It’s miraculous, mesmerizing, and makes for a great story. But it’s not a kiddush Hashem
Two of the most overused— and abused — terms in the contemporary frum lexicon are “kiddush Hashem” and “chillul Hashem.” Although these terms have very specific meanings and parameters as set forth in Torah sources, for some people they seem to be all-purpose terms of praise and criticism.
Even those who don’t fling these phrases around quite so indiscriminately might not understand what the terms are intended to convey. To gain clarity on the topic, we need not go further than Rav Eliyahu Dessler and what he had to say on the topic. In Michtav MeEliyahu (3:117), he writes (in loose translation):
Regarding any action one does or spiritual level one attains, the more internally directed it is, the more likely it is to be genuine, while the more externally focused it is, the more likely that there will be ulterior motives mixed in. When we strive, then, for the great mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, our first effort has to be to achieve a form of kiddush Hashem within ourselves and for ourselves.
It says, for example, that one who is able to learn Torah but doesn’t do so disgraces the word of Hashem. That’s an example of chillul Hashem within ourselves, and the primary form of kiddush Hashem is to rectify such an internal chillul Hashem. Only after that can one graduate to the next level, that of kiddush Sheim Shamayim in public, whose primary form is sanctifying Hashem before ten Jews. This is the basic level expected of every Jew, to teach other members of Hashem’s nation the belief in Him and the obligation of His mitzvos.
The highest level is that of the person who holds the honor of Heaven so high that he uses all his efforts and resources to see to it that Hashem is sanctified among non-Jews. His love of Hashem is so great that he wants every human being to recognize Him.
Why is it that we have this hierarchy of levels of kiddush Hashem exactly backward? We have a much greater desire to sanctify Hashem’s Name before the eyes of the nations than to do so by teaching our own fellow Jews daas Torah and emunah. And the notion of creating a kiddush Hashem within ourselves ranks last. The answer is as Rav Yisrael Salanter expressed it: A person thinks he’s sanctifying Hashem’s Name, while in truth he’s pursuing sanctification of his own name. When we desire strongly to demonstrate “the honor of the Jews,” our real intention is for our own honor.
In four short paragraphs, Rav Dessler sets on its head a widely prevailing misunderstanding of these concepts, and many of us surely nodded our heads as, in the last paragraph, Rav Dessler described… us. He opens our eyes to see the mantra-like invocation of these terms for what it often is — egotism masquerading as holy concern.
Before we jump to classify a behavior or event as a chillul Hashem, we need to stop and consider some more basic questions: What does the halachah have to say about the deed? Is it in fact prohibited, or is it instead permissible, perhaps even obligatory? It is from that determination that the answer then follows as to whether it desecrates or, to the contrary, sanctifies G-d’s Name.
Rav Meir Soloveitchik ztz”l once expressed the point this way: “Kol yamai gadalti bein hachachamim — I was raised among great people, and I never heard ‘kiddush Hashem’ or ‘chillul Hashem.’ If something was supposed to be done, one did it, and if was not to be done, one did not.”
Especially regarding the behavior of other Jews we find distressing, asking ourselves what the halachah requires before mulling over the kiddush Hashem/chillul Hashem aspect of the matter can provide the intellectual honesty to answer two other questions: Are the people acting that way indeed wrong, or are they acting properly and the problem is instead with us? In other words, might it be that our discomfort with those people is rooted either in insecurity about our own Yiddishkeit or in embarrassment at the possibility that others will associate us with them?
Thinking first about the halachic considerations of a situation before jumping to label it also reorients us to judging our actions for their intrinsic moral and spiritual value instead of solely through the prism of how they are seen by others. I once heard the rosh yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, Rav Yechiel Perr, relate an incident that occurred while shopping in a store accompanied by his young daughter. She began playing with a package of light bulbs and inadvertently broke one of them, and Rav Perr brought the package to the checkout counter to tell the cashier he needed to pay for the broken bulb.
The cashier waved it off, telling him not to worry about it, but he insisted he’d pay for the store’s loss. Spying the little girl at his side, she said, “I understand, Rabbi, the child is watching….” “No,” he explained, “not because my daughter is watching. I need to pay because my daughter broke the bulb and I’m responsible….”
One of the most common contexts in which kiddush Hashem is invoked is when an observant Jew achieves success in the world at large, whether as a high-powered businessman or politician or a celebrated athlete or entertainer.
But to say that it sanctifies Hashem’s Name to show that being a Torah Jew need not be an impediment to such success is actually the antithesis of kiddush Hashem. It makes the value of avodas Hashem dependent on these other, often meaningless, pursuits, when, in truth, all other pursuits are worthwhile only to the extent that they enhance or facilitate spiritual growth and elevation.
Nowhere does the Torah state that a Jew must be able to participate in every field, ply every trade, and exercise every G-d-given talent. It says only that a Jew must ever remain a Jew faithful to his G-d, which is why he’s in This World. “Judaism wasn’t a drag on my career aspirations” isn’t the ultimate message a Jew ought to be sending.
What may indeed constitute a kiddush Hashem, however, is when someone whose position in society is fraught with nisyonos maintains his integrity and yiras Shamayim and spurns the temptation to compromise on his shemiras hamitzvos. In that case, his conduct conveys Torah’s supremacy over all worldly considerations, and that is indeed a kiddush Sheim Shamayim.
But that’s still not to say every frum Jew who ventures into the public arena, even if he succeeds in preserving his values and Jewish look and fealty to halachah, automatically creates a kiddush Hashem. It’s one thing for a highly placed professional or public servant or industrialist to serve as a model of an erliche Jew in the public square. Their challenges are usually manageable in number and kind, and many such individuals, both past and present, have entered and emerged with their Yiddishkeit wholly intact.
But forays into various other spheres, such as the worlds of sports and the performing arts, are the spiritual analog to entering the lion’s den. A Jew is commanded to avoid such temptations and challenges, not seek them. For some, entering such fields may nevertheless be the right choice, after careful consideration and consultation with their mentors. But their success and salvation should not encourage others to try it, for they may end up with their Jewishness horribly mauled by the awaiting lions.
In our long history, there have been handfuls of Jews who entered such dens and emerged to tell the tale. It’s miraculous, mesmerizing, and makes for a great story. But whatever else it is, it’s not a kiddush Hashem — and not something for others to emulate blindly.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 778. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com