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Don’t Be a Shmuck All Your Life

How To Be a Mentsh (& Not a Shmuck)
By Michael Wex
HarperCollins, 224 pages, $24.99.

Michael Wex, author of the best-selling book “Born To Kvetch,” is the “Sneaky Chef” of contemporary Jewish culture. Like the cookbook author who advises parents to slip puréed broccoli into the brownie batter, Wex writes books that look and read like snacks, but he hides scholarly vegetables between the covers. Few people who buy Wex’s latest work, cheerily titled “How To Be a Mentsh (& Not a Shmuck),” will suspect that they are about to read a book-length commentary on the Mishnah, and they probably wouldn’t have bought it if they had known. But Wex makes all this go down easy, for that is what he does best.

As advertised, Wex describes — with details drawn from both pop culture and Jewish texts — two types of characters in daily life: the mentsh and the shmuck. For a society accustomed to Christian models of “good and evil” (evoked by the book’s cover image of angelic and devilish faces), Wex’s greatest insight is that what distinguishes the shmuck from the mentsh is not evil, but selfishness. He begins the book by quoting a Yiddish proverb, “It’s never too late to die or get married.” Wex interprets this quip to mean, “It’s never too late to learn that the only thing that’s really special about you is the ability to… make somebody else more special than you are.” This book, he claims, “is about how to keep yourself from believing you’re somebody special.” Wex’s shmucks are not serial killers, but rather something more familiar: people whose inconsiderate behavior stems less from cruelty than from arrogance.

A recurring motif is the story of Kamtso and Bar Kamtso, a rabbinic legend from Roman-occupied Judea. A man hosting a party for rabbis intends to invite Kamtso, but his messenger accidentally invites the hated Bar Kamtso instead. When Bar Kamtso arrives, the host humiliates him and kicks him out. Later, when the emperor offers a calf for Temple sacrifice, Bar Kamtso takes revenge against the rabbis by blemishing the animal’s lip, rendering it ritually unfit. When another rabbi, Zechariah ben Aviklos, rejects the calf on ritualistic grounds, this (according to the Talmud) provokes the Romans into destroying Jerusalem. Wex breaks down this story into the varieties of “shmuckery” involved, from the host’s hatred, to the guests’ indifference, to Bar Kamtso’s vengeance, to Zechariah’s blind obedience, to ritual law, using each as an entry into a more subtle area of ethics. Wex likewise uses legends about Rabbi Hillel to explore the concept of empathy. In a surprisingly nuanced discussion, he takes Hillel’s “on one foot” explanation of Judaism — “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor” — and contrasts it with Christianity’s “golden rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Rather than just “the golden rule in the negative,” Hillel’s formulation is far more empathetic, because “doing unto others” makes the arrogant assumption that we know what’s best for others, whereas refraining from doing hateful things avoids that arrogance. What if, Wex suggests, being “saved” by Jesus (or Marx or the Quran or any ideology) made some people so happy that they wanted to “do unto others” by imposing their form of happiness on everyone else? “Hillel’s idea,” Wex claims, in a slight overstatement, “wouldn’t allow it to happen.”

Pointing out philosophical flaws in a book called “How To Be a Mentsh” feels a bit like bludgeoning a baby seal. Indeed, Wex deserves no end of praise for introducing traditional Jewish safeguards against selfishness to a society desperately in need of them. The only flaw in this book is actually a flaw in Judaism itself. Despite centuries of experience, Jewish tradition lacks a real understanding of evil.

A shmuck, as accurately defined by Wex, is the person who cuts you off in traffic, not the person who cuts off your head. There isn’t really a word in Yiddish for the latter individual, because the traditional Jewish view of such people is that they are instruments of God. According to a Jewish attitude dating to the First Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE and even earlier, true evildoers are actually God’s way of punishing the people for their sins. The story of Bar Kamtso illustrates this perfectly: The rabbis were convinced, as Wex apparently is, that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Jews’ “shmuckery” — as if the Romans (who later made sport of decapitating rabbis) otherwise would have been their best friends. The legacy of this idea is so expansive that even secular Jews today often regard radical evil (including more recent decapitations like Daniel Pearl’s) as something caused by their own actions, whether it was brought about because they were too kind to their enemies or because they weren’t kind enough. Even the Bernie Madoff scheme has been examined less as an example of criminal pathology than of its victims’ “greed,” as if bilked Jewish philanthropies were at fault for wanting to do more good, or as if the thief were a divine agent sent to test our morals.

This gaping hole in Jewish ethics ought not to matter for the casual reader who just wants to learn how not to be a shmuck. But Wex’s example of an oppressive regime created by the “golden rule” takes his discussion to the global and the cosmic from the interpersonal, and makes his task urgent. The rabbis clearly believed that God punishes us for our “shmuckery” through the evil deeds of others. But by removing any sense of divine justice from his discussion, Wex sidesteps this disturbing idea. He instead suggests an intriguing though problematic alternative: that real evil is just extreme arrogance, whether an arrogant desire to benefit oneself or to “benefit” one’s fellow man, and the way to prevent evil is to avoid arrogance at all costs. Traditionally, one avoided arrogance by entering a contract to humbly serve an omnipotent God. Bereft of this idea, Wex is left sifting through such movies as “Groundhog Day” to find a motive for altruism, and unsurprisingly comes up short.

Books popularizing Jewish tradition are themselves an honorable Jewish tradition, dating to at least the Middle Ages, and Wex’s book succeeds in bringing Jewish ethical discussions to an audience unsuspecting in the extreme. By publishing his book in the crass category of How To books — nearly all of which are devoted to the selfish pursuit of beauty, health, sex or wealth — Wex has achieved on the bookshelf what Hillel advised that we all do in life: “In a place where there are no mentshn, try to be a *mentsh.”

Dara Horn’s newest novel, “All Other Nights” (W.W. Norton & Company), is about Jewish spies during the Civil War.

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