Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi – Being a mensch.


Q.  What does “being a Mensch” really mean?

A.  When you learn the halachah, they tell you about the fifth volume of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law).

Joseph Karo wrote four volumes, but there is a further, unwritten book which tells you how to live life as a whole, and it is called, “How to be a Mensch”.

A “Mensch” is defined in “The Joys of Yiddish” (p.240), as “an upright, honorable, decent person (with) character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel explains: Man is made in the image of God. This is not mere theology but a guide for practical living. The most nearly divine thing that exists in the world is a human being. As a Mensch, therefore, I must value myself. I mustn’t get too high and mighty and imagine I am God: but neither must I denigrate myself and think I am nothing.

When I appreciate myself and make the most of my potential, then I can learn to love the other person, for they too are made in the image of God. That is what the Torah means in the Golden Rule, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18).

There are positive ways to love others such as recognising their needs and enhancing their happiness.

There are negative ways too – notably, trying to feel and alleviate their pain and gently protecting them even from themselves.

The sages of Yavneh understood Menschlichkeit when they advised everyone to echo these words: “I am God’s creature; my neighbour is also His creature. My work is in the city; his is in the field. I rise early to do my work; he rises early to do his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work. Perhaps you say: I do great things, and he does small things? It matters not that a man does much or little, if only he directs his heart to Heaven” (Berachot 17a).

In Jewish life we can do with more Menschlichkeit.

Jews of all backgrounds and all points of view are part of the totality of the Jewish people; the Midrash says of the four species of plants taken on Sukkot, that all are held together to denote that all are precious and all have their place in the community.


Q.  At a house of mourning I saw that Psalm 49 was read after the regular prayers and noticed that the psalm makes a distinction between “b’nei adam” and “b’nei ish”.  I thought that “adam” and “ish” were interchangeable words for “man”.  Is the psalm saying something different?

A.  There are several Biblical words for “man”.

In Psalm 49 the contrast between “b’nei adam” and “b’nei ish” is probably contrasting “low-status man” and “high-status man”.

The same psalm makes another distinction between “ashir”, the rich, and “evyon”, the poor.

One of the High Holyday liturgical hymns contrasts “Melech Elyon”, the high king (i.e. God) and “melech evyon”, the poor or lowly king (i.e. the human being).


Q.  Why is the famous synagogue in Prague called “Alt-Neu”, literally “Old-New”?

A.  This is the oldest synagogue still standing in Europe. Built before 1270, it is still in use.

The name “Altneu” (“old-new”) probably originated after some early reconstruction or renovation project.

Because of his Prague connections, Herzl probably had this name in mind when he called a novel Altneuland – “Old-New Land”. The name has often been used homiletically to urge congregations to put new life into old synagogues.

One must add that there is a theory that “Altneu” is a version of the Hebrew “al t’nai”, “on condition”.

According to this view, the synagogue was regarded as so old that it was actually built with stones from the Temple in Jerusalem, which were used “al t’nai” that when the Messiah arrived the stones would be returned to the Holy Land and re-erected as part of the Third Temple.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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