Society and Jewish Social Values

    July 1999, Issue Number 23          
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Society and Jewish Social Values


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Opinion & Society

Jewish Values and Social Ethics

By Manny Kupper

    The manner in which we conduct ourselves inside of our society as we relate to our fellow man and to the social structure is in large part determined by the social order in which we grow up. Each country has its particular and differing character which is different from the other countries in the world. This is due in great part to the internal unwritten social values that each particular society esteems and defacto utilizes.

    Judaism, like the above-mentioned national social values, also has its particular values that it requires from its adherents. These stem from the Torah directives, together with the individual Jewish community and their collective system of values. Although the various Jewish communities may claim that their values are inherently Jewish, we shall see that much of the social values from the outside gentile society have crept into even the most Jewish conscious spheres, and has, in many cases, been accepted as a Jewish value when in reality it is not.

    One of the many mannerisms in which this phenomenon surfaces is in the various behavior patterns of the Jewish inhabitants who reside within a particular culture. What happens is that the surrounding values of the gentile culture are absorbed and accepted into the Jewish culture via the media of the native language.

    As an example, we find many words to describe a person. In English we have such a concept as a "gentleman". In Hebrew, as used in the modern Israeli society, there is the word "gever", which, as we shall see, is not the same as a "gentleman". In the Yiddish society, there is a concept of a "mentch", which, also, we shall see, is different from a "gentleman" and from a "gever".

    Each one of these words, "gentlemen", "gever," and "mentch" all have different values. A "gentlemen" can be described as a person who treats another person with dignity, courtesy and respect, even to the point of self-sacrifice. A "gever" is different; he is the top man, the winner, and the strong person to whom others must acknowledge his superiority. A "mentch" is a different type all together. Whereas a "mentch" may not be classified as a gentleman, he could be recognized by his true concern for another and by his honesty.

    To analyze this further, we could say that a "gentleman" is a person that exhibits outwardly concern for another. Inwardly a "gentleman" may not truly be concerned, but as a "gentleman" he is required to act in a concerned manner. A "mentch" could be described as almost the opposite of a "gentleman". A "mentch" is a person to whom another person is an important entity. Whereas polished mannerisms would not be in characteristic with the "mentch", still a true concern for the other person would be mandatory.

    Whereas a "gentleman" is required to act honestly, it is only an external manifestation of the "gentleman" facade. It could be that the "gentleman" is not honest, however, it would be shameful if this were known. A "mentch" on the other hand, if he were not honest, would not be a "mentch".

    Now looking at the "gever", we can see that concern for the other person is not a requirement to be a "gever". It may indicate a weakness on his part which would take away his status as a "gever". Honesty is also not a requisite for a "gever" meaning that if a person is caught being dishonest not only would it not take away from his status of a "gever", it may actually enhance it.

    What we are trying to highlight through this semantic journey, are not the differences in the various words, but the values that the various societies attach to words. It is not the above mentioned words alone that influence our value system, but the entire value system attached to the language used by the host society that permeates unnoticed and becomes part of our personal and national character. Through these word values, the dominant host culture permeates its values on the Jewish community. In defacto acceptance of the language, the value is assimilated into the Jewish community.

    Now we can begin to understand why do Jews who hail from different cultures feel and think so different from their brethren from another land. In realizing this, we can utilize this knowledge to weed out those truly foreign values, and replace them with Jewish values.


from the July 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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