Jewish Attitudes to Pride

Judaism frowns on excessive pride--but how much is too much?


Pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues. The Talmudic Rabbis, perhaps because of their awareness that scholars are easily tempted to lord it over the ignorant, denigrate pride in the most caustic terms. 

God and the proud man, a Talmudic saying has it, cannot reside together in the same world. Pride is an abomination akin to idolatry and the self-sufficiently proud deny the basic principle of Judaism that God is the Lord of creation.

In another Rabbinic homily, Sinai is said to be the lowest of the mountains, which is why God gave the Torah on this mountain rather than on a loftier one. For the same reason, when God revealed Himself to Moses, He did so out of a lowly bush (Exodus 3:2). The Torah, say the Rabbis, is compared to water which flows only downwards, never upwards. The proud man can never truly assimilate the teachings of the Torah.

Yet one Rabbi declared (Sotah 5a) that a scholar should have an ‘eighth of an eighth’ of pride out of respect for his own learning. His colleague remonstrated: ‘He should not possess it (pride) or part of it,’ quoting the verse: ‘Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 16:5).’

Teachings from Luzzatto

The Jewish moralists stress that avoidance of pride is not to be confused with self-deception. If a man has a good mind and worthy qualities he is not expected to try to ignore them, only not to take credit for them. Whatever talents a man possesses should be seen as God’s gifts to him, undeserving though he is of them.

Moses Hayyim Luzzatto in his Path of the Upright exposes the various masquerades the proud man adopts:

‘Another imagines that he is so great and so deserving of honor that no one can deprive him of the usual signs of respect. And to prove this, he behaves as though he were humble and goes to extremes in displaying boundless modesty and infinite humility. But in his heart he is proud, saying to himself, “I am so exalted, and so deserving of honor, that I need not have anyone do me honor. I can well afford to forgo marks of respect.”‘

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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