Humility in Judaism

Being humble is one of the key traits that Judaism values.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

In the Jewish tradition, humility is among the greatest of the virtues, as its opposite, pride, is among the worst of the vices. Moses, the greatest of men, is described as the most humble: "Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3)." The patriarch Abraham protests to God: "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)."

When Saul was chosen as Israel's first king, he was discovered "hid among the baggage (I Samuel 10:22)," a phrase which became current among Jews for the man who shuns the limelight. The Hebrew king was to write a copy of the law and read therein all the days of his life, "that his heart be not lifted above his brethren (Deuteronomy 17:20)."

Greatness and Humbleness

Greatness and humility, in the Jewish tradition, are not incompatible. They complement one another. For a man to be humble he does not have to be someone who "has plenty to be humble about," as Churchill is reported to have said of a political opponent who was praised for his humility. The greater the man the more humble he is expected to be and is likely to be. The Torah, say the rabbis (Taanit 7a), is compared to water for just as water only runs downhill, never uphill, the word of God can only be heard in a humble heart.

The Jewish moralists are fully aware that any conscious attempt to attain to humility is always self-defeating and that pride can masquerade as humility. Crude vanity and self glorification are easily recognized for what they are. Mock modesty is less easy to detect. It is not unusual for a man to take pride in his humility; nor is it unknown for a man to indulge in the more subtle form of self deception in which he prides himself that he is not a victim of false modesty.

Luzzatto's View

In his Path of the Upright, Moses Hayyim Luzzatto has an amusing analysis of various forms of false modesty: "Another imagines that he is so great and so deserving of honor that no one can deprive him of the usual signs of respect. And to prove this, he behaves as though he were humble and goes to great extremes in displaying boundless modesty and infinite humility. But in his heart he is proud, saying to himself: 'I am so exalted, and so deserving of honor, that I need not have anyone do me honor. I can well afford to forgo marks of respect.'

Another is the coxcomb, who wants to be noted for his superior qualities and to be singled out for his behavior. He is not satisfied with having everyone praise him for the superior traits he thinks he possesses, but he wants them also to include in their praises that he is the most humble of men. He thus takes pride in his humility, and wishes to be honored because he pretends to flee from honor. Such a prig usually goes so far as to put himself below those who are much inferior to him, even below the meanest, thinking that in this way he displays the utmost humility. He refuses all titles of greatness and declines promotion in rank, but in his heart he thinks, 'There is no one in all the world as wise and as humble as I.' Conceited people of this type, though they pretend mightily to be humble, cannot escape some mishap which causes their pride to burst forth, like flame out of a heap of litter."

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.