There was a very sharp thinker who lived in 19th century Poland called Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk. Among his profound witticisms was the following pearl. I will share with you the original Yiddish, and then translate:
A frumer iz a rosho.
A kluger iz an apikores.
A gutter iz a naar.
Alle drei, a shtickl mensch.
A religious person is wicked.
A thinking person is a heretic.
A kind person is a fool.
But someone who is all three, now that’s a good person.
In this pithy little riddle, the Kotzker at once summarizes the highest ideals of Judaism, and warns of the pitfalls that lurk on the path of those who try to discover truth.
Being religious, being a thinker or being kind all sound wonderful. But each one on its own comes with a risk.
People who are ‘religious’ can sometimes miss the point. Righteousness can turn into self-righteousness, care for G-d may come at the expense of care for humanity, and religion can be used as a fire to burn rather than a light to illuminate. Some of the greatest evils in history have been done in the name of religion. If you only care about religious ritual, you are wicked.
But then there are the intellectuals, who reject faith in favor of clear thinking. They become so impressed with their own brilliance, so stuck in their own minds that they see logic as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Anything that can’t be explained, can’t exist. I think it, therefore it is. These people are too smart for G-d. But intellect without absolute morality can rationalize the worst evil. Once you deny G-d, there is no good and evil. If you are a thinker who relies on logic alone, you are a heretic.
So if religiosity can lead to wickedness, and intelligence can lead to heresy, what possible danger is there in being kind? Well, often the most goodhearted people are also the most naïve. They fall for every scam, give in to every request, allow themselves to be walked all over, and never stand up against those who do wrong. Ultimately, it is the overly kind person who allows evil to prosper, because all evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing. If you are too kind to say no, you are a fool.
But someone who has all three – religious piety, rigorous thinking and gentle kindheartedness – now that is a complete person. Each trait enhances the others. Their righteousness will be thoughtful and sensitive. Their thinking will be infused with the humble recognition that not all can be known. And their kindness will be directed to worthy recipients. They can love those who differ with them, without compromising their own strongly held positions. They can question and explore without losing their firm faith. And they can be tough in fighting evil, all the while maintaining their warmth and positivity.
Rabbi Mendel Bluming (written partly by Nefesh)