Seeking Godliness

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gil Student

Why do we perform acts of kindness for others? On the one hand, it is basic human nature, but so are laziness and selfishness. The simple answer is that the Torah commands us to be kind. However, exactly how we should understand the Torah’s commands is a source of long-standing debate. An overlooked text offers a profound insight into the meaning of kind actions.

I. Godly Actions

The most famous early list of the Torah’s commandments–traditionally counted as 613–is found in the introduction to the Halakhos Gedolos (known as the Bahag). The list is puzzling in many ways, including its counting rabbinic precepts within the 613. Rambam famously composed fourteen rules in listing mitzvos to explain his sharp disagreements with the Bahag. In response, Ramban wrote at length to defend the Bahag, leading to an ongoing literature that spans the centuries.

However, sometimes Ramban agreed with Rambam’s critique of Bahag. One such case is the Bahag‘s listing as independent mitzvos walking in God’s ways, clothing the poor, burying the dead, comforting mourners and visiting the sick. Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, shorashim 1 & 2) objects that all but the first are rabbinic commandments, which should not be included in the list. Additionally, the source for these obligations is the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Ramban, who usually defends the Bahag, sides with the Rambam this time.

II. Two Levels of Chessed

The Rambam himself proposes a very difficult approach to these commandments. On the one hand, he says that burying the dead, clothing the poor, etc. are rabbinic commandments. On the other, he argues that they stem from the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. Which are they, biblical or rabbinic?

Two general answers have been proposed to explain this apparent contradiction:

  1. The general requirement to treat others well is biblical. However, the details are a matter of our own choice. We retain the right to use our creativity, to express our personalities and talents, in fulfilling this command. However, the Sages still required certain universal fulfillments, which are rabbinic obligations that fulfill the biblical command.
  2. Not everyone enjoys dancing. Some people prefer solitude, even (perhaps especially) when they are sick. If they do not particularly want others to dance at their wedding or visit them when they are sick, then dancing for others and visiting others is not loving them as you love yourself. Biblically, you are only obligated to do to others as you want them to do to you. However, on a rabbinic level, you must do for them what they want, at least in the specific cases legislated by the Sages, even if you don’t want it.

III. Godliness

However, the Semak has a totally different understanding of these mitzvos. To understand it, we must first examine a midrash that explores fundamental attitudes. Which is more important, the brotherhood of humanity or the peoplehood of Jews? Both ideas serve as important aspects of the Jewish personality but which is more important?

The midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 24:6) quotes R. Akiva as saying that the major principle of Judaism is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Since the Sages interpreted “neighbor” as your fellow in mitzvah observance, this verse teaches the primacy of the Jewish people. Ben Azzai taught that the major principle is “This is the book of the generations of Adam” (Gen. 5:1). He is saying that we are all children of Adam; all humans share basic similarities. This, Ben Azzai says, is the main principle of Judaism.

However, the midrash offers a third opinion. R. Tanchuma teaches that the major principle of Judaism is “In the image of God He created him” (Gen. 1:27). Yet, this third opinion seems identical to the second. After all, both verses teach that all people are similar. The Semak (no. 8) explains that R. Tanchuma (his text has Ben Azzai saying this) teaches that we must respect the godliness in others. Even if I don’t enjoy something, I must do it for others who enjoy it. While the Rambam considers this a rabbinic obligation, the Semak sees it as a fundamental expression of the biblical command, which is a function of the divine image in each individual.

IV. Two Kinds of Godliness

To the Semak, the mitzvah of loving your fellow is about finding the godliness in others. We love people by appreciating and respecting their inherent greatness, their abilities and possibilities.

However, the general requirement of lovingkindness (no. 46) and the specific acts of visiting the sick (no. 47) and burying the dead (no. 48) come from an entirely different source. The Semak sees them as emerging from the obligation to imitate God. We are kind to others due to our own godliness, as an expression of our striving to reach God’s heights by acting as He does. Kindness is from our own godliness; love is due to others’ godliness.

This is the opposite of Rambam’s formulation. He sees kind acts emerging from love, from our reaction to others, not from our own godliness. To the Semak, we act kind to others as a tool for building and an expression of our own godliness, while we love others for the godliness they possess.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yashar opens:

    יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול, שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”…

  2. In Alei Shur vol II, pg 152, (sec. 1, ch. 4, “Frumkeit”), R Wolbe cites the Alter of Slabodka: ״׳ואהבת לרעך כמך׳ — שתאהב את רעך כמו שאתה אוהב את עצמך. את עצמך אינו אוהב לשם מצוה, אלא אהבה פשוטה. וכך צריך לאהוב את הרֵע.״

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter



%d bloggers like this: