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By Hyphen Parent
According to your faith tradition, what makes a good person?
In Yiddish, the word Mensch means a good or honorable person. Being a mensch is the goal in Judaism.
When asked to briefly summarize the whole of the Torah, Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” A mensch is one who must show compassion and respect to others and themselves.
Judaism does not believe it holds a monopoly on menschlichkeit. One does not have to be Jewish to be a good person. One doesn’t have to subscribe to any particular faith or even any faith at all.
There is actually a Chassidic story on the lessons learned from atheists.
“God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that god commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”
“This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”(Tales of Hasidim Vol. 2 by Mar)
Judaism holds firmly to the idea of tikkun olam. We believe we are obligated to help repair the world. So a good person is one who works to do so.
“Tzedek Tzedek tirdof” (Deut 16:20) Torah tells us. “Justice Justice shall you pursue.” A good person works for justice. Hillel adds to this with his oft-quoted wisdom, “If I’m not for myself who will be for me? If I’m only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?” A good person fights for justice for themselves and for others.
Judaism acknowledges the good (yetzer tov) and evil inclination (yetzer hara) in each person. A mensch is not someone who only has a good inclination. Every human has both. To be a good person, one will wrestle with both the good and evil inclinations. A mensch is someone who uses their free will to chose righteousness.
Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories, the self-proclaimed Jewish Molly Weasley, hobbit-sized, and best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.