In every society there are those special individuals who are super-ethical and who try not to merely live by what the law obligates them to do, but they constantly seek to go beyond the letter of the law. Even in the non-legal frameworks of life, these people spend their lives giving to others, putting the needs and desires of other people above their own. These kind individuals often dedicate their lives to living altruistically, and are not so much concerned about what is required of them, but rather about the maximum they can do in whatever realms that they consider to be “doing the right thing.” In Judaism, too, there are Jews who strive to live beyond the letter of the law and maximize their actions, both in the man-to-man framework as well as the man-to-G-d obligations. This chapter will examine this general attitude, and show how Judaism differs from all other societies in regard to this important value. The sources will also reveal that what seems to be a very straightforward concept is actually much more complicated and subtle in Judaism.
IS A CHASID THE SAME AS HE WHO GOES BEYOND THE LETTER OF THE LAW?
Long before the Chassidic movement which began the 1700’s, the term “Chasid” connoted in Judaism an individual full of Chesed-kindness, who naturally went beyond the letter of the law in all areas of Jewish mitzvot. In fact, G-d, as the ultimate role model for all Jews to aspire to, is called both a Tzadik-Righteous and also a Chasid-Kind. And if we follow the view of Maimonides, the individual who is a Chasid, who constantly seeks to further his or her observance, is synonymous with the concept of Lifnim Meshurat Hadin-going beyond the requirement of Jewish law.
When Rabbi Meir states that he who learns Torah for its own sake is fit to be a Tzadik-Righteous person and a Chasid-Kind individual, Maimonides specifically explains the word and concept of “Chasid” as the Jew who acts Lifnim Meshurat Hadin-goes beyond the requirement of Jewish law. Maimonides elaborates upon this concept in his book of Jewish law when he explains his ethos of following the Golden Mean. The ideal is to follow the middle path of any ethical value, and not to veer to any one extreme. However, when a person has a natural inclination to go further in one direction regarding a certain character trait such as a person who is haughty and immodest, for example, the way to correct this imperfection is to go to the opposite direction for a time and become very self-deprecating in order to eventually follow the Golden Mean. People who always want to self-correct by going to a more extreme side of any value are called Chasidim, and this method of behavior to maximize one’s values and actions is called Lifnim Meshurat Hadin-going beyond the requirements of Jewish law. In another of his writings, Maimonides explains this type of behavior further and says that this path of ethical conduct, is a means of putting a “fence” around improper conduct and guarding against going to the wrong extreme and giving in to one’s nature. Once again, Maimonides calls this behavior Lifnim Meshurat Hadin-going beyond the requirement of Jewish law.
In referring to a Torah scholar or a noted pious person, Maimonides says that there are times when such a person does nothing technically wrong or against Jewish law, but because of this person’s notoriety and expected greatness, a small miscue even within the parameters of Jewish law may often lead to a desecration of G-d’s name in the eyes of others. To avoid this, such great Jews should be careful to go beyond the letter of Jewish law and do what is “right” – i.e., what will cause other people to think better of Judaism because of this person’s actions. He gives as examples taking an item for purchase without paying now (but paying later), which is legal but not “proper,” or excessive laughter when eating with non-learned Jews, which is not against Jewish law but appears improper. In all of these examples, Maimonides describes behaviors that are clearly optional, that certain Jews decide to take on for various reasons, and seems to equate pious behavior with that of going beyond the letter of Jewish law.
However, contrary to this view of Maimonides, there is a verse in the Torah which seems to obligate such behavior. The verse states, “You shall do that which is good and upright in the eyes of G-d,” which Rashi explains as an obligation by the Jew to go beyond the letter of the law, and to try to arrive at a compromise in any disagreement with others, even when the law does not say it is required. Based on this verse, therefore, this type of behavior is not optional and reserved for the few truly pious individual Jews, but it seems to be a general requirement for all Jews.
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and four grandchildren.
This essay is reprinted from the book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” published by Urim, or the upcoming books, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to Man” or “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d” to be published in the future. This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).