How to Be a Mensch

Couple talking with rabbi in synagogue
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One of the amazing things about language is how words from one culture can seamlessly mesh with those of another. Take the word “mensch,” which has become fairly common in American English and is often understood as meaning “a good person.” True, "mensch” does generally mean “a good person,” but this Yiddish term also goes much deeper. In fact, it is steeped with Jewish concepts of what it means to be an individual of integrity.

Another Yiddish/German word, menschlichkeit, refers to all the qualities that make someone a mensch.

Here are four Jewish values that can help each of us become a modern-day mensch:

Help Others

This may seem like a no-brainer but too often we become so engrossed in the details of our own lives that we forget about the importance of helping others. Whether someone needs a small favor or their life is in danger, Jewish law requires us to intervene so long as we can do so without putting ourselves at risk. "Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed," says Leviticus 19:16.

Taken in its most literal sense, this biblical quote brings to mind the case of Kitty Genovese, who was a twenty-eight-year-old woman murdered in New York City in 1964. Thirty-eight people witnessed her death and heard her screams for help, but not one of them called the police. When interviewed later, witnesses said things like "I was tired" and "I didn’t want to get involved." Psychologists have since named this phenomenon the "bystander effect," concluding that a person is less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present.

They assume others are more qualified or that someone else will take care of it. While Jewish law does not require you to rush into a dangerous situation to play the hero, it does require you to do everything in your power to safely help someone in danger. If just one of Kitty’s bystanders had taken this to heart by picking up the phone, she might still be alive today.

Of course, there are more everyday applications of this principle. From speaking up for someone in your community, to helping someone find a job, to befriending a new member of your congregation. Saving someone from the pain of humiliation or loneliness is a powerful way to be a positive influence. Don't assume that someone else will step in or that you are not qualified to lend a hand.

  • "From where do we learn that if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf, you are not permitted to remain silent? From "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." – Sifra Leviticus on 19:16.

Do the Right Thing the Right Way

Winston Churchill once said, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." How does this apply to menschlichkeit? A mensch not only helps others but does so with the right attitude – and without expectation of return. For instance, if you help a friend find a job that is a noble thing to do, but if you repeatedly joke that they "owe" you or brag about your influence to others, then a good act has been tarnished by a negative attitude.

Be a Peacemaker

Judaism asks us not only to be kind to others but to do so even when we really – really – don’t want to.

There is an enlightening passage about this in Exodus 23:5 which states: 'If you see your enemy's donkey lying down under its burden, and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him." Translated into modern terms, if you are driving down the road and see someone you greatly dislike stranded by the side of the road, standing next to their broken-down car, you should not think to yourself "Ha! That's what he gets!" and drive on by. Rather, Judaism asks us to stop and help our enemies when they are in need. Unlike Christianity, which commands people to love their enemies, Judaism commands us to act justly and to treat our enemies with compassion. The only exception to this rule is in the case of truly evil people, such as Adolf Hitler. In cases like this Jewish texts warn us against misplaced mercy that may ultimately allow the perpetrator to commit additional acts of cruelty.

  • "The whole of the Torah is for promoting peace, as it is written, 'Her ways are pleasant, and all her paths peaceful." – Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 59b.

Strive to Be a Better Person

Genesis 1:27 teaches that God created man and woman in the Divine image: "God created mankind in God's own image... male and female God created them." This relationship between humanity and the Divine is an excellent reason to treat our bodies, minds and souls with respect, which can be anything from eating healthfully to taking a moment every morning to appreciate the gift of another day. By appreciating who we are and striving to become better we can enjoy life to the fullest and be a positive influence in our community. After all, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav once said, "If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?"

Here's a reflective exercise to conclude. If you died tomorrow, what four things would you want to be remembered for?

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Pelaia, Ariela. "How to Be a Mensch." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-to-be-a-mensch-2076774. Pelaia, Ariela. (2017, July 4). How to Be a Mensch. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-be-a-mensch-2076774 Pelaia, Ariela. "How to Be a Mensch." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-be-a-mensch-2076774 (accessed November 21, 2017).