Judaism: the 'Incredible' balancing act between rights and duty

  • ParshaRabbiWidmonte
There is a scene from the marvellous animation, The Incredibles, which is indelibly seared into my memory. We join the superhero, Mr Incredible, on a regular night of saving the world when suddenly, his attention is caught by a man, Oliver Sansweet, about to cast himself off the top of a building. We watch the attempted suicide tumble off the roof, and we witness that moment of decision on Mr. Incredible’s face, we see the conviction, “Not on my watch!”
by RABBI RAMON WIDMONTE | Jun 21, 2018

Our hero gathers himself and leaps across the chasm, catching the victim and crashing together with him through plate glass into the opposite office block. We breathe a sigh of relief – success! But there is a twist to the tail: later in the film, Mr. Sansweet sues Mr. Incredible because, as his lawyer claims, “Mr. Sansweet didn’t ask to be saved, Mr. Sansweet didn’t want to be saved, and the injuries received from Mr. Incredible’s actions … cause him daily pain.” We are stunned by the absurdity.

In this brief episode are captured the essences of Judaism and the tension it shares with societies which identify themselves entirely with the rights of their members.

There are two primary pillars to Judaism. On the one hand, from the youngest ages we teach our children, and inject into our social discourse the need for chessed – lovingkindness. We teach that Sarah and Avraham had a tent with four openings so that guests would see that they would be welcome from any direction. It is an overflowing of care with unconditional positive regard and no judgement at all. We see Avraham’s concern even for evildoers as he pleads for their lives. We drum this again and again into our children – “Care, love, don’t judge! Welcome in even the idolaters as Sarah and Avraham did, and let your example be the lesson.” This concept is so central that Maimonides states famously that we doubt the Jewish lineage of someone who is cruel and unmerciful. From this perspective, as a Jew, we face the world and ask, “How can I help?”

But we have another pillar, and that is law. We are the nation which stood at Sinai and received the Torah, with 613 mitzvot, and although we often use it to mean “good deed,” the word mitzvah means, “commandment”. In this sense, we have the honour, privilege and heavy responsibility to live lives governed by a moral code, which we accepted as a community, but with which we all struggle as individuals, at various points in our lives. This law changed the world; as George Steiner puts it, “We are to discipline soul and flesh into perfection. We are to outgrow our own shadow. A fundamental edict of ethical self-fulfilment, of self-surpassing, underwrites the [Ten Commandments] … No fibre of our native complaisance, libido, inattention, mediocrity and sensualities escapes moral and legalistic exposure… Nietzche’s ‘become what you are’ is the antithesis to the Sinai-imperative. ‘Cease being what you are, what biology and circumstance have made you. Become, at a fearful price of abnegation, what you could be.’” On this view, we face the world and ask, “What is my transformative duty?”

So here we are, like Mrs. and Mr. Incredible. We are animated by two urgent drives: we have the desire to help and nurture, which is inward and voluntary; but on the other hand, even if we didn’t feel anything for that victim, the law, the Torah, would demand that we make the leap, because it is our duty.

Now often, these two pillars overlap – we have mitzvot which mandate that we visit the sick, not judge our fellow unfavourably, not slander, treat another’s possessions and dignity with the same care we would our own, and more. But sometimes they collide.

Our bill of Rights

Against this background we understand Mr. Sansweet’s legal suit. Coming from a society which identifies itself completely with the rights its individuals enjoy, Mr. Sansweet is claiming, “I had the right to take my own life, and you, Mr. Incredible, infringed on my rights; it is my body, my life, to do with as I please!” And from a rights-based perspective, Sansweet is correct. The South African constitution on which we pride ourselves, can never command us to fulfil a duty, all it can do is enshrine the passive enjoyment of our rights by preventing others from infringing on them; but there is a yawning gap between a community activated by ensuring its individuals’ rights, and a duty-centric society. One of those differences lies in the rights vs. duties focus; and another lies in the balance between the community’s needs and those of its individuals.

Being Judged or Being Uplifted

The obvious human pitfall is that it is all too easy to choose one pillar over the other. We see many people who care, but who have less regard for Torah’s law; and sadly we also see those whose gaze is filled with the law but who cannot seem to see those in pain around them. And so we all delight in judging those who fall short on the criteria we deem most important (which just so happen to be the criteria we fulfil.) As the Maharal states so pithily, we feel a sense of achievement when we see others achieve less than ourselves, and we imagine G-d, judging them, to be proud of us.

Rav Kook explained that this conception of G-d – as the judge of achievement in these two pillars - is one of the darkest fantasies preventing people from forming a profound, spiritual connection with Hashem, “Hashem's being, as conceived by the multitude and even by individuals who should be their leaders, is that of a ruthless power from whom there is no escape and to whom one must necessarily be subservient. No grandeur of Hashem is then manifest in the soul, but only the lowliness of wild imaginings, that conjure up a form of some deceptive, vague, angry god that is dissociated from reality. It confuses everyone who believes in it, depresses his spirit, blunts his feelings, inhibits the assertion of his sensibilities, and uproots the divine glory in his soul.” Rather, Rav Kook explains, as one approaches Hashem, the infinite source of Care and Law, “One senses infinite transcendence of the whole … pleasure and pride, a sense of inner power adorned by every kind of beauty. When this perception of Hashem's majesty develops in the soul, in all its dimensions … it fills life with peace to the extent that the individual recognizes the greatness of the whole and the majesty of its source.”

On this view, both the love and the law are aimed at enabling us to bond with the infinite source of life, channelling G-d’s structure for life as well as G-d’s care into an imperfect world and an imperfect me.

I am created, because I am imperfect; I embrace that. Devaluing myself or another for their imperfections is questioning G-d’s wisdom in creating us in the first place. We combine our two pillars with a humble acceptance that each of us will struggle, and each of us will grow: that we will not be as caring as we should be, but we will try harder, and that we will not uphold the law as much as we should, but we will also try harder.

We will also transcend the bounds of our individualism, becoming a community of aspirants – knowing we will fall short, but knowing that we will all walk together, accepting each other’s humanity (both the faults and the greatness), helping each other ascend on both pillars: love and law.


Those who don’t fit in

In every generation there are those in our community who feel excluded from this vision. A student of Jewish thought and history will see this over the entire history of our people, and the issues around which the exclusion takes place, change radically. In Hellenistic Israel, the issues were philosophy and beauty: there were those Jews who felt that the entire world-view of Judaism was dated and barbaric and whose identity was instead grounded in the all-consuming Greek outlook of hedone. In Maimonides’ era, there was a generation of Neo-Platonists who rooted their identities in a semi-mystical stoic philosophy. At times, there have been other fault lines of self and identity. And in each generation, Judaism has applied a fairly consistent approach: accepting without judgement the right of the individual to be torn and conflicted, and supporting the individual; but openly opposing the conflicting world-view.


One of the major fault lines today is the grouping of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender.

In some senses, these are not new ideas – as Jews we have lived in many societies in which sexuality, as a concept, did not even exist. In fact, Paul-Michel Foucault, the post-modernist philosopher, in his classic, The History of Sexuality, makes the bold claim that the very idea of sexuality is a modern construct. Whether it is or it isn’t, Jews have lived in societies in which a variety of sexual practises abounded and which were paid no attention.

Today, there is a growing group of people who openly assert a wide variety of sexual orientations and genders. Moreover, we see the plight of many Jews in this space, who are deeply conflicted, lonely and feel that they are not welcome as Jews.

Here we reach the climax of this issue. On the one hand, in a society which is based on human rights, we all have the legal right to be treated in certain ways (as much as Yuval Noah Harari points out that such rights are human-constructed legal fictions which we try to wish into existence); but Judaism is not a rights-based enterprise, Judaism has two pillars, and one of those is duty, not rights.

So what is the duty of a Jew towards a gay friend, brother or child?

All the laws which apply to a fellow Jew apply to a fellow gay Jew; we are both mutually obligated. He is required to fulfil the mitzvot and so am I. If I intentionally speak lashon hara (which I do at times), his duty is still to behave towards me as a fellow: he may not judge me unfavourably, he must visit me when I am ill, and he may give me an aliya in shul. In the reverse, the same holds for me. An individual who is gay is no less a Jew, as Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein discussed in a recent Headlines podcast. Torah has no stigma within or without for people with differing sexual orientations or genders; it does not categorise such people in a particular way, there is no “gay” category in Torah. As my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein pointed out, there are some acts in the Torah which have the additional qualifier of being termed a “to’eivah”, such as not giving charity to the poor, cheating on weights and measures, and also homosexual sex; however, this does not create an halachic or social category of opprobrium (we sadly have a fair number of people who juggle weights and measures). Interestingly, the Torah does have a category for habitual speakers of lashon hara – they are called ba’alei lashon hara, and in the view of the saintly Chafetz Chaim, such Masters of Lashon Hara, prevent the arrival of the moshiach.

Additionally, we have other duties towards such Jews – duties to be sensitive to their loneliness and needs – as we should be to anyone who is more vulnerable amongst us. The rate of suicide amongst gay Jews is a tremendously alarming fact.

But, as we said above, this doesn’t mean an acceptance of the rights-based culture and societal outlook which governs most Western liberal democracies. For those people who assert that their primary identity is their sexuality, the Torah responds that in its view, a person’s primary identity is a human being created in the image of G-d and empowered and boundaried by love and law. These are indeed two very different approaches, and Torah would oppose, publicly and clearly, the former view, whilst recognising that individuals may feel very deeply that that is how they identify.

Torah is duty-based, focused on responsibilities, and in such a space there is no doubt that a gay Jew will sometimes feel very excluded; so too will other individuals who feel their identities are not affirmed fully within the encompassing Jewish communal identity; but I believe that we have good reason (based on our historic track record) of being able to navigate this tension for most individuals. It is our duty as Jews to ensure that we focus as holistically as possible on the full gamut of mitzvot, both the love and the law, to preach what we practise and to practise what we preach. If we do this, with true unconditional regard, most Jews will, please G-d, feel both, the tension (and perhaps pain) between their individual sense of identity and need for communal affirmation, but also the warm love and acceptance of being of value and of belonging to an embracing collective.

The full unedited version.


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