Fishbane-radical kindness

There is a Hebrew word, hesed, in the Bible.  English readers are used to seeing it translated as “loving kindness”.

In Sacred Attunement, Michael Fishbane uses the word when he talks about “radical kindness” as a Jewish practice that goes beyond law and justice.  The Torah does support social order, but hesed goes beyond that.  Sometimes hesed has been subordinated to social order under the category of charity.  But that is a mistake.  Hesed is something altogether different.

It cannot be formalized or made into rules.  It is giving, care and self-sacrifice.  It contrasts to justice in that justice seeks balance and proportion, but hesed is excessive giving without expectation of reward or recognition.

It responds to a wound in the world.  Sometimes it can help to heal the wound with forgiveness and reconciliation.  But when the wound is too great for that (the Holocaust is probably what he is thinking about), it takes the form of remembering while keeping the principal of kindness alive.

Hesed is a letting go or relinquishment of possessions, ego, and hopes.  As such, it is the practice of death.

In the Bible Job was divested of all these.  At first Job responded with self-centered anger. But God spoke to him and asked him a series of ridiculous questions that Job could not answer without impossible cosmic knowledge. Then Job let go and recognized that he was only “dust and ashes”.  So, even when his fortunes were restored, he had a new sense of detachment and was prepared for his mortal death.

This rabbinic interpretation of Job says that Job had to come to naught in order to find the selflessness that is expressed in hesed.  He had to go through an ultimate divestment in order to arrive at kindness and love.

This radical kindness is based on finally seeing the living divine image “that appears to each person through the other.”

I am going to refrain from detailing how this might fit with a Christian understanding of what happened in Christ.  Fishbane is thinking entirely within a Jewish framework.  But it does show Judaism as far from the legalism that is part of many stereotypes.  It shows how Christian and Jewish concepts and practice have much in common.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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3 Responses to Fishbane-radical kindness

  1. seraph127 says:

    “This rabbinic interpretation of Job says that Job had to come to naught in order to find the selflessness that is expressed in hesed. He had to go through an ultimate divestment in order to arrive at kindness and love.”

    I have to disagree with this interpretation. I think it hinges on a conventional, and wrong translation which has morally bowdlerized the original text. In his most interesting work God: A Biography, Jack Miles points out that the Hebrew verb is not in the reflexive form and (taking “dust and ashes” as a metaphor for human mortality and fragility) renders “Now that I have seen you for myself, I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.” Lisa Davison,in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, suggests “I reject and regret dust and ashes”. In the end, Job is not really contrite – he simply acknowledges that God, exercising his sovereign prerogative, will not give him the accounting he demands. Job gives the appearance of being wisdom literature in the old near-eastern tradition while subverting it by repudiating its central tenet: that the righteous prosper while the wicked suffer. The book of Job, I think, does not exist to resolve the problem of evil but to confront us with it.

    • I find that I often question the interpretations made by the rabbis, the church fathers, and the reformers. I certainly agree with you that the point of Job is not to resolve the problem of evil.

      • seraph127 says:

        I too favor critical appropriation of our intellectual forbears. Although sometimes I am tempted to treat them as authoritive when I’m citing one of them in order to intellectually browbeat someone I disagree with 🙂

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