How "Lovingkindness" Got So Popular, and So Far From Its Jewish Roots

A derived translation of the Hebrew Bible’s ḥesed, which focuses on action and deeds for others, lovingkindness as understood today focuses on internal feeling.

NikkiZalewski/iStock.

NikkiZalewski/iStock.

observation
March 18 2020
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The other day I was talking over the phone with a friend who mentioned that, lately, the word “lovingkindness” seemed to be everywhere she looked. There were columns and articles on it; there were “lovingkindness meditation” books, and “lovingkindness practice” guides, and “teaching children lovingkindness” manuals. “I’ve heard,” she said, “that ‘lovingkindness’ is the translation given in the King James Bible for the Hebrew word ḥesed. Is that actually where the word comes from?”

“Lovingkindness” indeed entered English via Bible translation, but the translation by which it did so was not—or not mainly—the King James Version (KJV). One first finds it in the Coverdale Bible, the joint work of Myles Coverdale and William Tyndale that was published in 1535, three-quarters of a century before the King James, where it appears as “loving kindness.” What the KJV did was take the Coverdale Bible’s separate adjective and noun and compound them into a single word.

“Lovingkindness” is not, however, the only way the KJV renders ḥesed, which is not an easy word to translate. The reason for this isn’t that we don’t know what ḥesed means in the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs roughly 200 times, but that it has no exact English equivalent. The KJV’s different renditions of it include the following (with the English word indicated in italics):

Genesis 24:12: “And he [Abraham’s servant] said, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, I pray Thee . . . show kindness unto my master Abraham.”

Numbers 15:8: “The Lord is longsuffering and of great mercy.

Psalms 36:10: “O continue Thy lovingkindness unto them that know Thee.”

Isaiah 39: 6: “All flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.”

“Hosea 6:4: “O Judah, . . . your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.”

Job 10:12 “Thou has granted me life and favor.”

“Favor”; “benevolence” or “act of benevolence”; “kindness” or “act of kindness”; “goodness” or “act of goodness”; “mercy” or “act of mercy”; “love” or “act of love”—all of these taken together sum ḥesed up.

 

There is not, to be sure, any enormous difference of meaning among these various choices. It is a question of nuance. Yet, as every experienced translator knows, nuance is everything, and the King James translators did their best to suit their translation of ḥesed to the context. As a result, there is an inevitable arbitrariness to their decisions. Had they opted for “The Lord is longsuffering and of great goodness” instead of “of great mercy,” or for “O continue Thy mercy unto them that know Thee” instead of “Thy lovingkindness,” no one could have accused them of translating badly.

The Coverdale-Tyndale translation, on which the KJV often leans, illustrates this point nicely. Only in two of the six verses cited by me from the KJV do the two translations share the same wording. One of them is Psalms 36:10, where the Coverdale Bible reads, “O spread forth Thy loving kindness unto them that know Thee.” Elsewhere it has:

Genesis 24:12: “Show mercy unto my master Abraham.”

Isaiah 40:6: “All flesh is grass and all the beauty thereof is as the flower of the field.”

Hosea 6:4: “Your love is like a morning cloud.”

Job 10:12: “Thou hast granted me life and done me good.

Although both the Coverdale and the King James tend to use the same range of words for ḥesed, they use them in different places. By contrast, the oldest English Bible translation, that of John Wycliffe and his circle, which dates to the late-14th century, translates ḥesed consistently as “mercy.” (Today, we would probably say “compassion.”) What it gains in consistency, however, it loses in inclusiveness, since many aspects of ḥesed are left out.

 

As the above verses demonstrate, the concept of ḥesed in the Bible always involves an act or course of action, whether on God’s part or man’s. Ḥesed is something that is done, not merely thought or felt. Although it presupposes a well-disposed frame of mind on the part of the doer, it never refers merely, or even primarily, to the doer’s mental or emotional outlook. It may or may not reflect something that happens inwardly, but it necessarily consists of something that is performed outwardly.

And this is why ḥesed, although it gave us the word lovingkindness, has little to do with the “lovingkindness” that one hears so much about today. Here, for example, is one of its gurus, Sharon Salzberg, talking about “loving-kindness” (as she prefers to hyphenate it):

To do it in the most easiest way possible means first to use phrases that are personally meaningful. . . . May I be free from danger, may I have mental happiness, but really, you should use any phrases that are powerful for you. They need to be meaningful, . . . something profound that you would wish for yourself and wish for others. Thoughts are very important in doing loving-kindness—not to struggle to get a certain kind of feeling. Let your mind rest in the phrases. . . . We’re uniting the power of loving-kindness and the power of intention and that is what will produce the effect of that free flow of loving-kindness.

For such a point of view, lovingkindness is a state of consciousness. If it results in outward action, so much the better, but that’s not what it’s all about.

One might discuss the ways in which the difference between ḥesed and the contemporary notion of lovingkindness is the difference between a religion like Judaism that stresses objective deeds and commandments and a religion like Christianity and, even more so, like the Westernized Buddhism that is behind much of today’s lovingkindness movement with its emphasis on subjective thought and feeling.

I’ll resist that temptation, however, and make do with the reflection that perhaps we could use some more ḥesed in today’s world and a little less lovingkindness.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Buddhism, Hebrew Bible