Kindness Is Not Optional: Creating an Interfaith Covenental Community

vk dinner

Here is a text of my keynote speech at last night’s annual Vision Keepers dinner of Interfaith Action – a faith-based direct service organization that serves the hungry and homeless population of my hometown of Evanston:

I’d like to begin my remarks tonight by sharing you with one of my chronic pet peeves – and I’d like to apologize at the outset to my congregants and loved ones, who are probably getting very tired of hearing me complain about this:  I really, really don’t like the saying “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”

Now I say this with all due apology to any of you who might have this bumper sticker on your car – I mean you no disrespect.  And believe me: I am a huge fan of encouraging kindness and beauty. It’s just that personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “non-Random acts of kindness and mindful acts of beauty.”  After all, if by kindness we mean simple human respect and dignity – qualities that are essential to the core of our basic humanity – I think we would all agree that there should be nothing random about it. Kindness shouldn’t be random – quite frankly, it should be mandatory.

In its way, I think this slogan reflects something very profound about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise.  We act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And yes, we might well feel a great deal of compassion: for our loved ones, we may even feel compassion for people we don’t actually know. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.

Biblical tradition provides us with a different model.  Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, feelings are wonderful, but feelings are not enough. Kindness and compassion should not be relegated to random feeling – they should be cultivated as a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We have to teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.

In the Bible, kindness and compassion are complex and profound concepts. In fact, there are many different Hebrew words for compassion. The most well known word, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.”  This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.

And then there is  “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness.”  As I learned back in my Rabbinical school Biblical Hebrew class, “lovingkindness” is probably not the best definition for chesed.  It’s a little too general, a little too mushy.  Most contemporary Hebrew scholars suggest that a better definition of chesed is “covenantal loyalty.”  Indeed, if we look at the way this word is used in the Bible, it has less to do with a feeling of lovingkindess than a deep sense of responsibility that comes out of sacred relationship. God shows chesed for the Israelites – and the Israelites for God – when they remain loyal to the mutual covenant they established together at Sinai. In another example, Ruth is praised in the Bible for the chesed she demonstrates to her mother-in-law Naomi when she remains loyal to her promise to stand by her side.

In Jewish tradition, this abstract notion of chesed was applied by the ancient rabbis to the everyday life of the community. Chesed societies, for instance, were the prototypical communal welfare institutions that were the cornerstone of Jewish communities for centuries. They too were guided by the central ethic of covenantal loyalty – “commanded compassion,” if you will.  At my congregation, as at yours, I’m sure, we have a committee of members helps members in need, usually due to illness or the loss of a loved one.  We call it, naturally, the Chesed Committee. And the members who participate in it will surely at attest that they don’t participate out of a desire to be randomly kind, but rather out of the sense of responsibility that comes through belonging to a community. Probably more often than not, the members of the Chesed Committee serve people they don’t even know personally – and that, of course, is precisely the point.

So in its way, chesed presents us with a compelling and important way of understanding collective compassion.  It is intimately connected to the concept of covenant and mutual obligation. Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of communal accountability. When a people live in a covenantal context –with chesed – it is with the fundamental understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.

By the same token, all of us in the room tonight – we are part of a covenantal community as well. All of us: the congregations that make up Interfaith Action understand on a deep, spiritually cellular level, that we have an abiding sense of covenant with the Evanston community. The Interfaith Action soup kitchens, the warming centers, the homeless hospitality centers, the Producemobile, are much, much more than mere direct service projects – they are expressions of our sacred sense of commitment to the city in which we live – and of the conviction that our compassion for every single member of this community must not be regarded as random or voluntary. On the contrary, we are compelled to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless out of a collective sense of sacred, covenantal imperative.

In this regard, I want to honor the work of our honorees tonight – and all who participate in Interfaith Action – for the sacred work you do.  I know you don’t do it just because it makes you feel good. I’m willing to bet there have been plenty of times you went over to soup kitchen when you were tired or just plain didn’t feel like going. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say there may have been times that you went even while you were doubting that your actions even made a difference. But in the end, you did go – and you continue to go – and you are here tonight because you know that at the end of the day, kindness should not be optional.

I’d like to go a bit further now, however, and offer a few thoughts about what an even deeper covenantal obligation might look like for our community.  I’ve always believed that religion is at its best when it not only comforts the afflicted, but challenges the oppressive status quo that afflicts them. What does it mean when we literally feed the hungry, but fail to challenge a system that countenances hunger in its midst?  Is it enough to provide warming centers, or should we also see it as our religious obligation to ask whether or not our city is also doing everything in its power to provide something as essential to life as heating for all its citizens?  On an even deeper level, shouldn’t we be finding ways to challenge an infrastructural reality that makes “warming centers” even necessary in the first place?

I believe that religion is at its best when it manages to balance what I would call the “pastoral” with the “prophetic.”  In other words, when our Biblical tradition demands that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, this is a pastoral imperative. And when we are commanded to speak truth to powerful Pharaohs, to create societies of fairness and equity, to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof – this is a prophetic imperative.

And so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask those of us in this room – those of us who act on a deep and profound sense of pastoral commitment to the Evanston community: what would it look like for us to create a similar kind of covenantal coalition out of a prophetic commitment?  More to the point: do we believe that our city of Evanston is doing what it must to ensure that its citizens are not going to bed hungry, that they have roofs over their heads and heat in their homes?   And if the answer is no, then I believe we must ask ourselves: do we believe that holding our own city accountable is just as much a religious obligation as running soup kitchens and warming centers?

Now I know that there are a myriad of complicated policy discussions to be had on these kinds of issues, and I obviously don’t intend to parse them all right now. But I do think that too often we hide behind a mantra of “it’s complicated” to avoid dealing with some fairly simple truths. And just as often, I think, we shy away from policy debates because we feel as though we shouldn’t be mixing religion and politics.

But at the end of the day, however, it’s really not all that complicated.  There’s nothing complicated about food, shelter and heat – these are among our most human basic needs. And when it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ll repeat again: religion should not only about comforting the afflicted – it’s also about afflicting the comfortable. It’s about challenging the attitudes of those who view the world with a scarcity mentality that claims there is only so much to go around – and that it’s not our problem if there are those who will inevitably go without.

I hope that gatherings such as this will redouble our resolve to both the pastoral and the prophetic aspects of our faith traditions. I hope that as we go forward with this sacred work, we will find ways to open conversations about what a truly covenantal Evanston faith community might look like. And I hope that in doing so, we might provide a truly prophetic voice of conscience.

Thank you again for all you do. Congratulations to our honorees tonight. May all of our efforts continue to transform the lives of others – may they ultimately transform our world as well.


21 thoughts on “Kindness Is Not Optional: Creating an Interfaith Covenental Community

  1. modemjunkie


    I have just read yours wonderful post, which focuses on a pet peeve of mine. I have long spoken about the need for specific, intentional, acts of kindness.

    I am currently president of the Oak Park- River Forest Community of Congregations, one of the oldest interfaith organizations in the midwest. I wonder if I could have permission to republish it in The Common Call, our newsletter.

    Thanks, Len

    Leonard Grossman Visit Trudel’sTruth -A blog from the past

  2. Dave Boxthorn

    Er, uh, I hope no one is going to do much research on those chesed societies.

    Didn’t those chesed societies virtually exclusively help Jews only? Even your own congregation’s chesed society must help Jews overwhelmingly.

    Having an organization that essential helps members of your extended family (or people who may be members of your extended family, or potential mates and their families) isn’t very universalist, is it? A biologist would easily compare this ‘lovingkindness’ to be merely a way of helping one own’s genes survive. Although when algae and amoeba help their own genes survive they can’t post much about it on the internet.

    PS I checked the membership list.

    40 groups. Zero Muslims.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

      I don’t usually make it a habit of replying to unpleasant trolls, but in this case, I think it will help clarify some important points:

      – Interfaith Action is a consortium of Evanston houses of worship. At present there is only one masjid in our city – and they are part of our IA coalition.

      – I agree that there is no shame in any community acting to take care of their own. The real test is whether or not they can also extend their chesed to the larger communities of which they are a part.

      – I’m not a biologist, but I don’t believe “chesed” is a biological term. There is a difference between survival instincts (which often means acting in the direct opposite of chesed) and mindful disciplined acts of kindness and compassion toward others.

      1. Vicky

        “I agree that there is no shame in any community acting to take care of their own. The real test is whether or not they can also extend their chesed to the larger communities of which they are a part.”

        This is a very valuable point and I think it’s best illustrated by the most immediate community most of us have, our families. Most of what I learned about kindness, I learned from my parents and how they act, my mum especially. (It’s only lately that I’ve come to realise just how much she has always done for people that I took for granted, because she never draws attention to it.) It isn’t selfish or shameful to concentrate on loving your family, because without that you can’t do a thing about the problems outside your family. Mother Teresa touched on this when a group of people asked her how they could help to alleviate world poverty. She told them to look for where there was loneliness, and that they might find it in their very own homes.

        “Biblical tradition provides us with a different model. Compassion is not random – it is an imperative.”

        I like this point too. Over the past few years it’s become a Lent tradition for me to choose one Bible passage (usually only a short verse) and play with it over the course of my fast, see what I can learn from it. This year I’ve got Jesus’ injunctions from Matthew, beginning, “Love your enemies…” What you write in this sentence seems to fit with that imperative too, chiefly as a reminder that it is not possible to love ‘enemies’ in general terms – only a specific person with a name and a face, created as I was and loved as I am. That is not random either.

  3. Debi

    Dear Rabbi,
    I am a non-Jewish reader and I love your thoughts, and how eloquently you speak and write. I would love it if you would post these snippets on Facebook, so we could ad followers share them with others. I have many non-Jewish, but Evangelical Christian believers for friends, even a couple of athiests amoung them, and I think they would enjoy and learn from your authorship.

  4. Wendy Carson

    Youre thoughts are pure.One does a kindness to their neighbor because as a human being that is what we are here for.If everyone treated each other with respect and kindness oh what a beautiful world this would be.

  5. Rebecca Rubin

    Profound, important, and beautiful thoughts, eloquently presented. I especially like the idea of cultivating compassion as a personal discipline. A very worthy goal for everyone, whether materially ‘privileged’ or not.

    The one place where I’m not sure I see the connection, as strongly as you do, is between America’s worship of individualism as a natural enemy of compassion. I can think of so many strongly individualists – Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr, Eleanor Roosevelt – who practiced as well as preached compassion. Perhaps you’re defining individualism differently, such as the pursuit of fame and fortune, as opposed to following one’s passions over societal norms, which is how I do.

    I’m sure your speech will be very well received and the challenge included in it is well placed and I hope inspires action.


  6. Sarah Q. Malone

    WONDERFUL SPEECH! I’ve posted it on Facebook, to the page for Interfaith Initiative Centre County, an organization I run in State College, PA, and environs. Peace and blessings, Sarah Q. Malone

  7. Neal C. Chambers

    Thank you for the epiphany.

    “non-Random acts of kindness and mindful acts of beauty.”

    Makes a lot of sense and it is practical.

  8. Steve Grover

    Well, George Polley, I don’t think the blogger who owns “Shalom Rav” likes Israel or Israelis. I’ll even go further. I believe his preference is for Israel to no longer exist. I also believe he does not care what would happen to Israelis if that were to occur.

    1. George Polley

      I respectfully disagree, Steve. You seem to be implying that to criticise Israel and Israelis is the same as disliking (hating?) them, much in the same fashion that some Americans believe that criticising the U.S.A. is being disloyal to it. There are many things to criticise Israel and man Israelis for, primarily Israel’s mistreatment and persecution of its Palestinian citizens and citizens of the West Bank and Gaza (mistreatment and persecution having to do with confiscating property, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain needed medical treatment, ignoring all UN sanctions and International Laws, and insisting — as some Israelis do — that all of Palestine belongs to the Jews, and that “the Palestinian people” do not exist. All of which sounds hauntingly similar to my country’s (the U.S.A.) white majority insisting that America’s Indians had and have no place in it and no claim to it, a position that I have spent my life opposing.

    2. Debi

      I think you Mr. Grover misunderstand the postition. It is a position of cultivating peace, and the current attitude of Isreal is not condusive to that. The Rabbi is attempting to teach those of us “with ears to listen” that being compassionate is a choice, and we must choose.

      1. Steve Grover

        Dear Debi and George Polley,

        Rabbi Brant Rosen doesn’t just criticize Israel or just takes a position of cultivating peace. He takes a position that Israel is an illegitimate country and should not exist. He also does not care what happens to the Israeli people should G-d forbid Israel no longer exist. I don’t how anyone could believe his positions are otherwise. Maybe Rabbi Rosen could be so kind point out how wrong I am about my perception?


        Steve Grover

      2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        I’d like to respectfully ask you to quote anything I’ve ever written where I say Israel is an “illegitimate country and should not exist.” And please quote sources that suggest that I “do not care what happens to the Israeli people should Israel not exist.” I’m not inclined to point out how wrong I think you are simply because I know I’ve never written anything remotely resembling what you suggest here. Please cite sources for your claims and then we’ll take it from there.

  9. Steve Grover

    Sorry Rabbi, I have no intention of searching through this blog or other places so I can quote your exact words. I am too busy to do this and that is why I have been unable to respond until now. Your writings and your actions do suggest to me that you believe Israel is an illegitimate country that shouldn’t exist. You have suggested that Israel is a mistake and is illigitimate. Your position has evolved in the past few years to support positions of radical Islamists groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas towards Israel. Supporting the ideology of these groups that actively tries to destroy Israel and kill Israelis cannot make anyone believe your position is other than I stated.

    Since, you think my beliefs about your position is wrong, I would love to hear about your affinity towards Israel and the 99.75% of the Israelis who don’t share your position that their country is illigitimate and shouldn’t longer exist.


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