There is no comprehensive concept in the Jewish Bible that parallels the modern notion of ethics. The first listing of Jewish virtues by the ancient rabbis is found in Ethics of the Fathers 6:6. In it we are taught that the Torah (wisdom) is acquired through forty eight virtues. Among the most notable of them is the virtue of humility. Moses, Judaism’s greatest prophet, is described as being the humblest of men. “Moses was a very humble man, more than all the people that were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Others in the Bible also valued humility. For example, when preparing to plead for Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham, considered the father of the Jewish people says, “I have taken upon myself to speak to God, I who am but dust and ashes?” (Genesis 18:27).
Comparing the Torah (Five Books of Moses) to water, the ancient rabbis wrote “Just as water flows downward, so the Torah that comes from on high flows only into the minds and hearts of the humble.” Rabbinic thinkers often warn people not to indulge in pride and arrogance. They assert that it is not enough to walk the moderate path of humility. Rather, they advise people to tend toward extreme modesty, and even meekness in order to avoid being arrogant.
A recent article in The New York Times by Benedict Carey (“Humility is Something to Boast About”) notes that research on humility has been growing very quickly. Some studies have found that people who score high for humility are less aggressive and less judgmental toward members of other religious groups than are less humble people, even and especially after being challenged about their own views.
Dr. Van Tongeren, a psychologist at Hope College in Michigan and his colleagues proposed several explanations for why humility, intellectual and otherwise, is such a valuable facet of personality. A humble disposition can be critical to sustaining a committed relationship. It may also nourish mental health more broadly, providing a psychological resource to shake off grudges, suffer fools patiently and forgive oneself. Dr. Van Tongeren wondered whether humility could somehow be taught, or perhaps integrated into psychotherapy. He hypothesized that “one of the thorny issues is that people who are the most open and willing cultivate humility might be the ones who need it the least, and vice versa, those most in need could be the most resistant.”
According to Carey’s New York Times article, between 10 and 15 percent of adults score high on measures of humility, depending on the rating scale used. That’s at least 25 million humble people in this country alone. Who knew? Sustaining humility is a lifelong process, No person can truly master humility. We have to work on this trait continually. Admitting that we have areas in which to improve depends on humility.
There is no question in my mind that ethics is at Judaism’s core. God’s first concern is with a person’s decency. Both the Bible’s prophets and the greatest rabbis of bygone years expressed the view that ethical behavior is God’s central demand of human beings.
Many years ago when I hosted The Jewish American Hour, a weekly radio program I signed off each show with these words:
“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you:
Only to do justice, to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah 6:8 (8th century B.C.E,.)