Jay saves lives with bone marrow in Boca Raton while Stephen conducts medical training seminars to help earthquake victims in Haiti. These are only two of the many stories of nominees for this year’s Jewish Community Heroes award, announced at the General Assembly in New Orleans next week. As one of the judges, I’m confronted with the question: what is Jewish heroism?
Historically, heroes are those who have risked their lives as sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. What distinguishes a Jewish hero?
The Rabbis’ definition of a hero was, "He who conquers his inclination." Great internal strength, or self control, rather than great physical strength, is the mark of true heroism. Maimonides distinguishes between two types of heroes, the saint (hassid) and the sage (hakham). These perspectives on heroism make sense in terms of personal virtue but not necessarily in terms of social change.
Jewish heroes commit themselves to aiding society’s most vulnerable members in ways that create systemic and sustainable impact. The humble leader doesn’t shy away from bold public leadership that changes the world-to quote Barry Goldwater, "Moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue"-but serves with right motives and in a way that also builds up others.
On the one hand, I feel that voting for a hero is for naught. After all, there are millions of heroes who spend their days saving lives in surgery theaters, inspiring the next generation in study halls, and cleaning up the community in the streets; heroic public servants are everywhere. On the other hand, I would be wary of dismissing the significance of recognizing excellent individuals.
In a youth culture that lacks role models or mentors, identifying heroes might be a positive step in reminding us of the importance and virtue of public service and striving to better our community and the world. Unfortunately the 5 finalists in this contest are all men. What message is the Jewish community giving to girls and young woman about striving to emulate role models? We can do so much better in gender equality!
In addition to honoring the heroes in our communities, we should all strive to emulate them, and commit our lives to others following Benjamin Disraeli’s inspiration that "To believe in the heroic makes heroes."This will help ensure a Jewish future committed to our most sacred value of tzedek chevrati (social justice).
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.