Rights, Duties and Covenants
אמר רבא: כל המעביר על מדותיו מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו
Rava said: Whomever is “maavir al midosav“, they [the heavenly court] passes [ma’avirin] over all his sins for him.
— Shabbos 17b
What is this “maavir al midosav“? As we saw earlier:
The first definition will look at is provided by Rashi (ad loc). It’s one who does not mete out judgment to those who mistreat him.
The gemara (Yuma 23a) says it’s someone who forgives others when he is slighted. … How do we explain Rashi’s willingness to give a different translation to that of the gemara? Perhaps they are not so much defining ma’avir al midosav as giving examples of the behavior of someone who mastered this middah rather than the middah itself. In other words, if we view ma’avir al midosav as an attitude, we cannot see it directly in others, and therefore we look at how the person acts. The actual definition, therefore, would be a character trait that would motivate not demanding exact justice and standing on one’s rights and also motivate forgiving slights to one’s honor.
Two obvious questions arise:
We can understand the form of the reward. Someone who forgives others is forgiven himself — it is middah keneged middah, the reward is of the same type as the act. But what is the great value of this middah that the magnitude of the reward is so great. For it to allow the overlooking of all sin would be to imply that the maavir al midosav is someone who mastered a truly central piece of the Torah’s message.
Second, what is this gemara asking of us; are we supposed to be doormats?
To understand this middah, lets look at contrasts from either side:
Western Civiliation, since the American revolution, as tended toward legal system based on defining rights. John Lock wrote of the natural writes of “life, liberty and property”. To Thomas Jefferson, these are endowed by G-d and inalienable, and (perhaps to avoid issues of slavery and what would later be called communism), “property” was replaced by “the pusuit of happiness”. But clearly, the US, and subsequently many other governments, are built on a Lockian conception of the role of law.At first glance, one would think that there is little real difference between a legal system based on defining the rights of each party, and one in which the philosophy is based on one’s duties. After all, is there a difference between granting people a right to property and giving people the duty to avoid theft and damages?
I feel, however, that there are very real differences.
First, a psychological difference. Rights are about protecting “my own” from being encroached upon by others. Rather than looking at what I’m supposed to do, the system is set up to encourage me to make sure I got mine. From which the current culture of entitlement, and the insane abuse of tort law, are a minor step — “Do I still got mine?” to “How can I get mine?” The culture is set up to encourage such a progression.
Second, a rights-based law is about maximizing autonomy. Does each person have sufficient conceptual space, to act with full liberty and freedom? There is no establishment of society’s moral stance. One watches for intereference from others, but one is making an ideal out of maximizing autonomy rather than harnessing that autonomy to some end.
This is a consequence of moral relativism. Because there is no real belief in an absolute moral standard, of a territory people’s personal standards are to map, there can be no meaningful attempt to implement one in the law. Therefore, one encourages freedom to act as an end itself, rather than as a means to greatness.
Therefore is therefore no room in a rights-based law for protecting able minded adults from themselves. So, for example, regardless of one’s position on the immorality of homosexuality, the foundational philosophy of American law does not support such a ban. (I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just observing the facts.) With the goal being the maximization of autonomy, how can one ban what two adults do behind closed doors with no direct impact on others?
However, the lack of establishment of a common moral code is itself damaging to society. No one private violation of moral code, whatever the society holds it to be, will necessarily harm others. But living in a society that doesn’t promote morality, that doesn’t work toward aiming that autonomy toward some higher end, is harmful.
So the Torah does not laud the notion of standing for one’s rights.
However, does this mean this philosophy is wrong for the US? Well, how does halakhah define what’s right for a secular government?
רבי חנניה סגן הכוהנים אומר, הוי מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות–שאלמלא מוראה, איש את ריעהו חיים בלעו.
Rabbi Chanania, the assistant-head of the kohanim would say: You should pray for the peace of the kingdom, for without the fear of it, a person would eat his neighbor alive.
— Avos 3:2
A civil law exists to provide peace. And that the American Constitution does quite well, among the most effective systems in history.
Looking at the other side, why did the US choose a rights-bases system? England was based on duties. These were obligations and prohibitions assigned by royalty and priviledged classes. The other extreme from a rights-based law is one in which our obligations are imposed on us. If rights-based law is overly prone to a culture of entitlement and license, than a duty-based law is equally dangerous because it is prone to totalitarianism, and oppression by a dictatorship or oligarchy.
How then is halakhah structured? The Torah describes itself as a beris. (Technically, multiple berisim are found in it.) A covenant.
How does a contract differ from a covenant? A successful contract is one where the outcome is a win-win. Each party takes away what they need from the deal, in exchange for giving up something that didn’t matter as much to them.
A covenant, however, creates a new community. A marriage is not a contract, an exchange of favors. It creates a new unit, the married couple, and each enters the marriage covenant with the commitment to contribute to the wellfare of that community of two.
Halakhah is neither a system of rights nor of duties to another, it’s a covenantal system by which G-d and the Jewish people (or in the case of Noachide Law, G-d and humanity) form a community together and work to the betterment of that entity.
Let’s look how each of these three would define chessed, kindness:
- Rights-based: There is no equivalent. By definition, a rights based law guarantees that each person gets what is due them. There is no way to phrase a concept of giving people without it being due.
- Duty-based: I am obligated to give to the other.
- Covenantal: I hold a resource of the covenantal community. It is not only mine, but something I was given stewardship of in my role as part of the whole.
This last definition is that of R’ Shimon Shkop, to (yet again) return to his introduction to Shaarei Yosher:
Although at first glance it seems that feelings of love for oneself and feelings of lovefor others are like competing co-wives one to the other, we have the duty to try to delve into it, to find the means to unite them, since Hashem expects both from us. This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level.The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.
In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” — what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts.
Therefore it is appropriate to think about all the gifts of heaven “from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” that they are given to the Jewish people as a whole. Their allotment to individuals is only in their role as caretakers until they divide it to those who need it, to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself….
What then is the profound value of the maavir al midosav? It is the central middah necessary to enter a beris. It truly is the underpinning of the entire Torah, being both necessary for properly accepting the Torah, and for the relationship with your soul, with Hashem and with other people that the Torah calls from you.