Humility in Judaism

Being humble is one of the key traits that Judaism values.

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Hasidic Perspective

A Hasidic tale tells of a man who came to the Zaddik with a complaint. "All my life," he said, "I have tried to follow the advice of the rabbis that one who runs away from fame will find that fame pursues him, and yet while I run away from fame, fame never seems to pursue me." The Zaddik replied: "The trouble is that while you do run away from fame you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing after you."

It is a paradox in the whole matter of humility that when a man knows his own worth he comes close to being a victim of pride and yet humility cannot mean that a man has to imagine that he is less worthy than he really is. Self-delusion is no virtue and is presumably to be as much avoided as any other delusion by the seeker after truth. "The last infirmity of great minds" is not easily conquered.

This is how Nahmanides deals with the problem of humility in a famous letter he wrote to his son: "I shall explain how you should become accustomed to the practice of humility in your daily life. Let your voice be gentle, and your head bowed. Let your eyes be turned earthwards and your heart heavenwards. When you speak to someone do not look him in the face. Let every man seem superior to you in your own eyes. If he is wise or rich you have reason to respect him. If he is poor and you are richer or wiser than he, think to yourself that you are therefore all the more unworthy and he all the less, for if you sin you do so intentionally whereas he only sins unintentionally."

Modern readers will no doubt find Nahmanides' treatment extreme. Is it possible or even desirable never to look another in the face? Such an attitude will often be insulting. Basically, what Nahmanides seems to mean is that God alone knows the true worth of a man and the extent to which he faces life's challenge with the gifts, or lack of them, that are his fate. The religious basis for humility is that only God knows the true worth of each human being.

On the deeper level, the notion is found, especially in Hasidism, that humility is not the mere absence of pride. Rather it consists not so much in thinking little of oneself as in not thinking of oneself at all. When the Hasidim and other Jewish mystics speak of annihilation of selfhood, they are not thinking of a conscious effort of the will. To try to nullify the self by calling attention to it is bound to end in failure. Instead, the mystics tend to suggest, the mind should be encouraged to overlook entirely all considerations of both inferiority and superiority.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.