When I first got my hands on Becoming a Mensch, a new book by Ronald Pies, I was skeptical. I usually find that most books that attempt to bridge the gap from the days of the Torah and Talmud to today don’t get it right- there’s either too much history, too much detail, or too much sappiness in the vignettes that are presented about modern-day situations.
Not so in this case; Pies has written an excellent book that accomplishes a difficult task in a lively and very enjoyable fashion.
From the outset, I was into in Pies’ goal “not to create a scholarly tome for rabbinical students or theologians” and curious to see how that played out. In the end, I was most pleased with the result. Although the title contains the phrase “timeless Talmudic ethics for everyone,” this book is a great deal more than that. After reading Becoming a Mensch, it’s fairly clear that living ethically isn’t just about what the Rabbis said, it’s about what how we look at our traditions, including our prophets, philosophers, Rabbis, and great thinkers, and channel them into the way we interact with the world.
Pies tackles mensch-hood chapter by chapter with topics like “Honesty and Integrity,” “Justice and Retribution,” “Politeness and Tact,” and “Self-Mastery and Self-Discipline.” He doesn’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of Rabbinic argument, instead framing each topic with relevant quotes, usually from the Tanakh and the Talmud, but also including Rashi, Maimonides, and George Eliot (yes, George Eliot- but it works!). He then dives into an explanation of the concept, deftly weaving in Biblical verses, Talmudic citations, Artistotelian philosophy, and more into a very readable, fast-paced review of the ways to live ethically in our world.
His grasp of the core principles of Jewish ethical living is exemplary, and spans the generations from Moses, to Hillel, to Rashi, to Telushkin. He is able to distill the archive of Jewish thought into timely and effective citations that are always relevant and insightful, not to mention helpful.
When he paints a picture of present-day situations in which the values of ethical living, it’s refreshing that they aren’t always glowing portrayals of the dilemmas we face in our lives. What does it mean to protect one’s spouse from the castigations of a mother-in-law? It is acceptable to become angry when provoked? Should you tell your friend if their partner is cheating on them? These situations are real and many of us face them daily. Ronald Pies, in Becoming a Mensch, gives us the tools to explore our ethical, mensch-y selves, in a way that is honest to thousands of years of Jewish tradition and writing.
So is this really a how-to guide for being a mensch? I would happily suggest that the answer is “no.” A common flaw in books such as these is the tendency to be preachy. Pies, for the most part, steers clear of this approach. He puts forth the ideals of our behavior, but then sets out to “translate these noble principles into guidelines for our time.” Should we act justly? Should we be patient? Should we be kind? Of course! But Pies isn’t telling us that we have to do X and Y to be a mensch… instead he paints a picture of human interactions informed by our tradition, and asks us to start heading in the right direction.
Early in the book, Pies writes that “the Rabbis were intent on creating an attitude and orientation towards the poor and the needy…but attitude alone is not enough. We must convert the attitude into action.” In its simplest sense, that is Pies’ agenda in this book. For some readers, Pies’ work will create a greater awareness of our tradition and our responsibilities that may or may not translate into action. For others, they will be able to use the real-life scenarios to modify behavior or view their actions through a Jewish lens. And for another group of readers, this will become a valuable resource full of wisdom, quotes, and words to inspire them.
At the end of the day, being a mensch is subjective- after all, you could always be more of a mensch than you are today. Pies would suggest that we use his book to help guide the decisions we make every day- and I happily encourage all of you to do just that.
Becoming a Mensch
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