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On Humility

On Humility


How virtues change! Moses, the greatest hero of Jewish tradition, is described by the Bible as "a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." By today's standards he was clearly wrongly advised. He should have hired an agent, sharpened up his image, let slip some calculated indiscretions about his conversations with the Almighty and sold his story to the press for a six-figure sum. With any luck, he might have landed up with his own television chat show, dispensing wisdom to those willing to bare their soul to the watching millions. He would have had his fifteen minutes of fame. Instead he had to settle for the lesser consolation of three thousand years of moral influence.

Humility is the orphaned virtue of our age. Charles Dickens dealt it a mortal blow in his portrayal of the unctuous Uriah Heep, the man who kept saying, "I am the 'umblest person going." Its demise, though, came a century later with the threatening anonymity of mass culture alongside the loss of neighbourhoods and congregations. A community is a place of friends. Urban society is a landscape of strangers. Yet there is an irrepressible human urge for recognition. So a culture emerged out of the various ways of "making a statement" to people we do not know, but who, we hope, will somehow notice. Beliefs ceased to be things confessed in prayer and became slogans emblazoned on t-shirts. A comprehensive repertoire developed of signalling individuality, from personalized number-plates, to in-your-face dressing, to designer labels worn on the outside, not within. You can trace an entire cultural transformation in the shift from renown to fame to celebrity to being famous for being famous. The creed of our age is, "If you've got it, flaunt it." Humility, being humble, did not stand a chance.

This is a shame. Humility -- true humility -- is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life's grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it. I learned the meaning of humility from my late father. He had come over to this country at the age of five, fleeing persecution in Poland. His family was poor and he had to leave school at the age of fourteen to support them. What education he had was largely self-taught. Yet he loved excellence, in whatever field or form it came. He had a passion for classical music and painting, and his taste in literature was impeccable, far better than mine. He was an enthusiast. He had -- and this was what I so cherished in him -- the capacity to admire. That, I think, is what the greater part of humility is, the capacity to be open to something greater than oneself. False humility is the pretence that one is small. True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness, which is why it is the virtue of prophets, those who feel most vividly the nearness of G‑d.

As a young man, full of questions about faith, I travelled to the United States where, I had heard, there were outstanding rabbis. I met many, but I also had the privilege of meeting the greatest Jewish leader of my generation, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Heir to the dynastic leadership of a relatively small group of Jewish mystics, he had escaped from Europe to New York during the Second World War and had turned the tattered remnants of his flock into a worldwide movement. Wherever I travelled, I heard tales of his extraordinary leadership, many verging on the miraculous. He was, I was told, one of the outstanding charismatic leaders of our time. I resolved to meet him if I could.

I did, and was utterly surprised. He was certainly not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples. That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student from three thousand miles away. Yet in his presence I seemed to be the most important person in the world. He asked me about myself; he listened carefully; he challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. Perhaps that is what listening is, considered as a religious act. I then knew that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards. There was no grandeur in his manner; neither was there any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up.

True virtue never needs to advertise itself. That is why I find the aggressive packaging of personality so sad. It speaks of loneliness, the profound, endemic loneliness of a world without relationships of fidelity and trust. It testifies ultimately to a loss of faith -- a loss of that knowledge, so precious to previous generations, that beyond the visible surfaces of this world is a Presence who knows us, loves us, and takes notice of our deeds. What else, secure in that knowledge, could we need? Time and again, when conducting a funeral or visiting mourners, I discover that the deceased had led a life of generosity and kindness unknown to even close relatives. I came to the conclusion -- one I never dreamed of before I was given this window into private worlds - that the vast majority of saintly or generous acts are done quietly with no desire for public recognition. That is humility, and what a glorious revelation it is of the human spirit.

Humility, then, is more than just a virtue: it is a form of perception, a language in which the "I" is silent so that I can hear the "Thou", the unspoken call beneath human speech, the Divine whisper within all that moves, the voice of otherness that calls me to redeem its loneliness with the touch of love. Humility is what opens us to the world.

And does it matter that it no longer fits the confines of our age? The truth is that moral beauty, like music, always moves those who can hear beneath the noise. Virtues may be out of fashion, but they are never out of date. The things that call attention to themselves are never interesting for long, which is why our attention span grows shorter by the year. Humility -- the polar opposite of "advertisements for myself" -- never fails to leave its afterglow. We know when we have been in the presence of someone in whom the Divine presence breathes. We feel affirmed, enlarged, and with good reason. For we have met someone who, not taking himself or herself seriously at all, has shown us what it is to take with utmost seriousness that which is not I.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Discussion (20)
August 13, 2013
Your definition of humility as absence of self in the face of greatness is perfect. This, for me, is what Judaism is all about.
June 8, 2013
As always, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has shared some incredible insight and understanding. I will always treasure what I have just read about "humility" in this article because it is truly life changing and so fully reflects HaShem's wisdom and His true nature. Thank you Rabbi Sack's for all that you have given and poured into my life with your teachings.

Reginald Stout
May 12, 2012
Humility well defined.
This is a wonderful definition of Humility, and a much needed reminder of this virtue's importance in a world that has lost the meaning of it, and the desire for it. At times I even see people mistake a person’s humility for a lack of self-esteem, because this world has become so centered on "I". Confidence does not equal a boisterous pride, but instead is found within the tranquility of one’s own faith and humility.

Thank you Rabbi Jonathan Sacks- your words are wise and valuable.
Chehalis, WA
July 13, 2011
A wise man once told me; "do no search for humility, but rather eliminate the opposites of this virtue" . And so I began a lifelong process of reducing the anger, fear, intolerance, dishonesty and bias from my thinking and behaviour. Now at 73, I realize I have only made a small notch in the corrosive facets of my life. On judgement day I will have little to present for my case. I certainly hope he credits my trying. Thank you Rabbi for sharing your wealth.
Ottumwa, Iowa
January 6, 2011
I am truly in awe of your inspiration and
possibly courage share your personal experiences in such a way that brings the sense of humility right into one's soul. Well mine anyway. I find myself at a loss to for words to express the awe I felt reading your very personal experience of humility through words. I was looking for the definition of humility as you have shared your personal experiences with and of humility. I was attempting to find a fairly simple definition of true humility that you capture here with someone I do not know well and couldn't find anything that even closely expresses what your father brought to this world and you appear to enjoy as well. Thank you very much for touching my soul and reminding me of the true nature and experience of humility. Thank you for sharing your intimate and personal experiences that brought great joy to me and clearly others. God bless you and us all!
Laurie Montijo
San Diego, USA
August 6, 2010
thank you for your great insigths.
I was looking for material on humiliity to preach a message to our youth; found what I was looking for. May the Lord bless you so you can keep teaching us.
yanuario elias
los angeles
May 30, 2010
Thank You
Thank you for this lesson on humility. It really motivated me to possess such a virtue.
Miss Gabriela Facciolo
May 26, 2010
On Humility
A wonderful definition of humility. Thank you
Des Moines
May 25, 2010
I have heard many discussions on the concept of humility, but this is the first time I read something that resonates within me. Thank you for outlining our work so clearly. I am also so touched by the poignant description of your meeting with the Rebbe. Wishing you much continued success.
April 24, 2009!!!
im so impressed about this essay. Now I can do my work also. This kind of essay is really good. And I recommend this kind of work.
q.c, philippines