The Three H's of Jewish Life: Head, Heart, and Hands

January 11, 2021Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

When I addressed the Kristallnacht commemoration of the Sarasota-Manatee Federation in November, a couple was in the Zoom room who belonged to the first congregation I served in Columbia, MD. They contacted my wife Vickie and me, and the outdoor lunch we enjoyed together was the first time we had seen them since 1984.

As we ate, the woman shared, “I remember very few of the hundreds of sermons I have heard over the years, but I distinctly remember one of yours. You asked, ‘If accused of being Jewish, would there be enough evidence to 'convict' you?’”

Flattered by and thankful for the memory jog, I remembered envisioning an investigator examining our homes and our lifestyles to determine whether we were Jews. Some of the things the investigator might look for are: Is there Jewish art on the walls? Are there Jewish books on the shelves? Is there a connection with the Jewish community through synagogue, federation, JCC and/or Jewish charities?

Looking at our tradition, the great first century sage Shimon Ha Tzadik postulated the balanced tripod of Jewish living: “Al Shelosha Devarim, upon three things the world stands: Torah, worship, and deeds of kindness and compassion” (Pirkei Avot 1:2).

Recently, my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin shared a modern iteration of Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s famous teaching that he learned from Rabbi Neil Gilman, of blessed memory, renowned former professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The idea is that there are “three h's” of Jewish life: head, heart, and hands. The head stands for intellectual engagement with Judaism or serious Jewish study; the heart represents prayer, worship, and liturgy; and the hands stand for social justice initiatives and acts of kindness and service to others.

Rabbi Gilman stated that, like a college student, a “good Jew” must “major” in one of the three H’s and minor in another. If they have some familiarity with the third, so much the better.

I find the "Three H" model useful as we navigate our identity as Jews in the secular world. The Torah presents us with excellent role models of highly successful Jews who did not forsake their identity.

Joseph and Moses, of course, lived long before there was organized Jewish learning or worship. That said, their actions (or "hands" in our model) clearly indicated the primacy of their connection to the covenant of their ancestors.

For all his success in Egypt, Joseph made his brothers swear that his ultimate resting place would be in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Moses was an Egyptian prince, but, as tradition has it, his mother Yocheved inculcated in him the Jewish covenantal values of justice, caring, and compassion. These clearly emerged when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Later, when he had established a new life for himself, Moses could not resist God’s call to return to Egypt and free his people from bondage.

These examples bid us ask: How do our Jewish souls call to us? Is it through the study of our text and traditions? Is it through regular worship and participation in synagogue life? Or is it through social action or acts of kindness to others? If we major in one of these, minor in another, and hopefully have some involvement with the third, then, without question, there will be ample evidence of our Jewish identity. 

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