Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

The last post pondered whether good works are a cause or effect of faith from a Christian point of view.  To appreciate the Jewish perspective, it helps to understand the notion
of shared merit.  Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, there is a “closing of the gates” wherein God makes a judgment on
each person’s life and writes the names of all who have turned to him and lived faithfully in the Book of Life.  It is an
annual opportunity for Jews to reflect on their actions, to make amends for their wrongs, to seek forgiveness from their fellow man first and ultimately to seek atonement with God.

When Jews confess their sins, the vidui in the Yom Kippur liturgy, they confess in community, speaking aloud a long list of sins.  The community aspect of confession is
monumentally important.  It reflects the responsibility that Jews have for one another, so while I myself may not have committed murder, I did share responsibility for my brother’s actions.  Further, if I look deeply within myself, I will find some part of me that identifies with the sin.  My harsh words might have damaged someone’s self-esteem, for example.  In addition to the shared responsibility for sin, Jews recognize a shared responsibility for good works.

That notion of shared merit helps to explain the popularity of the Pharisees among the Jewish peasant class.  Not only were Pharisees generous with tzedakah, or giving what’s fair to those in need, their fasting and other acts of piety accrued merit for the whole community.  This perspective lets us see the Christian parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18) in its original context.

The tax-collector enters the temple racked with guilt for shaking down people in need to line his pockets.  His angst is heightened by the fact that he is not making teshuvah, or turning to God to change his ways.  He knows he will go back out the next day and
shake down more unfortunates.  Without teshuvah, he can’t hope for God’s forgiveness.  Across from him kneels a Pharisee who is moved with compassion for the
sinner.  He thanks God that he was spared tax-collector’s difficult position.  And
then he offers to share his merit—his tzedekah for the tax collector’s taking by force, his fasting for the tax collector’s feeding off his neighbors, etc.  The parable concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  Ok, which one was justified?  Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament Studies Amy-Jill Levine asserts “rather than” is properly translated “along side.”  In any case, suggesting an unreformed tax-collector could be justified at all would have astonished 1st century Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, Halakhah is the set of laws governing personal deportment.  The
purpose of the laws is not improved health, financial gain or appearance.  Rather, they offer a myriad of daily opportunities to submit one’s will for the sake of honoring God.  Observing Halakhah both strengthens spirituality for the individual through daily practice and earns merit for the community, and hence is at once cause and effect of faithfulness.  In view of shared merit, good works not only benefit a Jew’s fellow man in an earthly way but also lift him up spiritually.

Join the conversation.  What brings you present moment mindfulness for the sake of honoring God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit

Struggling for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment, but what happens when one part is missing?  The last post considered a man’s painful struggle to put the past behind him and to release resentment in the absence of the offenders’ remorse.  I met him in a reconciliation workshop, and in the same workshop I met a woman who had sought forgiveness with sincere remorse for hurtful things she said and did to her mother during adolescence.  Her mother is now 92, and after almost 50 years, still withholds forgiveness.  It pains the woman to know that her mother is unlikely ever to release that resentment, and she continues searching for something she can do to win her mother’s forgiveness.

The Jewish tradition offers a particularly helpful framework for working through this situation.  Teshuva is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance necessary, but not sufficient, to receive forgiveness.  It is a process for turning to God, mending relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self (the self one was created to become).  Although a deeply personal process, teshuva nominally consists of five steps:  recognizing our wrongs, feeling remorse for them, making restitution to those we harmed, confessing our wrongs to God, and above all, stopping the wrongdoing.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuva.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of repentance, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.  It matters not whether someone is beset with indecision or steadfast if in the end he chooses right actions.  The parable of the prodigal son is a great New Testament illustration.  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a new way, or because he was hungry?  It doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

Once the steps are completed, there is a basis for forgiveness.  It is sometimes said that one can only be certain that teshuva is complete if the offender chooses right actions when placed in a situation identical to that which led to his wrongdoing.   However, sometimes the situation is impossible to recreate.  A woman in her 60’s cannot go back to her teenage years to prove her repentance.

Jewish law offers guidance here, too.  Medieval rabbinic authority Mainomides teaches that the offender “must appease and beseech until he is forgiven.  If his fellow man refuses to forgive him then he must bring a group of three of the injured party’s friends and go to him and ask him to forgive.  If he still does not forgive him he must go to him a second and third time with three other people.  If he still refuses to forgive he may cease and the other is the sinner.” [Mishneh Torah]

Following this path may not make forgiveness complete, but it does give someone seeking healing hope for making peace with a painful past.

Join the conversation.  Have you been locked in conflict with someone clinging to resentment?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit