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  • PSYCHEDFORTORAH

Very, Very Humble - Avot 4:4 



Rabbi Levitas a man of Yavneh said: be exceeding humble spirit” – me’od me’od hevei shefal ruach – for the end of man is the worm. 


To fully appreciate the message of the Mishna we need to address several important textual questions. First, what is the connotation of shefal ruach, and is it different from the more common word for humility, anava? Second, what is the significance of the double language and heavy emphasis of “me’od me’od”? Is there a practical difference between being “humble,” “very humble,” and “very, very humble”? Finally, what is the significance of the rationale for being exceedingly humble, that “the end of man is the worm”? Why not “because Moses was humble,” or “because it is spiritually enriching”?

 

Perhaps the most influential reflections on humility belong to Maimonides. Commenting on this Mishna, he distinguishes between three ideas: arrogance, on one extreme, lowly of spirit (shefal ruach), on the other, and humility (anava), which is the middle path. While Maimonides usually advocates following the middle path, when it comes to humility (and in Hilkhot Dei’ot he adds anger), he strongly adjures going to the extreme of lowly of spirit. He justifies this exception and connects it to our Mishna, writing:

 

But only in this trait from [all] the other traits - meaning to say with pride - due to the great deficiency of this trait for the pious ones and their knowledge of its damage, they distanced themselves to the other extreme and completely inclined towards lowliness of spirit, until there was no room for pride in their souls at all. And it is because of this that this one commanded to come close to lowliness and said, “Be very, very lowly in spirit” - out of his fear that a person remain only in humility, all the more so that there be a trace of pride in him.

 

In contrast, Aristotle promotes the ideal megalopsychia, someone who demonstrates greatness of soul. This person is not arrogant but has a strong, yet justified, high opinion of himself. It is virtuous for the megalopsychia to defend his honor when it is challenged unfairly by others. Maimonides’ notion of humble of spirit would be a failure of virtue for Aristotle because he would not defend his dignity if offended. In an article entitled “Humility as a Virtue: A Maimonidean Critique of Aristotle’s Ethics,” Professor Daniel Frank explains the reason why Maimonides veered from Aristotle. Aristotle adopted an anthropocentric worldview, in contrast to Maimonides’ theocentric one. Man is at the center of Aristotle’s universe; God is the heart of Maimonides’:

 

For Aristotle, the humble man’s ignorance of self and lack of self-worth are manifested by his robbing himself of the honor that he rightfully deserved, given his (antecedent) virtue. In no small measure desire for honor is a function of worth. Contrarily, for Maimonides, disdain for worldly honor is compatible with awareness, not ignorance, of self and a strong sense of self-worth… extreme humility and disdain for worldly honor necessarily follow from the knowledge that God is the author of the moral law and that man's ultimate felicity depends upon obedience to this (divine) law, and to nothing else.

 

Presumably, even the lowly of spirit according to Maimonides is not purposefully self-denigrating and contains a healthy sense of self-worth (contingent on an awareness of God, not one’s own accomplishments). Rabbeinu Bechayei—who agrees with Maimonides that the Mishna is advocating going to the extreme—still suggests not going to such an extreme of self-denigration. Some level of self-respect, rooted in the fact that we are created in the Image of God, is necessary. This conceptualization would align with more modern definitions of humility which would include accurate self-awareness, modest self-representation, and an other-focused orientation, but would not include self-belittling (see Ross, 2019, “Humility, Personality, and Psychological Functioning”). 

 

Rabbi Levitas justifies his advice to be exceedingly humble with the grim notion “for the end of man is the worm.”  Instead of an inspirational or elevating justification, Rabbi Levitas elects for this depressing imagery. In his book, Confronting Vulnerability: The Body and the Divine in Rabbinic Ethics, Jewish studies scholar Jonathan Wyn Schofer argues that the rabbis confronted the idea of mortality and death without any sense of denial – they “portray vulnerability through images and genres that resist abstraction, evasion, and superficial acceptance.” Perhaps more importantly, they “incorporate encounters with weakness into concrete guidance and exercises.” Following this, Rabbi Levitas is advocating that we should actively reflect on our vulnerability in order to motivate more ethical and spiritual conduct. 

 

When reflecting broadly on this Mishna, it is important to note that the intensity of the message or imagery may not be applicable or helpful for all people. As Maimonides notes, this stance is the “pious” position, which, even if operative, is still meant to be aspirational, not easily attainable. Moreover, as we will explore in other Mishnayot, other sages offer alternative models of humility that provide a counterpoint to Rabbi Levitas’ conceptualization. Yet, for those who are able to reflect on the fragility of life and are inspired to live exceedingly humble lives, Rabbi Levitas provides an exceptionally stark and succinct meditation for growth.

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