Q. What does “being a Mensch” really mean?
A. When you learn the halachah, they tell you about the fifth volume of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Joseph Karo wrote four volumes, but there is a further, unwritten book which tells you how to live life as a whole, and it is called, “How to be a Mensch“. A Mensch is defined in “The Joys of Yiddish” (p.240), as “an upright, honorable, decent person (with) character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel explains: Man is made in the image of God. This is not mere theology but a guide for practical living. The most nearly divine thing that exists in the world is a human being. As a Mensch, therefore, I must value myself. I mustn’t get too high and mighty and imagine I am God: but neither must I denigrate myself and think I am nothing.
When I appreciate myself and make the most of my potential, then I can learn to love the other person, for they too are made in the image of God. That is what the Torah means in the Golden Rule, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). There are positive ways to love others such as recognising their needs and enhancing their happiness. There are negative ways too – notably, trying to feel and alleviate their pain and gently protecting them even from themselves.
The sages of Yavneh understood Menschlichkeit when they advised everyone to echo these words: “I am God’s creature; my neighbour is also His creature. My work is in the city; his is in the field. I rise early to do my work; he rises early to do his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work. Perhaps you say: I do great things, and he does small things? It matters not that a man does much or little, if only he directs his heart to Heaven” (Berachot 17a).
In Jewish life we can do with more Menschlichkeit. Jews of all backgrounds and all points of view are part of the totality of the Jewish people; the Midrash says of the four species of plants taken on Sukkot, that all are held together to denote that all are precious and all have their place in the community.