Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Orthodox rabbi of Great Britain, describes the essential moral concept of hesed, which is often translated as ‘kindness’ but also means ‘love.’ This is not passionate love, but rather love displayed through deeds. Hesed is covenant love in which parties pledge loyalty to each other and respect the freedom and integrity of the other. Hesed means doing acts of kindness for others. It is the gift of love that produces love. Rabbi Hama said, “Just as [God] clothes, the naked…so shall you clothe the naked. Just as He visits the sick…so you visit the sick. Just as [God] comforts the mourners…so you comfort mourners. Just as He buries the dead…so you bury the dead (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a).”
Another classic example of hesed is the story in Genesis of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent and spotting three strangers approaching. He greets them and brings them inside to give them food and drink. Abraham does not know that the three are angels. But the implication is that Abraham and Sarah, his wife, treat all strangers as if they are angels. As Rabbi Sacks puts it, Abraham and Sarah reach out to embrace the strangers because they are made in the image of God. They see “the divine Other in the human other, because that is how God reveals himself (47).1
Finally, there is the concept of darkhei shalom, the “ways of peace,” which takes the kindness and love of others to a universal application. In the Mishnah, Tosefta and Babylonian Talmud, it is the sages following the destruction of the Second Temple who illustrate the application of darkhei shalom to non-Jews:
For the sake of peace, the poor of the heathens should not be prevented from gathering gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and corners of the field. Our masters taught: for the sake of peace, the poor of the heathens should be supported as we support the poor of Israel, the sick of the heathens should be visited as we visit the sick of Israel, and the dead of the heathens should be buried as we bury the dead of Israel (Talmud Gittin 61a).
Further on the value of justice, the practice of justice and the seeking of a just society are divine commandments for Jews. While cultivating a pious life through study and contemplation is at the heart of Jewish worship of God, Torah makes clear that that piety must necessarily translate in society through a striving for justice. The pursuit of justice itself or the striving against injustice is a path to piety in Judaism.
Elaborating on this, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman observes that Judaism teaches a “special kind of justice,” an empathic justice, which,
…seeks to make people identify with each another—with each other’s needs, with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and transformations. Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.2
The measure of the community’s righteousness, then, can be found in the status and care of the poorest and most powerless. It is on their well-being, and on the righteousness of society, that God has judged and carried out divine blessings and punishments (Shabbat 139a). The significance of the pursuit of justice for the people of Israel becomes clear in the full verse of Deuteronomy (16:20): “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you.”
Most powerfully and dramatically, the Hebrew Prophets throughout history have proclaimed that authentic worship of God cannot coexist with the perpetration of injustice or unethical treatment of others. Rejecting the pretense or show of piety while the powerless suffer, God in Isaiah (1:11-15) asks:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
To conclude we offer the Prophet Jeremiah’s summary exhortation: “If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow… then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
Moral Ties and Shared Values In Christianity
In the matter of love and universality of humankind, Christianity inherited Judaism’s concern for the individual relationship with God and the importance of manifesting that love in relations with others. When Jesus was asked which of God’s commandments was most important, Mark records Jesus’ response: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (12:28-30, citing Deut. 6:4).” He then adds: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these (Mark 12:31).”
Elaborating on biblical ethics, Jesus famously proclaims that, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).” Like Judaism, Jesus asks believers to love all others as God loves creation: God sends sunshine and rain on the good as well as the bad (Matthew 5: 43-48). As God neither distinguishes among his creation nor should his believers.
The most passionate advocate of love in the New Testament, the evangelist Paul writes:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).
As the Hebrew Prophets had proclaimed, there was a fundamental contradiction between authentic worship of God and mistreatment of others. Early Christians pointed this out in embedded Christian values of love in community as indicated in 1 John 4:19-21:
We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And He has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Christian social values, while centrally based in the cardinal principle of love, also carry over many of the ethical precepts found in Judaism. As Hebrews 13:1-3 explains:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Cf. the open tent of Abraham]. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Forgiveness is a central moral value in Christianity. It brings together the Christian values of love, agape, compassion, humility, mercy and redemptive salvation. Forgiveness is a defining virtue and practice of Christianity, which follows from the recognition that humanity is deeply flawed and yet always within reach of redemption and God’s mercy. More than an ideal, forgiveness is a central part of Christian worship and identity, and is prominently and frequently stated in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.
Having faith in God is directly related to God’s forgiveness of one’s sins, and one’s ability to forgive others (Luke 5:20; 7:47-50; Matthew 18:35). As God forgives, so are Christians expected to forgive. The Bible is clear on this point: Mark (11:25) warns that “when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”. Matthew reinforces the point:
If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
The transformation of the heart, being so important to Christian faith, is essential to forgiveness. Matthew 18:35 asks Christians to “forgive your brother from your heart” if they are to receive the blessings of God’s forgiveness and find peace. So important is this principle that to be Christian means to forgive when asked by another in sincerity. Luke (7:47-50) describes the relationship between love, faith and the forgiveness of sins:
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven…. Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’.
When Jesus was asked whether there were limits to such acts, if after the seventh time of bestowing forgiveness to a repeat offender that was enough, Jesus replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Luke (17:3-4) reaffirms this when he says:
So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.
Generosity, the instinct to charity, is an essential moral value. The New Testament speaks to the importance of generosity, remarking “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again (Luke 6:30)”. The Christian manual entitled Didache (ca. 100 CE) claims that the true Christian must give to everyone who asks, without looking for repayment.
While Jesus emphasized the importance of the spiritual over the material, he nevertheless strongly advocated for social justice and generosity for the poor. This includes just lending practices (Luke 6:33-36) where Jesus reminds his followers to:
Lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
A profound concern for “the least among us”. Jesus’ ministry was devoted to the poor and the vulnerable in his community. Not only were the needy the most deserving of love and fellowship, but their piety and faith was closest to God. Jesus’ message of worldly renunciation and God’s special blessings to those steadfast in the face of hardship gave particular dignity to the poor. James records that Jesus says:
Listen my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you (James 2:1-7)?
Jesus particularly singles out the needy and the vulnerable for special blessings by God. Luke 6:20-23 records that Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus devoted his energy to speaking out and addressing the plight of the poor and the powerless. His ministry focused on the suffering class—the lepers, despised women, the sick, the blind, the hungry, the persecuted, and other marginalized peoples (Luke 4:18-19, 7:18-23; Matthew 11:2-6) at a time of tyranny and occupation. As others throughout Jewish history had done, Jesus warned his community of the consequences of corruption, injustice and God’s judgment in this life and the next.
Jesus himself had been a refugee (Matthew 2: 13-15), with no regular income during his public ministry. He sent his disciples out with very little to sustain their work, relying on God for their well-being. Jesus emphasized that God had no care for one’s worldly claims or accomplishments, but rather it was the state of their heart and faith, which would determine their fate in the afterlife. He also taught that those who imitated God by loving and caring for the neediest would be rewarded by God:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me…(Matthew : 13-15).
Moral Ties and Shared Values In Islam
Islam teaches that God endowed humanity with a good, purposeful nature and with a deep inner awareness of God. At this most basic level, humankind has an in-built ability to naturally and independently perceive what is right, good and ethical. Muslims understand their faith as din al-fitrah (natural religiousness), which at its purest level is in a state of instinctual and natural surrender to God (30:30). By heeding this deeply-seated calling of conscience, humankind pursues the highest good for self and others, and thereby fulfills the purpose of creation in service and worship of God (51:56).
To help live authentically and consistently with our true natures, and to remind humanity of the consequences of our actions, Muslims believe humanity has been given divine guidance through the Qur’an, as revealed through the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is understood as a “mercy” to humankind, enjoining Muslims to use their gifts and act on their innate sense of decency in service and obedience to God through the creation of a just and peaceful society (6:157; 21:107, 6:165).
The Qur’an promotes positive bonds between people because of their common moral responsibility toward one another. When the Prophet Muhammad was asked, “Who among men is most favored by God?” He replied: “A man who does the most good to people”.3 Chief among these are deep ethical commitments to equality and justice, and social obligations to the poorest and least powerful in the community.
Creating a Just Society
As God revealed Himself to the Jewish and Christian communities in times of extreme oppression, Islamic tradition holds that God’s revelation to Muslims came in a period of oppression by ignorance, corruption and internecine violence which tore apart the fabric of Arabian tribes. This time of al-jahiliyya (ignorance) ended with God’s revelation of the Qur’an through the Prophet Mohammad, whose leadership ultimately united the disparate, warring tribes of Arabia into a unified Muslim community (ummah). An important surah says: “We sent you no Messenger [prophet] save with the tongue of his people, that he might make all clear to them” (14:4). In practical terms this means God sent the Qur’an to Muhammad in Arabic, as he sent the Torah in Hebrew, and the Gospels in Aramaic and Greek.
The core beliefs in liberty, equality, fraternity and social justice—the “Abrahamic ethics”—are foundational religious values which carry significant social and political implications. Beliefs rooted in human dignity and freedom of conscience influence social values and in turn, on how society is structured. Some of the social values that emerge from these fundamental principles in Islam include those emphasizing Ta’aruf (knowing one another), Ta’awun (cooperation, mutual assistance, in transactions), and Takamul (complementarity and completion).
The Qur’an makes clear that justice itself is a command from God (16:90, 5:8), enjoining believers to that which is just and kind (16:90), as well as forbidding that which is unjust (72:15; 60:8). The primacy of justice among Islamic values is demonstrated by God’s command to pursue it above all other considerations:
O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor, for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do (4:35).
In the case of radical egalitarianism, the prophet said in his final sermon:
All mankind is from Adam and Eve; an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white, except by piety and good action…
The dignity of women
The most radical social reforms advanced by Islam regarded the status of women, who were given unprecedented rights and position in the Muslim community, where they emerged in all aspects of community life, including battle, where they fought alongside men. The principle of strict individual moral accountability to God gave an equal status to women as believers (or unbelievers). Numerous verses go to great lengths to support the principle of gender equality in the sight of God.
Among the advances in women’s dignity are punishments for those accusing or defaming women (a false accusation of adultery becoming one of eight mortal sins) and added protections for women where their rights and status were concerned. In pre-Islamic Arabia, female infants were buried alive and women were considered property with no independent status or rightful claims. In this sense, the independence, equality in legal and religious rights and duties accorded women in Medina were considered revolutionary. So radical were these reforms – deeply controversial during the Prophet’s time – that the progress of gender equality suffered from severe, consecutive backlashes and a prolonged rollback in rights after his death. This helps explain but not at all justify the primitive male chauvinism in the hyper-patriarchal societies of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, for example.
On pluralism and diversity
The Qur’an states:
Had God willed, He would have made you into one community; but [it was His will] to test you in what He gave you. So compete with each other in doing good works. To God you are all returning, and He will inform you about how you differed” (5:48).
The Qur’an and the Hadiths confer legitimacy to and demonstrate a strong respect for the Jewish and Christian communities living within and alongside the Muslim community. The Qur’an states:
“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians…and (all) who believe in God and the last day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).
Islam offers “People of the Book” a broad scope of religious freedoms, protections, and minority group rights within Muslim communities as a religious moral duty. In one Hadith recorded by Abu Daud, the Prophet warned,
“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”
Caring for the poor
As Jesus declared that “Blessed are the poor,” the Prophet said, “Poverty is my pride.” The Prophet informed his followers that, “He who helps his fellow-creature in the hour of need, and he who helps the oppressed, him will God help in the Day of Travail”. When asked which actions were the most excellent in the eyes of God, Prophet Mohammed replied:
To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured.
Feed the hungry and visit the sick, and free the captive, if he be unjustly confined. Assist any person oppressed, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.
On widows and orphans
The Prophet was deeply concerned for the welfare of the poor and the powerless in his community, urging Muslims to be especially mindful that the treatment of widows and orphans be both just and kind. Having been orphaned at the age of six, in a highly tribal social context, the Prophet spent considerable time and attention on the issue of justice and proper care for orphans. Mentioning orphans twenty-three times in twenty-two chapters, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to “stand firm for justice to orphans. There is not a good deed which you do, but God is well-acquainted therewith” (4:127). Other chapters warn against unjust dealings with orphans in their care (4:2-8, 4:36, 6:152; 17:34; 89:17; 107:2), reminding Muslims to “treat not the orphan with harshness” (93:9), and threatening those who deal with them unjustly with “blazing fire” (4:10).
On forgiveness and humility
The Prophet was once asked, as Jesus was, about the limits of forgiveness:
‘O Apostle of God! How many times are we to forgive our servant’s faults?’ He was silent. Again the questioner asked, and [the Prophet] Muhammad gave no answer. But when the man asked a third time, he said, ‘Forgive your servants seventy times a day.’ [Cf. Jesus saying forgive if necessary seven times.]
Two of the most oft-repeated qualities of God are merciful and compassionate—each is included in the opening statements every chapter of the Qur’an. Given the frequency with which these qualities of God are mentioned, Muslims who are mindful of God seek to incorporate them into their own lives.
As in Christianity, sincere repentance is key to God’s forgiveness: “those who do ill-deeds and afterward repent and believe—lo! For them, afterward, Allah is Forgiving, merciful” (Al-Araf, 7:153). The Prophet once remarked that, “A sincere repentant of faults is like him who hath committed none. God loves those who repent” (2:222).
The path of Abraham not only provides a means of ennobling the soul, but also bringing believers in harmony with one another, and in proximity to God:
And who better in faith than the one who willingly surrenders his being to God, and is a doer of good, and follows the way of Abraham the rightly oriented? For God took Abraham as a friend (4:125).
1Sacks, Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, p. 99.
2Schwarz, Richard H. Judaism and Global Survival..Lantern Books, NY, (2001), p. 27.
3Al Daraqutni, Hasan.