By Daniel Kieval
In the wake of January 8’s horrific shooting in Tucson, Arizona, attention was rightly given to Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ 20-year-old intern, Daniel Hernandez. Hernandez calmly and heroically rushed toward, not away from, the victims of the gunfire, and his immediate care of Giffords is credited with helping to save her life. Meanwhile, far more discussion concerned Sarah Palin’s and President Obama’s contrasting speeches in response to the incident. It seems that words, especially those of politicians, ultimately provide more fuel for the relentless 24-hour media than actions, even exceptional ones.
Jewish tradition, on the other hand, offers a different perspective. Judaism is a religion of action; thought and learning are encouraged and even glorified, but the tradition also teaches that “lo hamidrash hu ha’ikar elah hama’aseh”—the main principle is not study but practice. Thus, when the Israelites receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, they famously declare “na’aseh v’nishmah”—we will do and we will hear. They commit first to acting in accordance with God’s commandments and only afterwards to understanding them. This is interpreted as a demonstration of the Israelites’ extreme trust and also a delineation of Judaism’s priorities.
In Judaism, therefore, there is no central dogma, no list of statements one must believe in order to be Jewish (even the supposed dogma of belief in God is contradicted by today’s existence of Jewish atheists). Instead there is a list of actions: the mitzvot, the commandments. To believe in them as one performs them is a bonus, but the main principle is the actions themselves (See Moment’s “Ask the Rabbis” section on the Ten Commandments). Likewise, Jews have no need to confess “sinful thoughts.” Our thoughts cannot be sinful because they are not under our control; they fly in and out of our minds as they please. What we can control, and what we are therefore held accountable for, is how we choose to act in response to those thoughts.
There is a flip side to this point, too. Just as negative thoughts do not make us into bad people, we cannot fulfill our duty to be good people by positive thoughts alone. It is usually easier to identify the right actions than to actually perform them. In Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah, to give grudgingly, with negative feelings, is the lowest form of giving. Yet to have just and charitable thoughts but not give does not even make the list; this is not tzedakah at all. Thought can enhance action but is not a substitute for it.
In a world today riddled with crises, from the environmental to the social to the political, it often seems as though the effort put into thought and discussion far exceeds that put into action. Giffords’ intern Hernandez serves as an inspiration and example to reverse this trend. We would do well to listen to him and to centuries of Jewish thought when they tell us that in the end, what will truly matter is not what we thought or even said about the problems of the world, but what we did about them.