Guest post by R. Elchanan Poupko
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a fellow at the Norman Lamm Kollel Le’hora’ah at Yeshiva University. He has served as a rabbinic intern in the Historical Bialystoker Shul on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and is the founding editor of The YU Lamdan-The Wilf Campus Torah Journal.
One transformative concept that monotheism has introduced into the world is the notion of kindness. While many members of earlier societies maintained favorable relationships with one another and even helped the weak among their own group (clan, people, co-believers), monotheism was the first to introduce an unrelenting, demanding and proactive kindness towards the “other.” No longer should one only demonstrate “protective kindness,” reserved only for members of the in-group. Monotheism set a new standard–the pursuit of kindness. It was only once monotheism entered the ball park that the individual was excepted not only to be complacent to acts of kindness but to pursue it; to go out of one’s way to help the other, the stranger, the wretched, the dispossessed.
This demand was not only theological and philosophical, but was embodied in the very father of monotheism—Abraham himself. Abraham not only actively pursued and advocated monotheism, but was the first known figure to practice kindness on an unprecedented scale; kindness that was directed towards people he had never met, and might never meet again (see Bereshit 18:2). In fact this kindness was even towards those like the people of Sodom, for whom he felt moral disgust.
Is this relationship between monotheism and kindness to strangers mere coincidence? Or are they closely linked? Odd though this may sound, we can begin to answer this question by considering Nazi philosophy and practice.
When the Nazis rose to power in Germany and undertook their murderous agendas, they advocated and practiced the murder of mentally ill people (euthanasia). They took people from mental asylums and systematically executed them.
Next were the elderly. They planned to kill those who could no longer provide for themselves, who they perceived as a “burden to society.” This, however, was too much, even for the Nazi-era Germans. At this point outraged public opinion would not allow Hitler to carry out his plan. It is interesting to note that Germans showed they cared about their own. But when it came to the “other,” especially the despised/feared other, they had very little problem looking the other way or even joining in enthusiastically.
This philosophy of survival of the fittest was one of the core elements of Nazi philosophy, which they believed was deeply rooted in the thought and writings of Nietzsche. The philosophy argued that for the world to progress, the stronger and more “perfect” creatures must dominate while the weaker and the “imperfect” ones must perish. Those who are not strong enough to provide for themselves do not have the “right” to live. As Hitler himself put it, “Force is the first law… only through fighting have states and the world become great. If one should ask whether this struggle is gruesome, then the only answer could be: for the weak, yes, for humanity as a whole, no….” Hitler also argued that “[the] first fundamental of any rational Weltanschauung (German for comprehensive world view ) is the fact that on earth and in the universe, force alone is decisive. Whatever goal a man has reached is due to his originality plus his brutality.” (Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford U. Press, 2011), 351-2. see also Robert G.L. Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (New York: De Capo Press, 1993), 76–77). (Note that the Nazi party had strong pagan elements despite its arising within a supposedly Christian country, a point that seems to highlight the mysterious correlation between monotheism and a charitable spirit.)
The reason why such a philosophy would be impossible under a monotheistic belief system is the same reason Abraham, the father of monotheism, was so kind. Embedded in the monotheistic belief is the notion that none of us have the “right” to exist. There is no earned entitlement that has brought humanity into existence; we are all created and put on this earth prior to the wages we earn and the goods that we may produce. We were all placed here by a kind and benevolent God who has created us all in His image, all of equal value, and continuously sustained by His kindness, no matter how productive, strong, or deserving we are. He has commanded us to empathize, to love the stranger, the oppressed, as ourselves because we “know the heart of the stranger” having been slaves in Egypt; we were redeemed from Egypt by His kindness and mercy and not by our strength and entitlement
Abraham, a productive and wealthy man himself, recognized this and hastened to follow in the path of his Creator. When God confided with him his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah, the patriarch, who had already expressed his dislike for these people, came to their defense, risking angering God in order to express his compassion for the possibly innocent people who might live there (Bereshit 18:23). Caring only for one’s self would be a sharp deviation from the path of charity, benevolence, and of goodness with no expectation for a return. On the other hand, however, acting with kindness and following in this path of kindness and charity is a deep recognition of God’s existential benevolence and unmitigated goodness.
Sometimes history can act as a judge; sometimes as a really strict judge. Between the glory Abraham’s disciples have brought him and the shame the students of Nietzsche and Hitler have brought them, it is pretty clear that the students of Abraham have proven him correct. It is now for us to continue and spread that light of care, kindness, and compassion that has influenced western civilization so much and has made it the great thing that it is.
The recent disaster of hurricane Sandy, though so terrible in its consequences, has given us an opportunity to follow in the path of Abraham and show that his belief is still beating strong in our hearts. It is our opportunity to show that that torch originating from God Himself, and kindled so brightly by our father Abraham, is still being held high and is still burning so strong in our hearts.
So many people have either lost their homes, temporarily not able to use their homes, or have sustained serious damage to their homes and the normal course of their lives. So many families still do not have power and will need to recover from this disaster over the next few months. There is so much that we can do, so many beautiful opportunities, and so many outlets for our help and kindness.
It is now our opportunity and theological obligation to exhibit not just protective kindness to members of our own community but proactive kindness to all in need and to show our belief that all of us humans exist through the same gracious kindness of the Ultimate giver-God Almighty.