Just as kiddush hashem is an act that causes a non-Jew to praise the God of Israel, an act of hillul hashem causes others to think of Jews and their God as disreputable.
One of the most significant verses in the entire Torah is found in Parsshat Emor, Leviticus 22:32: “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people. I am YHVH who sanctifies you.”
Kiddush hashem (sanctification of God’s name) and its opposite, hillul hashem (profanation of God’s name), became two of the basic polarities of Judaism. The Jew is required to look upon her/himself as a guardian of her/his people’s reputation. Any extraordinary act that brings honor to the Jewish people is regarded as kiddush hashem.
One of the best-known stories of kiddush hashem is the story about the sage Simeon ben Shetach and the jewel (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3). Here God’s name became hallowed because Simeon demonstrated that his belief in God was so real that he did not yield to the temptation of taking advantage of an innocent person. He caused a gentile (an Arab prior to Islam) to praise the God of Israel, when Simeon required that his students return a jewel inadvertently left on a donkey which they had bought.
Just as kiddush hashem is an act that causes a non-Jew to praise the God of Israel, an act of hillul hashem causes others to think of Jews and their God as disreputable. Like kiddush hashem the concept of hillul hashem concerns itself with the impression that a Jew creates for her/his people among non-Jews. Any immoral act committed by a Jew that gives non-Jews an opportunity to criticize the Jewish community is regarded as hillul haShem.
In the Union Prayer Book, which was the standard prayer book for Classical Reform Jewish congregations for generations, kiddush hashem is alluded to in the line, “May our life prove the strength of our own belief in the truths we proclaim. May our bearing toward our neighbors and our faithfulness in every sphere of duty … show that [the God] whose law we obey is indeed the God of all goodness …”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes: “Jewish tradition regards a Jew who has dealings with non-Jews as representing not only himself but the whole Jewish people; therefore, when he acts in a particularly honest or gracious manner, it reflects well not only on himself but on the people as a whole. … Kiddush [hashem] and hillul hashem are based on the presumption that when a Jew has interactions with non-Jews, whether business or personal, his behavior has the potential to reflect on Judaism and on all Jews, both for good and bad.”
Blu Greenberg has recorded that her grandfather, Moshe Genauer, “received his first big break in America” when “his actions illustrated to a non-Jewish bank president that he was a decent and sincere man.”
“My grandfather, Moshe Genauer, came to America in 1905, at age 26. The impetus was one more pogrom in the Ukraine. He was taken out of a yeshiva and sent to America to pave the way for the rest of the family. It was during the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush. Figuring he could do better following the Gold Rush path than competing with all the other peddlers on the Lower East Side, he boarded the Northern Pacific Railroad and headed west. In Seattle, he met some Jews who needed a 10th man for a minyan, and he wound up staying there.
“He was a peddler, buying and selling used clothing. One day he walked four miles out of town to buy some suits from a man. He came back to his little room, laid the suits out on his bed and found a diamond brooch in one of the pockets. So he turned around and walked all the way back to the house of the man who had sold him the suits.
“A woman answered the door. ‘I’d like to speak to your husband,’ my grandfather said.
“She saw a man with a beard and a hat, obviously Jewish, speaking with an accent. ‘You can’t bother my husband,’ the woman said. ‘You were here already. What do you want?’
“‘I didn’t buy a diamond from your husband,’” my grandfather replied. ‘I bought a suit.’
“Her husband turned out to be the president of Rainier National Bank, and he rewarded my grandfather’s honesty with an unlimited line of credit. This enabled my grandfather to open up a men’s wholesale clothing business and bring over his wife, my uncle and my father, then aged two. The business became successful and supported six families in the next generation.”
“The performance of a mitzvah not only benefits the one who does it but it has an effect on those who see it” (Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, p. 724). The psychologist William James wrote, “The ultimate test for us of what a story means is the conduct it dictates or inspires.”
When we apply James’ test to these stories, they become true for us when they inspires us to conduct our lives according to the value of kiddush hashem.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home in Philadelphia.