Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman says that a life permeated by chesed, kindness, is close to the divine.
He explores this concept in his new book “Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul” (Yeshiva University Press: The Michael Scharf Publication Trust).
|Rabbi Daniel Feldman|
“The expression of chesed is one of the key missions of the Jewish people, and one in which one of God’s dominant themes is expressed to the world,” Feldman told The Jewish Standard last week. “The book is an attempt to allow for a more extensive understanding of the concept, as reflected through the halachic analysis of the relevant concepts, and the light that analysis casts on the underlying themes and values.”
Integrating Judaism into one’s personality is a favored topic for Feldman, a Talmud and Jewish studies instructor at the Stone Beit Midrash program at New York’s Yeshiva University and the religious leader of Cong. Etz Chaim in Teaneck. He is the co-editor of six volumes of talmudic essays and the author of “The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations” (Jason Aronson, 1999).
Chesed is among the fundamental responsibilities that define a Jew, Feldman said. Beyond just living a life dedicated to Torah law, studying the theories of the logic behind the laws can play a major role in influencing and developing personality traits, he said. A kind personality is a model of the divine, he added, and creating a “divine personality” is humanity’s ultimate goal.
Feldman wants readers to understand “the central role that chesed, and the entire interpersonal realm, occupies in Jewish thought and practice, and the value of study of the fundamental concepts toward creating a personality that emulates God. We are told that God’s essence is represented in mercy and kindness, underlying principles of chesed as a whole.”
The chapters in “Divine Footsteps” are devoted to different aspects of kindness: the kindness of taking care of the dead; the “double kindness” of nichum aveilim, comforting mourners; bikkur cholim, visiting the sick; hakhnasat orchim, hospitality; hakhnasat kallah, bringing joy to a bride and groom; sharing; and taking responsibility for collecting, managing, and distributing charity – this is different from the mitzvah of giving tzedakah, Feldman explains in the book.
While in the book Feldman refers to the “double kindness” of taking care of the dead and the prominence of the kindness of visiting the sick, he brushed aside the idea that one form of chesed is greater than another.
“All the aspects of chesed are important, and each one contains its own themes and emphasis,” he said. “That said, people often feel drawn to a particular type, and that likely indicates that there is an area of chesed on which they can focus and make an individualized contribution.”
Some religions, particularly Hinduism, believe in karma – the concept that a person is punished or rewarded in life for his or her behavior. While Feldman said he hopes that there is such a reward for performing acts of chesed, that should not be one’s underlying motivation.
“Chesed is its own reward, as it contributes so fundamentally to who we are and can become,” he said.
Feldman would like to continue exploring interpersonal relationships in his writing, but first he is likely to focus on another volume of talmudic essays. Judaism offers so much in terms of the interpersonal, he said, which is why he has focused so much on those ideas.
“There is such a wealth of halachic literature on these themes, and most people are unaware of that,” he said. “Considering that this is a realm where study has a unique value, I wanted to make the analysis of these themes available.”