Toward a Hermeneutics of Generosity

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 9, 2018 / 24th Shevat 5778

Summary: Rabbi Kosak studies one of the many mitzvot (commandments) that appear in this week’s Torah portion and analyses its essential importance for our time and place. He offers a skill we can practice to help improve our relationships with others.

Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) is arguably the most glorious legal section of the entire Torah. It features rich material that addresses legal and religious matters even while providing a welcome dose of wisdom. Almost any single law from this section of the Pentateuch has generated enough material to occupy a student for long months, if not years. Here, laws of holiness stand proudly next to the obligations of property owners to secure their land so that even trespassers will not come in harm’s way.

The opening verses of chapter 23 sounds like a rebuke to our cultural climate. It states that “you must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong–you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty-nor shall you show deference to a poor person in their dispute.”

While these lines were originally oriented to court proceedings, they form part of our tradition’s corpus of sacred writings that emphasize proper speech conduct. The Chofetz Chayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) gathered and systematized much of this material in some of his famed works, such as the book Shemirat Halashon–Guard Your Tongue.

It is beyond the scope here to detail the laws and complexities of when one is obligated to speak, and when one is required to bite the tongue. What is telling is the Torah’s injunction that we can not favor the powerful or the meek simply because of their relative positions. Robust justice requires we set aside two human habits–our love and protection of the underdog and the deference we show to the rich and powerful.

What I am think about is our society’s need for a new code of speech, one that is cognizant of social media and societal polarization, one that helps us nurture relationships rather than tear them apart. That sounds like a tall order, but recently I heard a podcast that explored why savings rates in certain countries, particularly Asian countries, was substantially higher than in Western lands.

The authors of the study ruled out for educational and other differences. They concluded that the one variable which explained the gap in savings rates was the verb structure of languages. Western languages separate out past, present and future. In several Asian languages, though, the past present and future overlap in such a way that people saved more in those cultures because they didn’t divorce their future selves from their current selves.

(As an aside, Biblical Hebrew did not possess a past, present or future tense either–rather, it divided time up by whether actions were continuous or discrete. Modern Hebrew, influenced by European languages, imposed our Western time sense on to those early Biblical verb forms.)

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if language could reduce the gap we feel between ourselves and others the same way it increased savings rates? We might develop the more just society which Torah urges us to build. We might take better care of one another, rich and poor alike.

We can’t readily change English–although as our nation struggles with how to talk about gender, we are witnesses to how the language is undergoing rapid transformation as it tries to reckon with how different individuals experience gender. So we can’t readily change English, but that doesn’t leaves us without tools.

Here’s one: we can practice a “hermeneutics of generosity.” It’s a phrase coined by Dr. Paul Farmer who was a Harvard trained physician who dedicated his life to curing infectious disease in some of the world’s poorest countries. He also was a founder of Partners in Health (A book about his life, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” is available).

Basically, a hermeneutics of generosity demands that we initially interpret the words, statements and deeds of others in a positive light. “But wait a minute,” I can hear someone say, some stuff that people do/say is just wrong.” Or, “isn’t this the same as ‘give everyone the benefit of the doubt?’” Yes, and…

“An H of G,” as Farmer called it, demands that we remain curious about a person’s actions or statements. Because a hermeneutics of generosity is also tethered to a relentless search for the truth, it doesn’t let bad actors off the hook. What it does is change our initial posture toward those whose deeds or actions we try to write off as wrong or evil or mean-spirited. We presume they have good intentions, and seek to understand what those intentions are. In the process, we strengthen the relationship, and often guide that other person to a more enlightened perspective, even as we in turn learn from them.

Parshat Mishpatim is truly remarkable in the way it juxtaposes the legal, ritual and moral spheres. It seems to tell us that you can’t separate out justice from compassion, and that both need to be guided by a spiritual dimension that teaches us we are all connected.

As we go out into the world, we all encounter speech and actions that we don’t like. Sometimes we feel hurt by those things, sometimes we are angered and sometimes we are the cause of those reactions in others. Clearly, most of us want to do better. Practicing an H of G can help us deflect our our own feelings of defensiveness or outrage, even as it trains us to be more heart-centered and compassionate. That sounds like a pretty good way to go through life.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. When have you responded to a disturbing incident with the spirit of generosity that Dr. Farmer proposed? How has that changed the situation?
  2. What prevents you from being more generous in how you hear other people? In what circumstances are you most able to engage with others in this manner?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.