From my personal experience, whenever a religious person is dragged into a discussion about religion with a combative non-religious person, the first thing the non-religious person tries to emphasise is how they / their spouse / children / siblings / whoever are ‘good people’.
The argument, which I’m sure must be familiar to other readers of Beyond BT, goes like this: “It doesn’t matter if I / they / whoever keep the mitzvot. What matters is that we are good people.”
I’ve ruminated a lot about this over the years, because without an objective guide to what constitutes a ‘good person’, anyone can claim the title. In some cultures, you can blow yourself up – killing tens of people in the process – and be acclaimed as a ‘good person’. In other cultures, it’s enough to say that you’ve ‘never hurt anyone else’. Apart from the fact that this is a massive fib – everyone has done something to hurt or upset someone else, however unintentional, accidental or minor – it also doesn’t say very much about a person’s character if that is their only claim to fame.
Case in point: an old lady is being mugged. I stand to one side and let her assailant get on with it. Maybe I try to pick her up off the floor, or maybe I don’t. But the point is, I can still claim to be a good person.
Today, ‘good’ for many people seems to be defined simply as an absence of bad – which is why someone who is just a ‘good person’ could never be called a good Jew. Because being a good Jew requires actions.
A good Jew puts on tefillin, keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher etc etc. But I don’t want to dwell on the mitvot between G-d and man in this post, as I feel that doing so often obscures the far more compelling argument about how living a Torah-true life is the single best guarantee of being a good person.
Instead, I want to look at the mitzvoth between man and man. A good Jew is required to give at least 10% of their income to tzedeka every month. Whether or not they feel like it; whether or not they have house renovations to complete or new cars to buy; whether they are rolling in green or struggling to make ends meet.
A ’good person’, by contrast, is not.
A good jew is required to treat their parents with the utmost respect – to stand up for them, to take care of them, to speak politely to them at all times, even in the midst of a heated disagreement or argument.
A good person is not.
A good Jew is commanded to always try to judge their peers favourably; to be humble; to avoid speaking loshon hara; and to do acts of kindness whenever and wherever they can.
A good person is not.
You get the idea. I know that there are many non-observant people who are real mensches; they are kind, generous, considerate of others and principled. I also know that there are many outwardly-observant people who are not; they often don’t treat other people very nicely and display all manner of character flaws.
None of us are perfect. But what all the mensches, both religious and not religious have in common is this: they would never presume to call themselves a good person, because they understand all too well that while they are making significant progress in many areas of their live, there are many other areas that still require a lot of hard work, effort and honesty.
Conversely, the world abounds in self-proclaimed good people. I know ‘good people’ who treat others incredibly insensitively – even brutally; yet they retain their ‘good persona’ in their own eyes because they never take the time to evaluate their actions objectively, and simply can’t admit to ever doing something wrong.
Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. I once had a conversation on a London tube with a ‘good person’ who spent half an hour complaining about anti-social behaviour and how no-one ever thinks about anyone else anymore – who then stowed his empty starbucks cup carefully next to one of the seats, before getting off, instead of taking it with him and chucking it in the bin.
Other examples: the man earning a 7 figure income who claims to be charitable because he gives a pound coin to collectors on the street; the caring relatives who always seem to schedule family get togethers on fast days, and then complain about you ‘spoiling it’ for everyone else.
I’m not a good person: I’m a person who is trying very hard to do more good things than bad in life, and who is trying very hard to identify my problem areas and to work on them.
Which is why when I get lectured by ‘good people’, particularly non-religious ones, about how I should be behaving or acting, it sometimes takes all my strength to nod, smile and pretend to agree.
I know that G-d wants me to apologise, even when it’s not my fault, if it means keeping the peace; to risk being a ‘sucker’ if it means helping a fellow jew out; and to understand that try as I might, I will always be a work in progress, and far from perfect.
The biggest irony of all is that often, it’s only my yiddishkeit that keeps me trying to build bridges and be more understanding of these ‘good people’, when left to myself, I’d prefer to have nothing to do with them. The same religious practises that they like to knock, denigrate and deny are the only reason I can smile when they tell me this, nod sympathetically and invite them back again for more food and prating.
I struggle with it, I really do, as sometimes the provocation is overwhelming. But I know that if I answer back, go on the offensive, or don’t make every effort to judge them favourably, I won’t be acting like a good jew; but I probably would be acting like a good person.