What word would best describe today’s hero? Brave? Bold? Gallant? Daring? Gutsy? Superhuman?
How about mensch?
“In a world as dehumanizing as ours has become, simply being a kind, honest and loving person, a man or woman of integrity, has become a measure of heroism – and at a time when norms of civility are being routinely quashed, it may be the only measure that matters.”
So writes Rabbi Joshua Hammerman in his new book, Mensch-Marks (HCI Books), subtitled “Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi” and “Wisdom for Untethered Times.” Mensch, of course, refers to the Jewish word for a fully realized, morally evolved human being, or person of character.
“When everything has become unhinged around you, just persevere with the singular focus of being the best human being you can be and everything else will follow from that,” writes Hammerman.
The journey to moral maturity, says Hammerman, is no less heroic than what we think of when conjuring up the traditional image of a hero — although Hammerman points out for the mensch the journey is “perhaps a little less dramatic and a lot less bloody.”
Mensch-Marks is the sacred text of Hammerman’s experiences, the life lessons he has learned along his winding, circuitous journey. He offers 42 brief essays organized into six categories of character as stepping stones toward spiritual maturation: Work and Worship; Loving and Letting Go; The Nobility of Normalcy; Pain and Perseverance; Belonging and Becoming; and Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness.
While there are many takeaways, Hammerman is not at all preachy in his style; rather he captivates and entertains the reader in telling about many of his own personal experiences.
And those experiences are wide-ranging:
- During a eulogy, revealing, at the deceased’s request, to the family that he was gay.
- Bouncing back and forth at a hospital emergency ward between his own son and a dear member of his congregation.
- Writing an article questioning the messianic faith espoused by former football player Tim Tebow.
- The simplicity of a waitress refilling his cup without being asked.
- Hearing people ask “What has God done for me lately?”
- Going from the “me” generation to the “we” generation.
His vantage point is more multilayered than most and, as a rabbi, gives him greater influence and responsibility as a mentor and guide to a congregation.
“Seeking kindness in an increasingly cruel landscape, or, at a time of unprecedented mobility, yearning for a sense of rootedness – well, rabbis have a two-millennium head start in dealing with all of these,” Hammerman recently said in an article in the Christian Science Monitor.
The journey to being a mensch is just that, a journey – a lifelong journey of striving to do better and be human. One is not born a mensch, and it is “unseemly,” says Hammerman, to call yourself one. Yet for Jews, he says, there is no greater honor than for someone else to call you one.
“I often use the expression when eulogizing someone,” he writes, “but I have never said, ‘she was a billionaire’ or ‘he wrote a dozen bestsellers.’ There is something about mensch that transcends professional success. Our jobs do not define us; neither do our homes, cars and stock portfolios.”
Hammerman refers to a Jewish prayer known as the Alenu, which speaks of “a future time when all humanity will be united under a single standard of morality and goodness, enhancing the prospects of harmony and peace. It doesn’t promise that we’ll get there soon but asserts that it is our responsibility to make progress toward that end.”
The author notes that in German, the term mensch refers specifically to males, but the designation in the Jewish sense is hardly gender-specific. He recounts the amusing anecdote of searching Amazon for Hanukkah gifts and coming across a mug with a picture of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, under which was the word, Mensch. As Hammerman says, she is “the quintessential wo-mensch.”
“If by sharing what I’ve learned,” he says, “I can bring just a bit more decency into the world that has lost its moral moorings, a modicum of generosity, honesty, and human connection in a world overflowing with cruelty, loneliness and deceit, then I’ll have made it to my personal Promised Land.”
Mensch-Marks is now available for purchase.
About Rabbi Hammerman
As spiritual leader at Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT, since 1992, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman has focused his efforts on creating an oasis of warmth, love and mutual respect, befitting the role of a modern congregation in an increasingly complex world. At the same time, he strives to challenge congregants — and himself — to reach ever higher in setting spiritual and ethical objectives, and to delve more deeply into the rich vein of Jewish inspiration and wisdom available to us. His latest book, Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times, will be published by HCI books in 2019. He also is a contributing author to the new collection, Holding Fast: Jews Respond to American Gun Violence. Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA.