I started Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics, volume 1: You Shall Be Holy. I won’t be doing this book justice in my write-ups about it, since it has so much in it: ancient and modern stories, personal anecdotes, nuggets of wisdom, etc. For this post, I’ll comment on three items.
1. On page 20, Telushkin quotes Beizah 32b, which states: “If someone is compassionate toward others, you can be sure that he is a descendant of our father Abraham, and if someone is not compassionate toward others, you can be sure that he is not a descendant of our father Abraham.” Telushkin then goes on to say that “Sadly, one sometimes meets Jews who, according to this definition, are certainly not spiritual descendants of Abraham.”
This intrigued me because it reminded me of passages in the New Testament that treat descent from Abraham as something spiritual. Jesus tells Jewish leaders in the Gospel of John that they are not true sons of Abraham but rather are sons of the devil, since they do the deeds of the devil rather than those of Abraham (John 8). Paul says that Gentiles who follow Abraham’s faith by believing in Christ are Abraham’s seed, whereas not all Jews are truly a part of Israel. I was somewhat surprised to see a concept of spiritual descent from Abraham in rabbinic Judaism, though perhaps I should not be overly shocked, since Qumran saw itself as the true Israel (or did it?).
2. On page 34, Telushkin says that “Jewish law speaks on donating between ten and twenty percent of one’s net income to charity.” I’ve wondered how Judaism handles the issue of tithing, when there is no longer a Temple to which Jews can give their tithes. Do Jews now tithe by giving ten per cent of their income to charity?
3. On page 89, Telushkin quotes Rava in Mo’ed Kattan 28a, who states (and the brackets are in Telushkin’s book): “The length of one’s life, children [i.e., whether one has them, or the number of children one has] and livelihood depend not on merit, but rather on fate [or fortune]…” Rava tells a story to illustrate this point. There were two great rabbis in the third century: Rav Chisda and Rabbah. Both were righteous, for God answered their prayers for rain. But Rav Chisda had good experiences, whereas Rabbah had bad experiences. Rav Chisda lived until age 92, “witnessed sixty weddings of children and grandchildren” (Telushkin’s words), and had enough bread that he could give fine flour to the dogs. Rabbah, by contrast, lived to age 40, saw a lot of premature deaths in his family, and endured poverty and hunger. According to Rava, their experiences had nothing to do with how moral they were, for both were righteous men.
Rava’s view was not the only one in rabbinic Judaism, however, for Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 says: “For three transgressions women die during childbirth: because they are not meticulous in observing the laws of menstrual separation, in separating the dough offering, and in lighting the Shabbat candles…” Telushkin appears to prefer Rava’s view.