Who isn’t a Jew?

In the ongoing dustup that started several years ago between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and a series of young rabbis, most recently Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Rabbi Gordis either implied or directly stated that  in offering the opinion that Jews should have compassion for those who aren’t Jews – in Gordis’ case, for Palestinians- is a betrayal of Judaism.

The columnist Jeff Goldberg, in a somewhat confused defense of Rabbi Gordis,  couches Gordis’ plea as saying  that a Jew should “love Jews a little more than [one] loves Palestinians.” Rabbi Gordis defending his own statements, begs us to notice that our tradition speaks in a particularistic language, that Judaism has always been internal looking, and strongly asks Jews to recognize one another as part of a special family, a family that we are obligated to care for first and foremost.

He is right, of course.  It is absolutely true that Judaism is a particularistic religion. It is also equally, simultaneously, true that Judaism is a universalistic religion as well.

For example, the text that Rabbi Gordis suggests as his proof of Judaism’s particularistic bent, the one which we should take to heart when thinking of who to care for first is part of a longer section in the talmud.

The section of the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, is one whose context is of lending money to the poor, whether one may lend money for interest and to whom one may charge interest.  The text there is attempting to clarify the argument by quoting  Exodus 22:24: “If you lend money to any of my people that is poor by you, ”  continuing, “[this teaches, if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘my people’ has preference; the poor or the rich — the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town — the poor of your own town have prior rights. The Master said: ‘[If the choice lies between] my people and a non-Jew — “my people” has preference.’ But is it not obvious? — R. Nahman answered: Huna told me it means that even if [money is lent] to the non-Jew on interest, and to the Israelite without [the latter should take precedence].”

Clearly, this is indeed a section that shows that  the tradition expects a certain sort of preference for “one’s own.”  And yet, it’s not so completely clear as that.  Note that  the section does not say that  one should help one’s own alone; note that it doesn’t say, help your family and ignore the poor of your town; nor does it say that one should help one’s town and ignore the poor of another town. It does recognize that in a situation of limited resources, one may have to parcel them out preferentially,  and in that case, one helps those who are close, first.  Elsewhere, the order of importance is laid out even more clearly, starting with oneself, the one’s family, then one’s community, and so forth.

So, while here the case is made that one should help one’s own people first, that is not all there is to the story.  Indeed, elsewhere in the talmud in tractate gittin, we are instructed to help “the non-Jewish poor together with Jewish poor, to visit their sick together with Jewish sick people… mipnei darchei shalom -because of the ways of peace.”

There is a certain irony to bringing this particular piece of text to show universalism, I suppose.  Some rabbis have said that this phrase, “mipnei darchei shalom“  really means so that the non-Jews won’t hurt us. If one takes that position, then all the more so this applies to the argument that Rabbi Gordis was making: if he claims that we should keep in mind only Jews, or Jews primarily because the Palestinians are our enemies (an assertion I do not want to get too deeply into, as that would be worth a column entirely on its own, but let us just say that in  this time when  plenty of  harm has been done by both sides,  and most people on both sides are very much in favor of peace, or at least peacefully getting on with their lives, it’s not as clear as all that how we should consider non-combatants on “the other side”) then this text comes to remind us that  having compassion for those who are not us can have positive results – and indeed, its lack can have very bad results.

However, this is not the only interpretation of this  phrase. Other sages have said that mipnei darchei shalom means to promote peace in the world. One might offer as a proof text to that the great sages Ben Azzai, Akiba and Tanchuma, who are quoted in the midrash saying, “Ben ‘Azzai said, ‘This is the book of the descendants of Adam’ is a great principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba said, ‘But you shall love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:18) is even a greater principle. So, you must not say, Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor be put to shame. Rabbi Tanhuma said, ‘If you do so, know whom you put to shame, since God made them in God’s likeness.’ (Genesis Rabbah 24:7)

Why is, “‘This is the book of the descendants of Adam” such a great principle of the Torah? Because Adam is the parent of all of us – Jew and non-Jew alike. That is why one must love one’s neighbor as oneself – because ultimately all of us, every adam – every person- is made in the image of God.

Rabbi Gordis is right to say that when resources are scarce, one should  make sure one’s inner circle has enough. One’s own family should have enough to eat before buying bread for someone overseas (working my way through classics I missed in high school, I am currently reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and a great deal of his sharp wit is reserved for those who “help” others while their own houses fall to ruin).  But he is wrong to say that Judaism requires us to always take the side of our own to the exclusion of all else – not only because there is no limited resource in compassion – indeed, doesn’t psalms remind us, “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are on all His works…You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing…The Lord is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity” (Psalm 145: 9, 16, 18)?  All, not some. Compassion and love have no limit, not for God, and not for us, either.

But additionally, our tradition reminds us that  turning inward too much is dangerous. When we think that “our own” are more important than “outsiders,” even if in itself it weren’t immoral to think so and act so, there are practical consequences.

It is up to us to choose whether mipnei darchei shalom means for our own safety, or because God commands us to positively seek peace because it is the right thing to do, but that we must do so, one  way or the other, there is no doubt.  Yes, of course we are particular – and we should be.  I choose to marry one particular person, but that doesn’t cut me off from the obligation to love others in different ways as well: my child, my sister, my parents, my friends, my wider family – my community – and wider out,  a circle with no end – or else, no God.

Posted on December 5, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy