Who Is, And Who Is Not, A “Mensch”? (Virtuous Person)by Saul Levine September 23, 2017
You surely know the meaning of the word “mensch,” (a virtuous person) and may well have used it yourself. You might have said, “He’s (she’s) a real mensch,” when you referred to someone with considerable respect. (Or perhaps you said, “A mensch, he’s Not!”)
The word obviously derives from the original Yiddish, where it simply meant “a person,” and as time went on it evolved to mean a “special” kind of individual. More recently, it has become part of the English lexicon in newspapers, books and conversations, especially in cities with sizeable Jewish populations.
A mensch describes someone who is a person of virtue, or, as an Aussie friend said, “a really decent bloke.” A mensch has personality traits which most of us consider admirable.
These traits usually refer to a person who is kind, respectful and trustworthy. In the same vein, we could add that a real mensch is honest, compassionate, tolerant, generous, responsible and humble.
This is admittedly a lengthy list of laudable personality characteristics, and a cynic might say that this is a fantasied description of a “perfect human being.” Perhaps saint-like figures in different religions, but certainly not human beings! And in truth I have yet to meet such a real-life, real-time, perpetual and pure paragon of virtue.
So, does the very fact that we designate someone with the word mensch imply that there are very few people who deserve this appellation? I beg to differ: Although a mensch may be an evolved human being, the virtues listed are in fact not rare.
Indeed, most of us show some of these very attributes at different times in our lives, and we aspire to be the kinds of people who “inhabit” these virtues. After all, who doesn’t want to be considered by others (or themselves) as decent or responsible or generous? No doubt, many of you readers of this column are indeed “mensch’n.“
But being a mensch also entails the absence of other much less salutary characteristics. For example, an individual who lies frequently, or is a braggart, or treats others with contempt, would not merit the description of a mensch. Similarly, someone who has shown himself to be crude, or dishonest or bigoted would not deserve that appellation. Neither would a person who is egotistical, boastful or bullying, or who is baleful, threatening or belligerent.
Such an abrasive personality is a poor role model for children, and he/she tends to offend and repel us. This kind of individual spreads a “viral” social toxin by way of a phenomenon called “social contagion.” When these unsavory behaviors are present in an individual, we sense the negative energy emanating from him, which can actually affect us viscerally, making us feel uncomfortable or anxious.
We might feel distaste and even dislike for that person, but the object of our annoyance may remain oblivious, or worse, could not care less. Paradoxically, it is we who get upset. We want to retreat from engaging with people like that, and avoid their company if we possibly can.
If any of these negative behaviors are a significant part of an individual’s “portfolio” of personality traits, he/she would immediately be disqualified from “menschlichkeit” (ie, not deserving the “title” of mensch).
You and I know that nobody is perfect, and that we are all complex mixtures of strengths and frailties, virtues and faults. But in a world where incivility has become commonplace in political, media and everyday discourse, a person in whom “menschlich” positive traits far outweigh the negative ones, can strike us as a worthy, benevolent soul.
This kind of individual is “takeh a mensch” (really a worthy person). He/she contributes to and enhances all whom he/she “touches” in his/her relationships and activities, and leaves a “Positive Emotional Footprint.” There are few paths quite as important as this for us to follow.
Relevant Question: Can you think of a person who accurately fits the “not-a-mensch” description above? If so, that individual would undoubtedly be a “false-mensch,” an ”alt-mensch,” or an “anti-mensch.”