My rabbi and Katharine Hepburn have a lot in common. In my life, they’ve both been great teachers–and of the same lesson, too. One of the most overword terms in Judaism is the Yiddish word mensch. It’s a term that describes a specific type of person. It’s also our most notorious moving target, with a hundred ways to define what one is, but far fewer reliable methods for actually becoming one. As it turns out, my rabbi and Katharine Hepburn have that last part nailed down.
But what is a mensch in the first place? A single Google search will pull up an avalanche of adjectives to describe this most elusive of Jews. She or he (for it is a gender-neutral term) is variously seen as a person of honor and integrity, dignified and noble in character, kind and just, humble in word and deed, guided by Jewish principles of lovingkindness, fairness, and justice, and essentially an all-around good egg. It’s a great goal to aim for, but how often do we, as fallible human beings, miss that mark?
Maybe because as Jews, a stiff-necked people suspicious of the status quo for thousands of years, we have a hard time following rules? Not for nothing, give me another explanation for our short-lived love affair with a golden calf at Sinai when all we needed to do was just chill and wait–with the creator of the universe ready to drop a mountain on our heads if we broke ranks. Clearly, 613 commandments never had a chance.
Talmudic commentary is overflowing with ancient rules and suggestions for how to live a life of the greatest menschlichkeit possible. Do this, not that. No, not that either. But that other thing is a good way to be. Do more of that. Valid and worthy prescriptions for living an honorable Jewish or any other kind of principled life. And yet it’s always seemed like schizophrenic advice to me, because Talmud–and Jewish teaching in general–is equally full of reminders and even outright admonishments to honor the frailty and imperfections of the human condition.
We’re told to guard against the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and lean towards the yetzer hatov (inclination for good), for example. But we’re not told that the former is some sort of polluting desire foisted upon humanity by monstrous outside forces. We’re told it is simply part of who we are–and that part of our journey here on earth is to learn how to be the best we can be given the assumption that we are good but not perfect. Never perfect. And that that’s ok. Being made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, how could we possibly be perfect? Perfection wouldn’t have required Creation to begin with. To my mind, being made b’tzelem Elohim means being made a bit less than perfect. Without our imperfections, we would have no doorways through which to usher in learning, healing, justice, chesed, or any other everyday miracle.
Granted, at Sinai we said first we would do and then we would hear. First we would adopt the commandments, and only then through their performance would we come to understand. But again, see: a stiff-necked people. The teachings of our Sages can inspire us to action. But I think the most powerful inspiration of all–the place where the deepest teachings lie–is learning from each other. Gaining insight from other fellow creatures created b’tzelem Elohim as we experience with them their efforts towards embodying menschdom.
Because there’s a secret to being a mensch. It’s impossible to glean from Judaism’s written rules. It takes actually knowing a mensch to know what it takes to be one.
Here’s where my rabbi and Katharine Hepburn come back in. In the classic 1940 screwball comedy, The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn reprises the role she made famous on Broadway–that of Tracy Lord, a person so wrapped up in her judgment of others that she’s unable to see the person she judges most harshly is herself. She thinks she’s a model of principled living, yet her greatest accomplishment is being emotionally estranged from those she loves the most. By the end of the story, though, she comes to acknowledge–and most importantly, to make peace–with her own human imperfections. It turns out to be the key to truly honoring and connecting with those she loves. As she tells father, “I feel like a human being.” One of my favorite films, I’ve probably watched Hepburn’s journey to menschdom a hundred times.
But only so much can be gleamed from a mensch in a movie. A mensch on a bimah, on the other hand, is a much more powerful teacher. The greatest mensch I’ve ever known, Rabbi Craig Marantz, effortlessly models how to be one every Shabbat on the bimah of my shul, Emanuel Congregation. Rabbi Marantz is a curious rabbi–he doesn’t hide who he is. I don’t think he’d be able to even if he tried. He is as human as the rest of us–but unlike some of us, he is brave enough to share his humanity in front of a congregation. His strengths and his frailties, that which together is the mark of being made b’tzelem Elohim, he is who he is.
It is his superpower. Allowing yourself to stand in the center of all that you are and be at peace–that’s the secret. Letting the isness of your humanity shine, being brave enough to simply be who you are. How many of us would be terrified truly to do that? That’s why being a mensch can seem like such an elusive goal. That’s why 613 commandments aren’t necessarily enough to lead us there. To that tender place that allows in God and our fellow woman and man–because when we stop berating ourselves for being who we are, we stop demanding that other people be other than who they are. Our common broken bits become our strength, and for once a powerful platform form which to perform the everyday miracle of menschlichkeit.
Rabbi Marantz doesn’t miss an opportunity to extol the importance of aiming for menschdom. How much better a world it would be if we could all aim for that very worthy mark. But his most powerful lessons in this regard come from simply watching him be who he is and interact with others. He once shared in Talmud study that his own greatest goal as a rabbi is to help people find the bravery to be who they are.
The secret is that’s how you make mensches. It’s been an elusive goal of mine for years. Except that I’ve spent the past five months watching an entire congregation relax into who they are as people, as Jews, as creations b’tzelem Elohim because of the effortlessness of the mensch modeling we all get to witness every Sabbath on our bimah.
And yet, I know it’s not effortless. Thank you for making the effort, Rabbi. A mensch simply being themselves is perhaps the greatest Jewish lesson of all.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.
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