Jewish Attitudes to Pride

Judaism frowns on excessive pride--but how much is too much?

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Pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues. The Talmudic Rabbis, perhaps because of their awareness that scholars are easily tempted to lord it over the ignorant, denigrate pride in the most caustic terms. 

God and the proud man, a Talmudic saying has it, cannot reside together in the same world. Pride is an abomination akin to idolatry and the self-sufficiently proud deny the basic principle of Judaism that God is the Lord of creation.

In another Rabbinic homily, Sinai is said to be the lowest of the mountains, which is why God gave the Torah on this mountain rather than on a loftier one. For the same reason, when God revealed Himself to Moses, He did so out of a lowly bush (Exodus 3:2). The Torah, say the Rabbis, is compared to water which flows only downwards, never upwards. The proud man can never truly assimilate the teachings of the Torah.

Yet one Rabbi declared (Sotah 5a) that a scholar should have an 'eighth of an eighth' of pride out of respect for his own learning. His colleague remonstrated: 'He should not possess it (pride) or part of it,' quoting the verse: 'Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 16:5).'

pride holding a trophyTeachings from Luzzatto

The Jewish moralists stress that avoidance of pride is not to be confused with self-deception. If a man has a good mind and worthy qualities he is not expected to try to ignore them, only not to take credit for them. Whatever talents a man possesses should be seen as God's gifts to him, undeserving though he is of them.

Moses Hayyim Luzzatto in his Path of the Upright exposes the various masquerades the proud man adopts:

'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 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 which 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 a flame out of a heap of litter. Such a man has been compared to a house filled with straw. The house being full of holes, the straw keeps on escaping through them, so that after a while everyone knows what is within the house. The humility of his behavior is soon known to be insincere, and his meekness nothing but pretence (Mesillat Yesharim, 104-5).'

A Fine Balance

This whole question of pride is extremely delicate. Would Judaism frown on a man taking pride in his work or on a Jew taking pride in his Jewishness? And it can be argued that in some circumstances pride is the driving force for worthwhile activities. There must obviously be severe tensions over this problem.

A Hasidic master put it this way. Every person must have two slips of paper in his pockets. On one he should inscribe the words uttered by Abraham: 'I am dust and ashes.' On the other he should inscribe the words taken from the Mishnah: 'For my sake the whole world was created.'

In moments when the danger lurks of excessive pride he should take out the slip reminding him that he is dust and ashes. But when his self-doubt threatens to be completely stultifying, he must take out the other slip to reaffirm that the whole world was created for his sake.

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

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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.