Note: In this week’s article we discussed the difference between selfish vs. selfless giving. The distinction is part of a larger discussion on altruism that has engaged the interest of both Jewish scholars and secular philosophers from time immemorial. This topic is of great interest to me on a personal level and it is one to which I have devoted a lot of thinking. Here, as a postscript, are some tentative notes on the topic, for those interested.
Imagine you’re walking to the bus stop one day when you notice a homeless man shivering on the side of the street. Immediately, your heart goes out to him; overcome with compassion, you enter the nearest store and buy him a coffee, a pair of gloves, and a winter hat. When you deliver these gifts to him, a smile sweeps across his face, and he thanks you profusely for your kindness.
Let’s assume that nobody saw you perform this good deed. Let’s also assume that you will never see this homeless man again—there is no expectation on your part that he will ever be able to repay you for helping him in his time of need. It was purely out of pity for him that you did what you did. Could we then describe your act as “altruistic?” Was your mindset, in the moment of giving, essentially other-oriented? Were your motivations purely selfless?
Most of us would probably answer “yes!” to this question without hesitation. Yet some of the most prominent thinkers in the Jewish tradition disagree. Consider, for instance, the perspective which R. Eliyahu Dessler adopts in his celebrated essay on “חסד”—“kindness:”
A man who has not yet reached the highest level of human perfection is lacking, in the sense that he does not truly possess the “giving spirit…” So it is with a person who performs a good deed for his fellow man out of compassion for him. The attribute of compassion… is one of the pure, positive attributes. The reason for the person’s deed [when it is motivated by compassion] is to push off his own pain, which he feels as a result of the pain of his friend. And all this has its root in the faculty of taking, since it is ultimately for himself that he acts. (Nevertheless, it is good to direct such motivations towards spiritual ends… that is, a man should make use of these “evil” inclinations in his quest to become spiritually elevated) (מכתב מאליהו קונטרס החסד פ”ט).
In this passage, R. Dessler challenges our most basic intuitions of what it means to act on behalf of someone else. Whereas we might regard the individual whose emotions move him to care for others as a person of upstanding moral character, R. Dessler believes that such an individual is ultimately driven by self-interest: in the final analysis, it is his own pain—not the pain of “the other”—which he, through his act of kindness, hopes to alleviate.[i] For R. Dessler, “the highest level of human perfection” is attained only when one’s conduct is motivated solely by “his joy in Hashem, his cleaving to Him, and his love for Him [and His commandments]” (ibid).
To be sure, R. Dessler was by no means the first major Jewish thinker to advance this argument. About a century and a half earlier, the Ramchal took a similar stance in his classic work on Jewish ethics, Mesillat Yesharim. As he put it:
Just as the meal-offering of the “omer” cannot be sacrificed on the altar of the Temple unless is has been sifted by passing through thirteen sieves (Menachot 76b)… likewise one may not submit a deed to the highest “altar”—the will of Hashem—with the intention that it become a part of the perfect divine service, if it is anything other than the choicest of deeds, completely purified from all dross. I am not saying that anything less than this will be totally rejected; for the Holy One, blessed be He, does not without the reward of any creature, and He gives payment for one’s deeds according to their worth. What I am referring to is the faultless divine service that anyone who truly loves Hashem should aspire to. This term should be used only for that service which is completely pure and directed to Hashem and not to anything else. Any action that falls short of this standard will, to that degree, detract from its divine service (מסילת ישרים, בבאור מידת הטהרה).
Similarly, the Netziv—who lived a generation prior to R. Dessler—comments, concisely:
Acts of kindness should not be performed through “human nature” or out of “humane considerations,” but rather, everything should be entirely “for the sake of heaven” (העמק דבר שמות י”ט ה-ו).
The clear conclusion from these sources is that one whose kindness is motivated by the desire to aid another person has not reached the highest level of human conduct. Only when it is one’s sense of obligation to Hashem that motivates one’s kindness has one acted altruistically, in the true sense of the term.
Let’s call the conception of morality presented to us by R. Dessler “chesed l’shem shamayim” (“kindness done for the ‘sake of heaven’”). If we wish to identify both the strengths and the weaknesses of this conception, we may do so on two levels: theoretical and practical.
On a theoretical level, the strength of the chesed l’shem shamayim approach is that it anchors our actions in the “highest” possible source of moral obligation: that is, in the will of Hashem himself. The weakness of this approach, however, is that it does not account for those moral obligations which do not stem from a clear revelation of the divine will. That such obligations exist, from the Torah’s standpoint—obligations to act (or not to act) in a certain way, even lacking specific guidance from Hashem on the matter—is clear. It is a topic which we’ve looked at briefly once before, so we won’t revisit it again here. However, those interested in exploring this topic further are encouraged to read R. Yehuda Amital’s three part essay on the subject, in which he catalogues dozens of Jewish texts that presume the existence of some sort of “natural morality.”
On a practical level, meanwhile, the strength of the chesed l’shem shamayim approach can perhaps best be illustrated by modifying our initial scenario from above. Let’s place ourselves once again in front of the bus terminal, with the homeless man shivering on the side of the street. This time, however, his pain does not tug at our heartstrings, for whatever reason—maybe we’ve had a bad day; maybe we’re in a rush to get home. Now what? If chesed is nothing more than something we engage in when we “feel like it,” then ours is not a chesed that can be relied upon: it is as fickle and flimsy as our temperament. If, however, chesed is something we engage in regardless of how we feel—if it is not sentiment, but a sense of duty, which compels us to perform good deeds—then the chances of us “doing the right thing” in any given moment increase tremendously.[ii]
There are, however, two significant weaknesses with the chesed l’shem shamayim approach, even on a practical level. The first is that it is unintuitive, and perhaps even unnatural: how many of us are truly capable of suppressing the joy or the pain we feel in the course of our human relationships, and to relate to others in a purely rational, purely religious sort of way? The second “practical” weakness with the chesed l’shem shamayim approach—a weakness which probably stems, at least to some degree, from the first—has been colorfully articulated by R. Akiva Tatz:
There are two sets of [moral] obligation. The first category of obligation is God: the laws that He extracts and demands from me. But then there’s another set of obligations: you oblige me, inasmuch as you are a human. The thing to realize here is that [when it comes to] respecting human life, it’s not only because God says, “treat him correctly;” it’s because he himself [i.e. the human being] obliges, inasmuch as he’s human… The difference is striking. If you fulfill interpersonal commandments because God commands you, then the other person doesn’t matter. Why are you visiting the person who’s sick? Do you care about him? No—he’s irrelevant! I’m visiting the sick because God commands me; he [i.e. the human being] is an object of my mitzvah. This sick individual is like an etrog, like a lulav—and when I visit him, I’m going to shake him, that’s what I’m going to do! And the sicker he is the better, because the more he needs me, the more he’s suffering—‘ooh, it’s a juicy mitzvah!’ You see what the problem is?
When we act kindly only because “God says so,” R. Tatz warns us, we risk objectifying others: we treat them as stepping stones for our own religious growth, and not as real people, with thoughts, feelings, desires and needs. This way of engaging in human relationships is dangerous and unhealthy. Ultimately, it is also deeply unsatisfying.
At this point, it seems that we have before us two drastically different conceptions of interpersonal morality. The first conception we have called chesed l’shem shamayim (“kindness for the sake of heaven”). The second, we might call chesed l’shem chavero (“kindness for the sake of our fellow human beings”). Each offers us a perspective on what should be “going through our heads” as we perform good deeds for others. And each accuses the other of corrupting what it means to give. If I do chesed for you because I feel your pain, then, according to R. Dessler, it’s not you who I truly care about—I care about myself, and I’m helping you in order to alleviate my own pain! If, on the other hand, I do chesed for you because Hashem commanded me to, then, according to R. Tatz, it’s not you who I truly care about, either—again, I care about myself, and I’m helping you in order to promote my own spiritual growth! It would appear, then, that we’re stuck no matter which way we turn.
On a personal level, of course, we could choose to reject either (or both) of these arguments, whose combined effect it is to undermine the notion of altruism altogether. As Jews, however, we may wonder which of these two approaches is more consistent with traditional Jewish thought and practice. After all, Judaism is not a religion of philosophy—though it does have much to say on many important philosophical issues. Judaism is, primarily, a religion of laws. As such, it is to the law codes—that is, to the works of Halachah—which we must now turn if we hope to create daylight between chesed l’shem shamayim and chesed l’shem chavero.
In Halachic terms, the question of what one’s motivation ought to be when engaged in acts of kindness on behalf of another person stems from a broader debate regarding the principle of “מצוות צריכות כונה.” Some may recall that we’ve looked at this debate before, though only in passing—it came up around Yom Kippur, when we were trying to settle a disagreement in the realm of machsavah (Jewish thought) regarding the mechanisms of teshuva (repentance). Let’s now reexamine the subject in greater depth.
In a nutshell, the issue of מצוות צריכות כונה revolves around whether one who wishes to perform a mitzvah must specifically intend, while conducting the relevant act, to fulfill his or her religious obligation thereby; or whether it is sufficient simply to do the mitzvah without any particular intent. Suppose, for instance, that one sounds the shofar on Rosh Hashana for the sole purpose of producing music. Can one satisfy the mitzvah to hear the shofar by listening to these blasts? According to the Talmudic sage Rava, one can indeed; R. Zeira, however, appears to maintain that one cannot (Rosh Hashana 28a-29a). Predictably, the rishonim are divided on this issue as well: the Rif, for instance, claims that mitzvot do require kavanah (deliberative intent), while the Ba’al Hamaor contends that they do not. For his part, R. Yosef Karo—who authored the comprehensive code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch—ruled conclusively (O.C. 60:4) that mitzvot do require kavanah.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether all mitzvot require kavanah, or whether the requirement is restricted to particular categories of mitzvot. After all, the types of mitzvot that are mentioned in the Talmud’s main discussion on this topic are all ritualistic in nature: blowing the shofar, reciting the shema, reading the megillah, and sleeping in a sukkah. The term we apply to such mitzvot in Halachic literature is מצוות בין אדם למקום: mitzvot between man and God. Nowhere, however, does the Talmud expressly state that מצוות בין אדם לחברו—mitzvot between man and his fellow man—require a unique form of kavanah. Long before the days of the Talmud, in fact, the Tannaim taught that “if someone dropped a coin and a poor man found it and was sustained by it, then he who lost the coin will be blessed on its account” (Sifrei 24:149).Moreover, the Tannaim even declared that “one who gives charity in the name of meriting a recovery on behalf of his ill child… is considered completely righteous” (Rosh Hashana 4a). In these cases, the individual “giving” charity does not do so for its own sake—he does it unwittingly, or for ulterior motives. Yet our rabbis suggest that he has fulfilled the mitzvah all the same.
It should not surprise us, then, to find some achronim positing that the mitzvah of tzedakah (loosely translated: giving charity) requires no kavanah whatsoever. R. Ovadia Yosef, for instance, asserts that “the mitzvah of tzedakah requires no kavanah, because everything is dependent on the benefit of the needy—and what does he care whether you gave for the sake of a mitzvah or not?” (שו”ת יביע אומר ח”ו יו”ד כט). He then cites the opinion of the Noda B’Yehuda in support of his view:
All mitzvot require kavanah “for the sake of heaven…,” but this is not the case with the mitzvah of tzedakah. For with regard to all other mitzvot, if you didn’t do it for the sake of a mitzvah, it has no substance and you haven’t accomplished anything at all. After all, if you shake a lulav or don tefillin or wear tzitzit—were it not for the fact that you are commanded to do this by the Creator, blessed is He, there would be no purpose whatsoever from this act… But when it comes to giving tzedakah: even if you do not have intent to do a mitzvah, the needy still benefit from your action; there is no difference to the recipient whether you gave to him for the sake of the mitzvah or not… (מצוטט ע”י הגר”ש לנדא בשם אביו בבס’ אהבת ציון דרוש י דט”ז סע”ד).
Some achronim apply similar logic to other interpersonal mitzvot as well. Thus, the Seridei Eish—explaining why we do not recite a bracha before performing mitzvah of mishloach manot (giving food to others on Purim)—opines:
Even though regarding all the mitzvot [we apply the principle that] “He who is commanded and performs [the mitzva] is greater [than he who performs the mitzva without being commanded],” and we recite, [before performing the mitzvah], a blessing [which includes the words,] “and [He] commanded us”—nevertheless, in the case of mishlo’ach manot, it is better that a person give of his own free will out, of a feeling of love for his fellow Jew. If he gives only because God so commanded, he diminishes the measure of love. The same applies to charity: if a person gives out of compassion or love for his fellow Jew, it is better than one who gives because of the command and out of coercion… It may be [also] on this account that we do not recite a blessing over respecting one’s father and mother (שרידי אש א:סא).
Within the words of the Seridei Eish lies the implicit notion that kavanah is not required for any of the interpersonal mitzvot. According to R. Yaakov Yehuda Falk, this position was explicitly advocated by his teacher, the Chazon Ish. Here is what the Chazon Ish is reported to have said:
The requirement to perform a mitzvah with kavanah applies only to mitzvot between man and God, for with regard to these mitzvot it is conceivable that one would perform them for an ulterior motive. But with regard to commands between man and his fellow man—for example, one who comes to perform acts of kindness for somebody else, to contribute to his welfare—could it be that in the moment that he is performing this act, he actually has intent to harm the person or to cause him pain, or that he harbors some other intent? Certainly it is only the good of the other that he intends! It thus follows that even if he does not have deliberative kavanah, he has fulfilled the mitzvah—for presumably it was indeed for the sake of the mitzvah that he acted (תולדות החזו”א ח”ב עמ’ קפג).
By arguing that one need not possess deliberative intent in order to fulfill one’s interpersonal obligations, the Chazon Ish severely limits the scope of the principle “מצוות צריכות כונה.”[iii] Still, it was his contemporary, R. Elchonon Wasserman (“R. Elchonon”), who took the most restrictive view of all on this issue. For R. Elchonon, the relevant distinction, with regard to the question of kavanah, is not between “religious mitzvot” and “interpersonal mitzvot,” but rather between “performance mitzvot” and “outcome mitzvot:”
We find that that mitzvot can be divided into two categories: (a) “performance mitzvot,” such as blowing the shofar and shaking the lulav, wherein the mitzvah is accomplished [solely] through the performance of an action; (b) “outcome mitzvot,” such as redeeming captives, repaying a loan, having children, etc., where the thrust of the mitzvah is [not merely to perform an action, but rather], to achieve some outcome as the result of one’s actions…. And this distinction gives rise to a series of practical differences in terms of the Halachah. For instance, even those who maintain that mitzvot require kavanah [would not apply this requirement to “outcome mitzvot.” Thus]… if one repaid a loan without the intent of fulfilling a mitzvah, he need not repay it again. Likewise… if someone already has children, but did not father them for the purpose of the mitzvah, he is not obligated to father more children…. (קובץ שעורים ח”ב כג:ו)
On some level, what R. Elchonon tells us about kavanah in this passage could not be more different than what R. Dessler told us in the passage we cited at the very beginning. For R. Dessler, any act of chesed that is not accompanied by kavanah “for the sake of heaven” is somehow lacking. For R. Elchonon, however, even kavanah “for the sake of one’s fellow human being” is not necessary—all that is necessary, at the end of the day, is that the chesed gets performed. In the language of moral philosophy (l’havdil), R. Dessler is advocating what we would call a “deontological” (duty-driven) view of interpersonal ethics; R. Elchonon, by contrast, is endorsing a loosely “teleological” (results-driven) view. It is as wide a divide as there could be on this point.
Whether or not we have correctly identified a dispute between R. Dessler and R. Elchonon in the realm of machshavah, it seems clear that, as far as the Halachah is concerned, it is the opinion of R. Elchonon which we would sooner follow. What does this mean for us, in terms of our discussion on selfless giving?
I would like to suggest that by distinguishing between “performance mitzvot” and “outcome mitzvot”—the latter being the category into which all interpersonal commands undoubtedly lie—R. Elchonon does not only resolve a series of Halachic issues. His distinction also provides us with the tools we need to resolve one of the most persistent problems in the history of moral philosophy: namely, the problem of altruism.
Suppose we decide that we want to perform an act of altruism—an act that is essentially other-oriented. The question we will almost inevitably ask ourselves at that point is (some form of): “Am I certain that I’m actually doing this for you?” Yet it is in the very act of asking that question that we negate the possibility of altruism—for by asking the question, we have taken an act that should have been entirely about “you” and have preceded it with an “I.” How ironic: the person who stops to think about the purity of his motives before giving is in fact the least capable of acting for the sake of another; in thinking about his motives he is, ipso facto, thinking about himself. Others see an elderly lady that needs help crossing the street and rush immediately to her aid without thinking twice. The would-be altruist, however, is not among them. Before he can offer his assistance, he needs to make sure that his motives are entirely sincere. He needs to purge his soul of any bit of human emotion or any shred of self-interest that might taint the quality of his giving. Only then is he ready to give. But it’s too late by that point. While he’s been busy engaging in altruistic introspection, the light has changed, the street’s been crossed, and the lady is already around the block.
In the final analysis, it is the intellectualization of the act of giving that undermines its sincerity more than anything else. As long as we are philosophizing about our giving, we are, by definition, focused on ourselves. Yet giving that is directed towards the other is not about process. It is—as R. Elchonon highlights for us—ultimately about outcome. And so, paradoxically, the way we solve the problem of altruism is by sidestepping it altogether.
A parent needs us to clean the garage? A sibling needs help with his or her homework? A group of patients needs somebody to visit them in the hospital? So then we should run to do the chesed! How it makes us feel or how it contributes to our own spiritual growth or how it advances our own material interests is irrelevant and only serves to distract us from the task at hand. What is relevant is that there is a need here that we are in a position to fill. And if it is truly the other person that we care about, then we will use whatever means (and whatever motivations) necessary to ensure that that need is filled. As real altruists, we won’t deprive others of a chesed because we doubt whether it’s “pure” enough. We’ll give it, graciously and wholeheartedly, because that’s what the situation calls for.
[i] Compare—l’havdil—Immanuel Kant’s comments his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:
There are some souls so sympathetically attuned that, even without any other motive of vanity or utility to self, take an inner gratification in spreading joy around them, and can take delight in the contentment of others [for this reason alone]. But I assert that in such a case the action, although it may conform to duty, and however amiable it is, nevertheless has no true moral worth, but is on the same footing as other inclinations, e.g., the inclination to honor, which, when it encounters something that in fact also happens to serve the common good and is in conformity with duty, and is thus worthy of honor – [such an action] deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem; for the maxim lacks moral content inasmuch as it was done from inclination [i.e. sentiment, feeling, sympathy…] but not duty…
[ii] This is not to suggest, however, that one who knows that he has a duty to act a certain way will necessarily act that way. It is just as naïve to assume that reason will always compel us to “do the right thing” as it is to assume that our emotions will always compel us to do the right thing. Human psychology is such that we must direct both faculties towards ethical behavior, because neither one alone will prevail upon us 100% of the time.