There is an old rabbinic tale of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbinic leaders of their generation. A would-be convert comes to Shammai and offers to “convert to Judaism if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai kicks him out of the room. The same person approaches Hillel with the same offer. Hillel’s answer is, “What is hateful to you do not do to others. All else is commentary. Go and learn.”
This paradigmatic story is used to illustrate the greatness of Hillel. In his generation Roman persecution reached new heights. Hillel included anyone who wanted to be a part of the community to better sustain it. Shammai is seen as a curmudgeon; excluding and thereby limiting community.
The irony of our reaction is that Shammai was right and Hillel was wrong. What kind of chutzpah does it take for a person to offer conversion under those circumstances? The only rabbis I know of today who would take that offer charge thousands of dollars for a penny-ante conversion which isn’t worth the toner the certificate used in printing. Of what use would this person be?
In point of fact we want to be like Hillel – but we act like Shammai. We want to be inclusive but the majority of the Jewish community is more comfortable with Shammai. Change is challenging. New people coming into our community tend to come to services earlier and sit in our seats. They are not interested in the old feuds that sometimes dominate congregational interactions. They have new ideas and methods. Clergy and congregational leadership, used to their own intrinsic dynamic can be easily put off by this fresh air and mark their territory in uncomfortable ways.
The story is also a cautionary tale for those who practice inclusion. It’s not by accident that the convert offers a deal that is at heart disrespectful. He is mocking the tradition by suggesting it can be encapsulated in just a few seconds. If that’s all there is, why be Jewish? In similar circumstance would we be inclusive to someone equally mocking, equally obnoxious? Would we include a sincere Messianic Jew? Would we count a felon in a minyan? Would you allow a known wife beater to have an honor?
Shammai was Hillel’s contemporary. He too faced Roman persecution. His response was to restrict entrance into the community so that its values and practices remained constant. Can we say he was wrong?
I believe that the key to the story is Hillel’s message. “What is hateful to you, don’t do.” Inclusion and exclusion are byproducts of “ahavat Yisrael,” love of Israel. If you truly act out of love and compassion, you will know when to include and what lines must be drawn to keep the constantly ever-changing nature of the community. The highest purpose to which a rabbi can aspire is to be the guide in this endeavor.
The context was a class on the gun violence epidemic in Chicago. I had finished the presentation by mentioning some of the grim statistics of people injured and killed by gun violence throughout the city. After the class an individual approached me and said, “Rabbi, why should I care if people who aren’t Jewish are dying because other non-Jews are shooting them?” I was, of course, flabbergasted by his question. It occurred to me though that while this person had the audacity to ask the question, many more people probably quietly think along similar lines, even if not exactly in the same formulation. The question remains for many: Why should I care about people who are not part of my community? Is there a Jewish mandate to care about others?
This is an important question primarily because those of us who do believe there is a value to caring for people who are not like us need to spend time unpacking that priority. It is always worthwhile to explore our own value systems and be able to more clearly and cogently articulate why they are so. People can turn to many different sources for inspiration and guidance, as a rabbi I turn to Jewish texts and to Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and mystic, in his work Orot HaKodesh links the commandment to “love God” with love of the world. A person who truly loves God cannot help but love the world and God’s creations. God as Creator saw fit to create each and every human being and was therefore deserving of His love, thus how could we not love all humanity?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy, articulated a philosophy in his essay, Confrontation, of existing in two “confrontations:” the universal human struggle to overcome wickedness and the things that bring humanity down and an equally powerful connection to our own unique covenantal relationship with the Divine. Neither confrontation is abrogated by the other. Both are vital.
The early rabbinic text, the Tosefta, states that “we [Jews] eulogize and bury the dead of non-Jews because of the ways of peace, and we console the mourners of non-Jews because of the ways of peace. (Gittin 3:14)” Maimonides in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, extended it further and stated it was a commandment to visit non-Jewish sick and feed the non-Jewish poor because “God is good to all and His compassion is on all His creatures” and “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. (Laws of Kings 10:12)”
This is by far not an exhaustive examination of the subject. It also does not represent the entire spectrum of Jewish thought. There is a strand of thought that does diminish our obligation to care about those not like us. However, the objective here is not to present a complete exercise in the study of the subject from all angles but rather to make the case that believing there is an inherent value to caring about people who are not Jewish and devoting oneself to the betterment of all people is an integral part of Jewish tradition.
As our urban centers are plagued with gun violence (particularly in Chicago) and as people face numerous challenges related to poverty, access to quality education and discrimination we ought to be a part of the work towards a solution. We must be involved not just because it is the good thing to do but because it is very much the Jewish thing to do.
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It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.
This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’”
It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.
When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.
How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.
In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.
There is a real difference between counseling an individual who has experienced a traumatic moment and experiencing a traumatic moment personally. I dedicate a great deal of my professional time to shepherding people through some of life’s most difficult challenges. As a rabbi I often find myself in the role of comforter, active listener, prayer facilitator and mediator. After years of helping others it can almost become easy to forget that the very real world of fear, trauma and victimization can find me as well – that I too am a part of this grand drama we call life and life can be vicious sometimes.
This week my family and I became another statistic as an unknown person or persons damaged our house and attempted to burglarize us. I am thankful beyond words to God that no one was hurt and that the shrill sound of our alarm and the swift arrival of the uniformed heroes of the Denver Police Department sent them running. Yet, nonetheless, this act of intrusion has made me feel vulnerable in a palpable way.
We build for ourselves walls of protection that are in so many ways illusory. I buy a house in a nice neighborhood because theft will be less likely to occur. I try not to cross streets against the red light because I will be less likely to get hurt. I maintain a conservative retirement portfolio to minimize the risk of losing it all. I do all these things and more but all it takes is one chance occurrence, one unforeseen and unaccounted for incident to turn all of our self-assurance and planning on its head.
Vulnerability. The word itself does not even roll off the tongue easily. It is a state of being that we strive and yearn to avoid at all cost. It is a state of being that I have worked very hard my entire life to never enter. However, this week a random individual or individuals chose to target my house and by so doing exposed me to the bitter, harsh and naked truth of how utterly vulnerable we really truly are. It is not a good and pleasant feeling but it is real.
How to build from the perspective of vulnerability is the challenge. How to embrace the truth of our vulnerability while also embracing the equally powerful truth of the overall goodness of our fellow people is the work that lays ahead. May I and all of us truly meet the challenge.