I hate playing “My religion is better than your religion”, but I find it tragically depressing when compassion, an admirable quality indeed, is presented by much of the liberal denominations as Judaism’s ultimate goal. I find it equally distressing when much of the orthodox community extends compassion only within their own small groups.
I don’t know very much about Buddhism, but at least in the watered-down Buddhism that underlies many of the “New Age” forays into spirituality, compassion does appear to be the supreme goal (my guess is that in purer forms it’s, just like it is in Judaism, instead an early or intermediate step, but I don’t know that for sure). The truth is that for Judaism, qualities such as kindness and compassion, while very important, are really prerequisites to begin the journey.
While it’s true that you can’t move beyond the most superficial performance of Mitzvot without constantly growing and refining your inner qualities of Chesed and Rachamim, love and compassion, you can’t move into the deeper realms of Avodat HaShem, serving God, independent of the Mitzvot. This is because our deepest goals, aimed at partnering with The Creator to bring שלימות (Shleimut) perfect completion, to our world, are reached by drawing down into our physical realms of being the אור אין סוף (Ohr Ein Sof), Infinite Light, the energy which enables the existence of the universe and which provides the ultimate life-sustenance to everything. Our “toolbox” for that comprises these Mitzvot, even if we’re often unable to see any direct, empirical connection.
As is, we are half, or less, awake and everything survives in a marginally vital condition, הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים (Hayinu K’Cholmim) we were like dreamers. Descriptions of primordial Eden, and hence our return to our ultimate future, describe all trees as bursting with life-force, bearing ready-to-eat food. Man is described as possessing vision which spans from one end of the earth to the other, standing with our heads in the heavens and our feet on the ground. When we consider our finest achievements to date, they are all the more remarkable since we and our world are more or less merely hibernating!
Our people are entrusted with the mandate to reach the highest spiritual realms, but not for our own narcissistic benefit/enlightenment/power/exhilaration (although as a side benefit we might experience all of these and more). Rather, it’s in order to direct that highest energy found there through safe passage into our physical world for the benefit of all created beings. The “instruction manual”, that balance of our Written and Oral Torah which are our 613 Mitzvot, provides us a step-by-step (Halacha is, literally, the walking) method to our spiritual ascent, culminating in the rebuilding of the Bet HaMikdash, literally, the House of Holiness, which is the main portal, shut off for these millennia, for this Light to enter, purify and power our universe.
Perhaps, after all, you can say that Compassion is our ultimate goal, but that’s true only when you realize how greatly each of us, by making our unique contributions to the total enterprise, can benefit all and can participate in lifting ourselves, next כלל ישראל (Klal Yisrael), the entire Jewish People וכל העילם כלו (V’Kol HaAm Kulo) and, ultimately, the entire world, always moving from the innermost to the outermost (as we bring the energy from the outermost spiritual realm to the innermost where it intersects with the physical) to our greatest potential.
Remember that God is the One הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית (HaMikadesh B’Chol Yom Tamid Ma’aseh Breishit) Who renews with His Essential Goodness, each and every day, all the energy of The Creation. That means there are no limits to the heights we can reach and the energy we can then direct back. Never for our own selfish purposes, but, rather as our highest expression of our individual Human (rather than Divine) Compassion, to the entire universe.