What is the Jewish view on putting the good of others before what is good for oneself, even when it may conflict with what it good for oneself? (I'm not talking about life and death issues here.)
[Administrator's note: I interpret this question as asking about altruistic behaviors, such as Taharah for a deceased person. Respondents may read it differently - if so, please explain your understanding.]
Judaism is a religion of moderation in all things. We believe in self-preservation. We also believe in righteous giving. We are not ascetics. But, we are also not insatiable. We believe in meeting our physical needs, but not overindulging those needs to a point of greed. Maimonides calls this the middle path. He argues that, “The upright path is the middle path of all the qualities known to man. This is the path which is equally distant from the two extremes, not being too close to either side (Yad Hahazakah 1:4). This sensibility of doing good for others without complete regard for yourself emerges earlier in Jewish tradition, with the teachings of Rabbi Hillel who writes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when (Pirke Avot 1:14)?” And, it is a force for good that urges us to take care of one another, even when it might not be easy for us.
Our mythic history comes from an understanding that once we were slaves in Egypt. It is the story that binds us all together. And, because of this narrative we are taught that we must look out for others who are oppressed and stand up for them. We are told that we cannot remain neutral, but must engage in liberation wherever it is needed.
We put other people’s needs above our own when doing so would not bring great harm to us. If giving someone tzedakah would mean that we are unable to pay our own bills, then our tradition would encourage us to abstain from that kind of giving. If serving on a hevre kadisha to prepare a body for burial would bring too much spiritual anguish, then our tradition would ask us to find a different way to serve the dead and comfort the mourners.
Doing something that damages our own well-being is not a mitzvah. And, doing good for others is not an all or nothing endeavor. But, our tradition would ask us if we can, from a place of integrity, say that we have given full consideration to how we can put the good of our neighbor alongside, if not above, our own. That is the middle path that Maimonides asks us to discover. And, that is what Hillel argued when he asked us to consider if we are only for ourselves, or if we are never for ourselves.
This is quite a broad question, and certainly answers to it can only be general in nature.
Many sources within Judaism teach that although “Love Thy Fellow as Thyself” is an overarching principle of the entire Torah,(as famously taught by Hillel and Rabbi Akiva), charity begins at home. A person is required to see themselves as living for something much grander and more important than one’s own egotistical and parochial needs; to know that they were put in the world to serve, to do for God and for others, and to make the world a better place for all. However, in order to do that, one must be healthy in mind and spirit and body, and have a positive self-image as a person of self worth and great potential who can then perform all of the great tasks that they were put in the world to accomplish. One thus needs to tread the middle path between, on the one hand being giving and altruistic, and on the other hand, not being a “schmatte” (doormat) that allows people to use and abuse them. And so on and so forth in all areas.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has an important lesson to impart on this topic. If you think about it, the verse “Love Thy Fellow as Thyself” seems to set up an impossible ideal. We all know that virtually no one loves ANYONE as much as they love themselves, even their closest friends and family. How then, does the Torah demand of us to love ALL others as much as myself? Impossible!!!
Rav Hirsch says brilliantly that if we think that this is what the Torah demands we have not read the verse properly. The verse does not read ואהבת את רעיך כמוך (Love thy fellow as thyself), but rather ואהבת לרעיך כמוך (Love to thy fellow as thyself).
There is a huge difference here.
As stated above, we cannot possibly love all others as much as ourselves. But that is not what is asked of us. It is the interface between people that is the subject of this mitzvah. The way that we wish to be treated, that which is “to thy fellow”; it is with that same degree of love that we are to treat others. We may not love the other person – we may downright dislike them (although we really need to try not to). But we are to TREAT them with love. Or as Hillel put it, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others”.
Included in this teaching, I believe, is the requirement that just as we would not want to have someone else’s needs have priority over my own in a way that would be injurious to me, so too should I treat others, and not have them expect that their needs
should have priority over mine when they are hurtful to me.
Bottom line – Of course we are to love, respect, and serve others – that is at the core of who we are. But if the demands of others are injurious to ourselves, we need to look at how we wish to be treated, and treat others with same degree of love that we would accord to ourselves.
The question of balancing self-interest with altruism is central in any system of ethics, religious or otherwise. When I think of this question, the first thing that comes to mind is the statement that airline stewards or stewardesses make before the airplane takes off: if the oxygen masks drop down put one on oneself before assisting the person or the child sitting next to you. While this might be a matter of life and death, I believe the sentiment is at the heart of Jewish ethics as well. It is best expressed in the words of Hillel, who taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself then what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) It is no accident that the statement emphasizing self-interest comes first and only then raises the question of responsibility to others. Both are important but one must begin by taking care of one’s self.
Recently, I came across an interesting presentation of this idea in the Torah commentary of Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, a fourteenth century kabbalist. In discussing priorities in giving tzedakah to others, he suggests there are six levels of giving. This list by the way is very different from Maimonides levels of giving. The lowest level is giving to gentiles or to people from other town while the highest levels of giving are to one’s children and one’s parents. Before we condemn Rabbeinu Bachya as being parochial and unfriendly to non-Jews, let’s understand what he is saying. Rabbeinu Bachya is saying we have an obligation to help all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, but we have to prioritize who comes first.
The lowest priority is giving to a needy gentile.
Higher than this is one who gives to a fellow Jew from another town.
Higher than this is one who gives to a fellow Jew from his own town,
Still higher than this is one who gives to his needy relative,
Still higher is one who supports his young children.
Even higher than this is one who supports his aging parents.
Rabbeinu Bachya never mentions supporting oneself but I think we can conclude from this list that he would say that our first obligation to care for ourselves. Beyond ourselves we have an obligation to our immediate family, with parents coming first. We then have a responsibility to care for distant relatives and others in our community. Finally, we should help people from other communities and people outside our immediate community if we are able. One might picture this as a series of concentric circles. We are at the center with the others being in the outer circles.
I would say that Hillel’s well-known aphorism does not encourage saintliness and selflessness; it promotes justice, fairness and perspective. My first responsibility is to take care for myself. We are only encouraged to risk our own wellbeing under the most extreme circumstances. The classic formulation of this question is found in the Talmud Baba Metzia 62a.
Two people are travelling along the way, and one of them has in his possession a flask of water. If both drink from it, they will both die. However, if only one of them drinks, he will be able to make it out of the desert. Ben Petura expounded, “It is better that both should drink and die that that one should witness the death of his fellow.” Then Rabbi Akiva came and taught, “‘Your brother shall live with you’ (Lev. 25:36) — your life comes first, before the life of your friend.
The law, of course, almost always follows Rabbi Akiva. Even though it is dealing with an extreme case of life and death, I think the same principle applies to all matters affecting our well-being.
Thank you for your question. Admittedly, your question has a broad scope. And since it does not ask about a specific issue, I will try and answer to the best of my ability and understanding.
You ask about putting the good of others before oneself – even when it may not be good for you. Judaism’s chief motivation is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. While we may understand this commandment to be a general guide to holy behavior, it has its limitations. We recognize that not all people follow this maxim of reciprocal respect. Therefore, we may end up getting the short end of the stick. We may treat others fairly, while we get mistreated. Our wise ancestors also saw this as a problem, and suggested that perhaps a better approach to holy behavior is to understand that all people were created “b’tzelem Elohim” – in God’s image. Therefore, all people have a spark of divinity within. Therefore, all people have to be treated accordingly. As Jews, our divine mission is to be in service to one another. In this way, we can bring holiness to our world.
And it is from this idea – that our job as Jews is be in service to one another – that I respond to your question.
Yes, we should always strive to do good for other people, to make their lives easier, to help them in their times of need, to comfort them in mourning, and so much more. Being selfless can itself be an act of holiness. But, if service to others causes you harm or distress, then the higher obligation is to take care of yourself first. Of course, this is always dependent upon the situation – but as a general rule of thumb, you are your first priority. Only when you in good stead, can you then help others.
Our job is to be holy messengers, in service to one another. This is why we are called a chosen people – to fulfill this task. This is the mission we have taken upon ourselves as a covenant people. In this way, God’s goodness will be manifest on earth. This is my understanding of the Jewish view of altruism – that we may certainly choose to put the good of others before our own, so long as it does not conflict with our own well-being.
Hopefully, this answers your question, or at least offers one perspective on your quest.