddek which means justice. Justice is the granting to everyone who has a right to something that which he has a right to, and giving to every being that which corresponds to his merits.” (ibid)

While Chesed dealt with existence per se, Tzedakah deals with how things are being run especially as it relates to sentient entities. Justice comes in two forms: payment of a debt or granting a merited reward. Repaying an obligation is justice and rewarding someone for a good deed is justice too. As obligation is not conceivable as far as God is concerned therefore, justice can only be from the perspective of the recipient receiving what he merits. Even though etymologically Tzedakah should apply to both kinds of justice, it is not used by the prophets, when performed by men in the fulfillment of an obligation.

“In the books of the prophets, however, the expression Tzedakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others. When we therefore give the hired laborer his wages, or pay a debt, we do not perform an act of Tzedakah.” (ibid)

When we speak about a person getting what he naturally merits, from his perspective justice was done to him. He therefore ascribes justice to God who put this system in place where people get what they merit. When we help someone that we owe nothing to, why is that seen as us doing justice? We are not consciously doing it because it is just, but because we have a moral obligation to help the needy. The recipient of our help may perceive it as just and well deserved but are we consciously doing justice?

“On the other hand, the fulfilling of duties with regard to others imposed upon you on account of moral virtue, such as remedying the injuries of all those who are injured, is called Tzedakah… For when you walk in the way of the moral virtues you do justice unto your rational soul, giving her the due that is her right”. (ibid)

As I discussed many times, human intelligence when used exclusively for self-survival is no different from any animal trait. Just like a gazelle can run fast to help it survive so too can man think to help himself. It is when humans use their intelligence for the furtherance of all of existence, only then do they fully use their potential. This is the basis of morality. That is why moral thinking and behavior does justice to the potential that intelligence affords to us. This concept is the foundation of Avraham Avinu’s teachings. Avraham Avinu as he was developing his understanding of God and how he runs the world, understood that to lead humanity to the fulfillment of its role in creation, he needed to create a core of people around which this ideology can be developed and spread.

ה וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט-נָא
הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים--אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם
וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ.

5 And He brought him forth abroad, and said: 'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them'; and He said unto him: 'So shall your seed be.'

ו וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness. (Breishit 15:5-6)

This understanding and undertaking of Avraham Avinu was seen as him doing justice to his rational self.

“And because every moral virtue is called Tzedakah, it says, and he believed in the Lord, and it was accounted for him as Tzedakah. (Breishit 15:6). I refer to the virtue of faith.” (ibid)

I want to point out that the idea of doing Tzedakah – Justice in this sense is rather subjective and it is not easy to act with confidence that one is doing the right thing especially as was the case with Avraham Avinu who was trying to influence many generations in the future. There has to be some form of conditioning and training before one can learn how to act correctly along these lines. Narcissism and personal bias have to be curbed and kept under control. Let us keep this in mind as we move along.

I will address the word Mishpat in the next post on this subject.


  1. It seems to me that the idea of chessed is an impossibility for man. This being because chessed implies perfect altruism, like you said. This is why Avraham passed on tzedakah and not chessed to his children. I mean, man always performs deeds out of some level of selfishness and therefore real chessed is an impossibility.

    Tzedakah on the other hand has nothing to do with altruism, but rather moral conduct. To act with tzedek means to act with morality. This is why charity is referred to as tzedakah. However, regular wages has nothing to do with morality, it is just common sense. This is because the specific morality referred to by the term of tzedakah is that which specifically comes from G-D. No?

  2. Perhaps the reason why the Rambam says that when the neviim refer to tzedakah it is not used in the first sense is because mans righteous actions or decisions does not always return a favorable response or reward as far as the individual is concerned. As the Rambam writes elsewhere that the whole concept of divine reward and punishment as the masses understand it, is like a child being warned to do good and stay away from bad to recieve reward and avoid punishment. Therefore one is not really emulating G-D if he is performing tzedek acc to the way the masses understand reward/punishment.
    In reality G-D does not necessarily run the world on an individual reward/punishment basis but rather on a macro level and what is good or bad for the nation or the world as a whole.

  3. 'not brisk yeshivish'


    discusses rationalism and Zionsim