"He who shows mercy to men, God will show mercy to him; but to him who shows no mercy to man, God will show him no mercy." This saying is an ancient rabbinical teaching we find in the Talmud. Of course, it is virtually identical to Jesus’ teaching, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." Matthew 5:7. Jesus, therefore, was following in the footsteps of the sages when he taught the importance of mercy. But what exactly is mercy? To whom should mercy be shown? Are there no limits to mercy?
Mercy is a feeling of sorrow and pity. Yet, as we discussed in an earlier post ("Judaism: Deed Not Creed," April 11, 2010), merely feeling sorry for someone is not enough. Because Judaism is a religion focusing on behavior (deed), one who feels sorry for someone must also take appropriate action to alleviate the person’s distress. This might happen if, for example, someone harms us but is not capable of repenting (an important subject that I will cover soon in another post); in such case, it would be an act of mercy to forgive that person. That said, are there any limits to mercy?
I am presently reading (about three-fourths of the way finished) an incredible book, the Pulitzer Prize winning, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination, by Saul Friedlander, a professor of history at UCLA, who survived the Holocaust as a young boy while living in occupied France. Words cannot describe what the Nazis and their accomplices, monsters in the form of humans, did to millions of innocent men, women, and children.
Another book that I recently read was the Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy. (The movie, Defiance, is based on the book. I have not seen the movie.) It is the true story that details the exploits of three Jewish brothers in Belarus, who fought a partisan war with the Germans. In the process, they saved 1500 fellow Jews from being murdered by the Nazis. Near the end of the book, with the Russians approaching, the Bielski partisans fought the Nazis in earnest and ended up capturing several. These soldiers, who had terrorized, tortured, and murdered legions of Jews were beaten to death by the partisans. (The scene was in the movie.) Should the Jewish partisans have shown the Nazis mercy? I think not. I believe the action of the partisans was morally correct. How can I state such a thing? It is actually easy: mercy has limits, as the Talmud and Torah makes clear.
In the Talmud, it is said that if God judged the world only with his attribute of justice, the world could not survive. If, however, He only bestowed His attribute of mercy, the world would run wild. Balance, therefore, is required.
Similarly, the Torah itself makes it clear that while God is merciful, there must be a limit to His mercy; otherwise, evil would reign. In this regard, consider a passage from Exodus. By way of background, Moses asked God to allow him to see God’s "glory," meaning, that Moses wanted to understand God’s Essence. Exodus 33:18. God would not allow this. "And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live." Exodus 33:20. No one, not even Moses, the one with whom God had a most unique relationship, could withstand a complete understanding of God. Still, God allowed him to see his "back," that is, a small part of His essence. God would allow Moses to understand God’s attribute of mercy:
And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation."
Judaism knows this passage as the "Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy." While I could spend several posts analyzing this passage, suffice to state that while God’s mercy can extend for thousands of generations, "that will by no means clear the guilty." God’s mercy has limits. I suggest that we are not to be more "noble" than God is. Jesus, too, recognized this.
Jesus taught that no one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit would ever receive forgiveness. Matthew 12:31. Further, for those who lead children astray, "it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." Matthew 18:6. Finally, for the one who betrayed Jesus, "woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born." Matthew 26:24.
Another Talmudic dictum states, "If someone tries to kill you, be quicker and kill him."
There are indeed limits to mercy. Arbitrary mercy would have paved the way for, in Hitler’s own words, "a thousand-year Reich." God, Jesus, and the ancient rabbis all realized that there has to be a rationale for the bestowing on mercy.
What, then, are the parameters, of mercy? It is appropriate to bestow mercy on another when the social order will not result in moral destruction by the act of mercy.
When the Bielski partisans killed the murderers, they destroyed destruction. Their conduct was not just morally correct. It was meritorious.
I await your thoughtful comments.
Copyright 2010 by Ira L. Shafiroff. All rights reserved.