On being a mensch--an upstanding member of society--and leading an ethical life.


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Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

In the old days, proverbially, a boy would begin his bar mitzvah speech with the words, “Today I am a man.” What does Judaism have to say about being an adult? The answer can be summed up by the Yiddish word mensch, “a decent human being.”

Who are we as human beings? We exist because of a choice–a choice by God to create the world. The world was created unfinished, incomplete, and flawed. God created humans to be partners in the completion of the world. Who better than human, who are of this world and yet created in God’s likeness, to finish the work of creation?

What are we to do? What is asked of us? Something both simple and immensely complex–to be a mensch, a caring, ethical human being.

Walk in God’s Ways

Maimonides (the great medieval Jewish thinker)–near the beginning of his code, the Mishneh Torah–sets out the prime directive: ve-halakhta bi-drakhav, “you should always walk in God’s ways.” This is how we are to journey through the world.

We are always to remember that we are created in God’s image. As the rabbis said: “Just as God is kind, so should you be kind; just as God is merciful, so should you be merciful; just as God is holy, so should you be holy” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 113b).

Maimonides says: “There are many different attributes. One person is temperamental and always angry, another is very even tempered and is never angry, one is arrogant, another humble, lustful, or pure, etc.” (1:1–all references are to the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ethical Ideas [De’ot], chapter and section, unless otherwise noted).

We thus have characteristics that are both hereditary and acquired. For Maimonides the right path, God’s way, is that of the middle ground. We should “neither be easily angered nor be like one dead that does not feel” (1:4).

We should try to live a simple life. “Don’t desire except those things your body needs, without which you could not live. Do not become obsessed with your work. Remember its basic purpose is to secure the necessities of life” (1:4). How do we achieve this middle path, the way of balance? We are to repeat a measured response over and over until it becomes a part of us.

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Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

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