In Jewish tradition an act of loving kindness that cannot be repaid is called gemilut hasadim. As the Jewish Virtual Library to which I've just linked you notes, it "is a fundamental social value in the everyday lives of Jews."
It's a beautiful concept and something like it is to be found in most, if not all, of the major religions. Today I will tell you about an act of gemilut hasadim performed last month by a rabbi and an Episcopal priest.
One day Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City got a call from Rabbi Steven Ballaban, an old friend from seminary days who now works as a military chaplain in Japan.
It turned out that the Japanese-born widow of a former Navy pilot, who grew up in Kansas City and who died in Vietnam, had died in Japan. John Jerdo “Jack” Oyer's wife Kiomi had expressed a desire to have her ashes scattered on the grave of her husband.
The problem was that her husband's grave was in a family plot in Cairo in northern Missouri. Ballaban thought that although Cukierkorn lived on the Kansas side of the KC metro area, it wouldn't be too much to ask him to drive to Cairo, locate an old rural cemetery and scatter Kiomi's ashes there.
Jacques agreed to help, but the trip to Cairo, which is due north of Moberly, took "a good three hours" one way, he said. In cold, snowy weather on Feb. 20. Jacques had asked if I wanted to accompany him that day but I wasn't able to. However, our mutual friend, Fr. Gar Demo, rector of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park, Kan., did ride up with him and assisted in the brief ceremony at the plot where Jack Oyer's parents are also buried.
To find the cemetery, Jacques had called the Moberly Monitor-Index newspaper, so a reporter went along to the cemetery and wrote this story about the event. That reporter, Connie Duvall, took the photo that you see here today.
An act of gemilut hasadim, he said, is "doing something without expecting anything back." More than that, he said, it's doing something for people who simply cannot do anything back for you, such as Kiomi: "They can never thank you. They can never do anything for you."
This idea of gemilut hasadim, however, is not considered part of Jewish law, or Halacha, those normative codes established by rabbinical jurists, as Jacques describes Halacha in his book, Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide. Rather, this kind of act, while not included in Halacha, "is just a good idea," he said. It's not unlike etiquette, which, in an American social context, "is not a legal thing." It's simply "rules for living that make life a little more pleasant." It's "ethical concepts for better living."
But performing such an act can mean driving six or seven hours on what Jacques called a "miserably cold" day, standing outside in a frozen cemetery just beyond a hamlet oddly named Cairo in northern Missouri and scattering the ashes of a Japanese widow of an American pilot, neither of whom Jacques or Gar had ever met.
Gar explained this act through Christian eyes by saying that it was "similar. . .to the concept of 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' Jesus adds this second commandment to the Shema (Tammeus note: The central prayer of Judaism found in Deuteronomy 6) as an expansion and redefinition that our focus is not only to be on God but is to also be an extension of loving God in which we love that which God has created, particularly our neighbor.
"Loving our neighbor, at least as I understand this commandment, is not done for reward, but because we love God. The simple act of honoring the wishes of a woman neither of us met or knew for me was an extension of loving a neighbor, even half the globe away. It was a simple honor and a good use of a cold, but sunny day."
It's the kind of act to which healthy religion calls its adherents -- whether directly by examples in sacred writ or indirectly by inference from scripture and tradition. And it's the kind of act that adds to the goodness in the world.
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DISPLAYS OF ISLAMIC ART
To counteract the images of Islam arising from Islamist terrorists, the British Museum is about to open a display of historical Islamic art in two new galleries. Such moves can actually help reshape thinking. For instance, I remember being simply stunned by the beauty of the architecture the Islamic world was producing hundreds of years ago in such places as Uzbekistan when I visited that country in 2002. It opened my eyes to the artistic gifts Islam has given the world.