Being a Mensch in 2021

Latest News Thursday, 18 Mar 2021

The Jewish community talks frequently about ‘being a mensch’ as do we at the College. In light of the conversations we are having about the behaviour of many young people, consent, sexuality etc, there is so much to be said for nurturing the unique qualities of a mensch. Firstly, what exactly is a mensch? The word rolls off the tongue easily in our community but how do we define it and how do we actively raise a child to have these qualities?
There are few higher Jewish compliments to pay someone than to call them a mensch, though, of course, a true mensch would be too modest to want to be complimented. A dictionary definition tells us that a mensch is a person ‘with integrity and honour’ which sounds a bit like a military award. The following quote from various people are from the Jewish Museum’s website but define mensch better than a dictionary.

 “To be a mensch is to be supportive. To be a friend, to be calm in troubled times. To support others.” The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, former Justice of the High Court of Australia.

 “It is everyone’s responsibility to act like a mensch. Then, there would be a lot more good things happening in the world. We all have the capacity to do good in the world and it comes from within.” Susan Moylan-Coombs, Broadcaster, Educator and First Peoples Social Justice Advocate.

 “A mensch is involved in noble actions such as being a promoter of peace, unity, love and harmony; helping people, especially those in need; treating people equally without any kind of discrimination; having a desire to give something back to society; helping people who cannot help you; leading by example; having a caring heart; and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Noel Zihabamwe, Chairperson of the African Australian Advocacy Centre and Member of the Advisory Committee for Australian Human Rights Institute.

 A student or person may demonstrate ‘menschlichkeit’ - a term coined by the author Rabbi Neil Kershan (Raising Your Child To Be A Mensch). Menschlichkeit is responsibility fused with compassion, a sense that one’s own personal needs and desires are limited by the needs and desires of other people. A mensch acts with self-restraint and humility always sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others. Being a mensch represents a moral ideal for all people. A mensch brings a sense of responsibility to every occasion and treats everyone fairly and justly. These traits are acquired by living close to family and extending one’s own sense of obligation beyond the family to the broader community.

We are all in strong support for developing mensch-like qualities. In fact, we do so at speech night each year – proudly awarding a student who exemplifies mensch-like qualities. However, acting as a ‘mensch’ often runs counter to ‘cool culture’. Sadly, for many young people, being a mensch can reveal qualities that are allied to ‘nerdiness’, ‘goody-goody’, or ‘perfect child syndrome’ – whereas in cool culture, you are implored to be edgy and hard-arse. In The Merchants of Cool, there has been a conscious attempt to find the cool ‘sweet-spot’ as doing so gives access to a company’s products and services. Products spend huge sums of money uncovering the juncture where cool/hip meets dollars. There are research companies specialising in youth culture and they brand ‘cool’ following extensive research into the lives of young kids. How many products are sold using mensch-like characters? (I can’t think of many or any either!) Here is what being a mensch is up against:
  1.  Whereas being a mensch requires ‘responsibility fused with compassion’ the social pressures and cool culture expectations frames compassion as ‘soft’ and rights as central to our lives.  
  2. Whereas being a mensch requires ‘a sense that one’s own personal needs and desires are limited by the needs and desires of other people’ the social pressures and cool culture expects hedonism and egoism (even narcissism at times).
  3. Whereas being a mensch requires one to act with ‘self-restraint and humility’, social media is about self-promotion. Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less - or should be.   
  4. Whereas being a mensch requires one to ‘always be sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others’ the social pressures and cool culture demands rights trump responsibilities to others, self-pity over empathy and indulgence and trumpeting of one’s own pain and adversity over consciousness of how others feel.
  5. Whereas being a mensch requires one to ‘bring a sense of responsibility to every occasion and treat everyone fairly and justly’ the social pressures and cool culture expects your rights to be expressed vehemently and that justice be measured not according to an abiding agreed upon principle but relative to one’s own self-defined standards. 

So being a mensch is hard today – the mensch has a community that implores and strives for admirable virtues whilst at the same time, the mensch is pickled in a contemporary society that is often culturally at odds to menschlichkeit. I think we need to slightly tweak the definition of mensch to include: 

  1. A mensch won’t reject his/her creed for the failing of the many stupid followers. S/he know that his/her Jewish upbringing means something after all those years and treating women respectfully is the least one should expect.
  2. A mensch will know that self-control is knowing one can but being clever enough to decide one won’t. A mensch knows that the principles of Jewish law, including principles of equality, justice and dignity, are considered to be timeless and immutable.
  3. A mensch follows his/her conscience more closely than the crowd. Most people who do something stupid know and take responsibility for it – alcohol abuse is no excuse. Your conscience is shaped by your values and they are unambiguous when it comes to a mensch’s Judaism.  
  4. A mensch won’t compromise his insides to look good on the outside. 
  5. A mensch embraces General David Morrison’s adage: ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept’. If a mensch does not like what the mates are saying or how they are behaving, he finds the courage to say so. 
  6. The mensch knows that the ‘nail that sticks up the most gets hammered down the hardest’ so is wise when using social media and including posting selfies. 

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