What is Humility?

Here’s a fresh take on the concept of humility I came across recently:

What exactly is humility? Does it mean speaking of ourselves as unaccomplished, even when this is not the case?  In truth, humility is not difficult to define (though it is hard to embody). It means not regarding ourselves as more important than other people, including those who have achieved less than we have. And it implies judging ourselves not in comparison with others, but in light of our capabilities, and the tasks we believe God has set for us on earth. This idea is conveyed in a seemingly immodest teaching of Rabbi Israel Salanter: “I know that I have the mental capacity of a thousand men, but because of that, my obligation is also that of a thousand men”. As Rabbi Salanter’s statement emphasizes, the very capabilities that can make a person most proud (“I know I have the mental capacity of a thousand men”) are also those that should be most humbling. If we have greater wisdom, then we also have a greater responsibility to bring people to understanding and wisdom. If we have wealth, then we have a greater responsibility to help those in need. If we occupy a position of power, we have greater obligation to help the oppressed. In short, the fact that we have greater abilities than another does not mean that we are greater in God’s eyes – another person, for example, might be more accomplished than we are in fulfilling the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” – but only that we have greater responsibilities. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done also serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance.

(A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)


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  • Joel,
    I read you and Michael nearly every day. It was time to stop and leave a comment of appreciation. Personally I have been reading Jacob Taubes’, The Political Theology of Paul. Like your quote of Rabbi Telushkin, many good conversation partners abound for the working out of our faith and praxis.

  • ES

    Great post. I appreciate St. Paul’s definition of humility in Phillipians 2. It has less to do with making ourselves low than it does with lifting others up. I don’t believe we reach humility by just debasing ourselves. We should respect the incredible gifts God has given us, and not speak poorly about ourselves. No, we reach humility by lifting others up regardless of what it means for the self (maybe it does or does not involve debasing ourselves like it did for X). The incarnation (and with it the redemption story) didn’t happen because the Triune God was contemplating one day how to make God low. It happened because God looked upon His people and sought to redeem them, to lift them up from the muck and the mire of our own making. And in the process, the incarnation brought the Son to the lowest imaginable place (yes, even death on a cross). But that wasn’t never the point: the point was to redeem humanity. What a model for humility we have!

  • Wonderful quote, wonderful source. Rabbi Telushkin is absolutely brilliant, and his Code of Jewish Ethics is masterful. Highly recommended.