Eugene Korn correctly observes that Jewish ethics focuses on chesed (loving kindness) but creates the mistaken impression that Maimonides and the Gaon of Vilna de-emphasized the chesed imperative (“Brilliance and benevolence,” March 8). Nothing could be further from the teachings of Maimonides or the legacy of the Vilna Gaon.
In his commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers, Maimonides situates the ba’al chesed – the benevolent man – at the top of his list of character types, saying that such an individual is a “wise man who enhances his traits… and his deeds are greater than his wisdom.” The heroic ba’al chesed, as depicted by Maimonides, is not one who simply feels sympathy for another but one who leads an empathetic life by using his talents and capabilities for the benefit of the others. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav), the leading Maimonidean and proponent of the Vilna Gaon’s traditions of our time, explained: “Chesed means more than a passing sentiment, a superficial feeling; chesed means more than a momentary tear or a cold coin. Chesed means to merge with the other person, to identify with his pain, to feel responsible for his fate.”
Amplifying this Maimonidean concept, the Rav taught that “[c]hesed is a movement away from oneself.” It occurs when one “abandon[s] the barriers separating him from the other and let[s] the Thou share not his money or external comfort but his own self.” The Rav characterized chesed as “a spiritual attitude . . . that whatever I have is too much for me” and that can express itself in many ways, depending upon one’s capabilities, talents and inclinations.
Once chesed is properly understood to be the sharing of one’s self with others, it becomes evident that whatever aloofness the Vilna Gaon exhibited in his personal life had more to do with his own social discomfort (something quite common in exceptionally bright people) than a supposed misguided lesson about Torah learning absolving one of caring for and about others. No one can credibly claim that the Vilna Gaon did not give of himself to help, aid, assist and teach others, even if he shied away from personal interactions.
What threatens chesed today is not intellectualism but outspoken support, including by prominent rabbis, for political or economic ideologies that overemphasize the self. The “virtue of selfishness” advocated by an Ayn Rand, for example, is a value system that is directly at odds with the other-focused ideals of chesed. In “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik quoted his noted erudite grandfather, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, concerning the prime responsibility of a rabbi: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.”
The ba’al chesed was the hero of Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk and Rav Soloveitchik. It should be ours as well.