One of the more important contributions the Jewish people gave the world is basic morals. John Adams wrote to Francis Adrian van der Kemp in 1808: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation.” Three thousand years ago the Jews taught: Do not murder, steal, covet or lie; and today these virtues are universally accepted as self-evident. Even what we do today, positive or negative, is disproportionately noticed—“Jews make news”—and has the power to affect the entire world. The lessons that have been adopted by humanity, however, are generally formed from a superficial conception and do not reflect the essence of the original Jewish prototype.
The lifelong struggle to perfect one’s ethical character and balance emotions and traits (e.g., anger, solemnity, humility, benevolence, parsimony, courage, and cruelty) is considered so axiomatic to Judaism that the Torah does not directly address it. Although most societies have embraced the refinement of one’s ethical character as virtuous, when we contrast the Jewish notion with the prevalent perceptions, the differences are substantial.
Many people consider the benefit to society to be what makes cultured individuals desirable. Everyone wants to live in a pleasant environment where people are respectful and friendly. By this reasoning, a hermit has no need for character development. Other people believe the main goal is to integrate positive qualities. Therefore, a monk living alone would still seek to control his ethical conduct to become an inherently better person. Neither of these approaches accurately represents the Jewish model.
King Shaul failed on his first mission. Compassionate and just, he thought: The men of Amoleik have sinned, but what have the women, children and cattle done? In his pity he spared them, defying a divine directive, and with that was stripped of his throne. His great sin was being too nice. The King’s mercy was so ingrained that he couldn’t act differently.
Although it is always appropriate to make ethical behavior second nature, for Jews the purpose of this second nature is to make it easier to do what we should be doing anyway. An industrious person will occupy himself with meaningful activity and someone with a generous character will be able to share his resources. The key to bear in mind is that ingrained ethics are a tool for serving Hashem and should never stand between us and our Creator.
The delicate balance between internalizing the ethics and allowing them to control us is what separates ordinary people from the extraordinary. The ultimate test for Avrohom Avinu was whether the quintessential giver would suppress his kindness for Hashem’s sake and sacrifice his son. Similarly, Yaakov, the man of honesty, was required by a prophecy to act deceptively in order to merit fathering the chosen nation. Moshe, the paragon of humility, had to conduct affairs with the pomp of monarchy. These leaders passed where King Shaul failed. What Shaul was supposed to do was display cruelty and prove that his mercy is under his control to be used in Hashem’s service.
We are regularly called upon to act paradoxically, exhibiting opposite traits. For example, we are expected to part easily with our own assets while being scrupulously careful with others’ possessions, and to absorb insults to ourselves while defending the dignity of others. This dichotomy offers a deeper insight into why the Torah cannot set a given code of behavior. There is no specific mold, and we are exhorted not to allow any trait to become so much a part of us that we cannot restrain it.
Character refinement may be a universal ethic borrowed from the Jews, but a profundity exclusive to our philosophy was lost in the transmission.