Blessings and Jewish Ethics

Why don't we say a blessing before we do a good deed?

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To Bless the Deed Would Dehumanize its Recipient

This story is not about the distribution of communal funds. Hillel’s actions are an immediate response to the person standing before him. This story is not about public policy; it is about the compelling, commanding nature of the experience of listening to another.

Central to the concept of tzedakah is the pauper’s power of self-definition, with that self-definition calling forth the particular action demanded of the donor. Further: as we look at texts dealing with other acts of kindness—visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, for example—we find that tzedakah is not a special case.

Ethical mitzvot arise in response to the authentic condition of the individual. The unspoken but nonetheless crucial and primary obligation in each instance is to be aware of and open to that authenticity, as the performance of the mitzvah in its fullness is absolutely dependent upon that awareness.

There is no blessing for tzedakah and like behaviors, because to say a blessing here would destroy the very moment it is supposed to elevate. We have seen how a berachah serves to help us cast our gaze away from the event-in-itself to see God through it. But if the pauper or mourner or bride were to become as transparent as the bread, as the candle, then that being-present to the other which is so crucial to the fulfillment of the mitzvah—perhaps even part of its purpose—is undercut.

Simply, I cannot be fully sensitive to another person if I have made that person into an object, a means, even if a means for getting to God.

We Encounter God's Image in Responding to People

The liturgical silence surrounding ethical mitzvot does not reveal a radical separation between “religious” and “human” encounters, but testifies to the profound connection between the two as responses to the sacred. Something is sacred to the extent that we see it having value-in-itself, demanding to be seen as a subject.

When we say that God is sacred, we affirm that God's worth is intrinsic and uncontingent. God demands to be treated as "subject", to be looked directly, so to speak, in the face. The Biblical formulation, that humanity is created in God's own "image" means not that a person looks like God, but that a person must be looked on like God, that he or she demands to be seen as having value in him- or herself.

Respect for the person must be respect for the person in his or her own particularity, for it is precisely in that particularity, in the difference, that the human resemblance to God is embodied. And so the paradox in its most wonderful form: It is the Godly aspect of a person, our very resemblance to the Divine, which precludes liturgizing our one-on-one encounters.

Making Space: The Central Dynamic of Religious Life

We have observed that a bracha is a tool for the recognition of the sacred Other, for greeting that Other in our worldly experience. We have observed as well that acts of justice and mercy as religious acts are rooted in an openness to the presence of a human other. This suggests that the central dynamic of religious life is the emulation of tzimtzum (God's "contraction" to make space for the world as depicted in a kabbalistic creation myth): the making room in one's own space for a different subjectivity.

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Rabbi Joshua Gutoff

Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.