Are We All Friends?

We really want, often are pleased to socialize with others. Nothing pathetically or gorgeously new. Just humans trying to meet, talk, “paltalk”, “messengerize” through wireless connections, the multi-faceted present-day online tools or letters or… who knows how we succeed to get in touch? This sounds highly computerized though our hearts and brains may prefer such a hype medium that may be “so very” but not “that real”. This kind of connections presupposes there might be a huge loose pitch of loneliness to overcome and to heal. Look, we were so close decades ago; and today we can search good the old schoolmates whom we have lost. Or life drifted away. Distance, destiny… what about friendship?

Definitely a holy matter for the Russians: “druzhba/дружба” (friendship) a proleterian and evident feature and topic of  amity between the nations of the world by the time of the communists. Unconditionally, friendships flow as loving ties and enduring full fidelity in the Slavic cultures. It is very difficult to reach out to such a level of relationships with the Russians and the Slavs, but once you’re there, don’t betray. Never! It is a sacred matter and has been an essential cultural during the periods of communist hardships.

“Drug/друг” (pron. /droog/), male and “podruzhka/подружка” (female) come from “drugii/другий” (second, other, different and though can at times be quite similar). Somehow this means that a “friend” is like a “twin”. There is a deep longing  for some double – sort of  natural and intellectual clone that is so pregnant in the Jewish tradition to find one’s ” perfect double, alter ego” as the “achawah/אחוה” (loving friendship) mentioned in Talmud Sanhedrin 58b.

This question was raised  in order to know if love exists or not. Is it physical, mechanical, technical, emotional, i.e. moving and thus to what extent? Are there limits or not? The Russians do focus on friendship first. In English, the word “friend” is opposed to “feud” (enemy) as in German: Freund vs. Feind. In Icelandic “freyja” is a mixture of “friendly mate, love and flirty-wooing”. Drop the “r” and love switches to hatred. Well, “guest” is the same in Germanic languages:  to begin with, a foreign person – an adversary-alien individual who becomes a host, exactly as a “password” originally allows to make a clear distinction between two persons: one being a friend and the other may be a foe.

In Hebrew, there is a major commandment/mitzvah: “You shall love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself – veahavta lere’akha kamokha – ואהבת לרעך כמוך”” (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:19) which may be understood in different ways. a) Hebrew suggests a fellowman/woman or some closeness, “re’a/רע” could be rooted the way English “foe” comes to be a friend and companion”. The word is also linked to the radical “ro’e/רעה” used to speak of a “shepherd, a guardian, a breeder”.

There is definitely no “love”  in “friendship” as the root and the spelling shows rather that “evil, foreigners, enemies” may be approached, get acquainted, tamed. It is even possible to develop peaceful and even loving relationships… till  cheerfully passionate ones… Still, the real goal remains to approach another kind of connection: “ahavat chinam – gratuitous, groundless love” is possible. It does not imply any existing sort of  “repayment”. The commandment to “love as yourself” is wise. If we don’t love ourselves,  whom can we respect and appreciate ? till we reach real full love toward someone else…

It might be somehow narcissistic at the present on both sides and lead to splitting. Paul of Tarsus is right about marriage and love: “So husbands, (they) should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:28-29). It is quite strange, by the way, that this verse that underscores the duty of the husband to take full care and more of his wife, is rarely mentioned when speaking of the high respect due to married women who pathetically try to be given a lawful “get-divorce” in Judaism or correct honor in Church. 

“Friends” has been undoubtedly one of the best top-notch terrific television series of the past century. Some more decades and they would really get engaged, but they would rather postpone getting into any long-term bond. And I am not sure that they could be buried as good old chaps and friends… Always young and buzzing around, not that mature and  grownup teens for ever, they were and remained “Friends”. They had decided to live as mates in vicinity flats. In the Soviet Union, two or three generations of different families often lived in small flats that mainly caused divorces and family splits and confusion.

On the other hand, the Soviets were “comrades”, from French “camarades” (originally “room-mates”). The word belongs to the ancient relationships of fraternity or brotherhood. The Quakers call themselves “Friends” and they love each other “more than brothers”. What does it mean? They live in silence so, how can they even get angryn though silence can be very aggressive. Others speak of “compagnons = companions” who share bread, or “sputniki/спутники” (who walk together on the same road).

“Comrades” was firstly “chaver-חבר/chaverim-ot-חבריםות” in Yiddish/Hebrew by the time of the Bund and the numerous kibbutzim that developed after the fall of Tzarist Russia. The chaverte\חברטע (Yid.) was the brave strong Jewish girl who left university to grow grains in a kibbutz  in present-day Belarus (Byelorussia) before settling in a then-Palestinian kzutsah-קבוצה. In Arabic, male “Chabibi” (male) or “chabibta” (female) are more emotional.

The word is very ancient in Semitic tongues and thus in Hebrew. The Psalms express basic, essential principles: “You need no fear the terror by nigh,  or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in the darkness/ or the scourge that ravages at noon… the Lord will order His angels to guard you wherever you go” (Psalm 91:5-6.11). The same is a must at the present: all local, wandering or settling tribes  were and are still frightened by wild nature, earthquakes, animals, humans that can firstly be wild or weird, bizarre, cosy or openly turn to foes. Difficult to get self-confident and to trust anyone in such conditions. It is more difficult to structure a “chevrah/חברה – society” based on reliable relationships in view to achieve full co-working activities of “chaverim/ot”. These “chaverim-ot” are aggregated as socially reliable friends who eventually become “friends, sweethearts, buddies”.

In English, “buddy” refers to “work-mates”, initially a group of plunderers! In the desert, fears and visions, ghosts and dreams can be misleading. This explains why the Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic languages have a large lexicon of words expressing the actions of “uniting, joining, clutching, gathering”. It requires to make harsh efforts of violence on our “self-awareness” in order to overcome individualism or loneliness, solitude and threats. The Aramaic expression “chevra qaddisha/חברה קדישא” is the compassionate association of the faithful Jews who would bury the dead. Normally there should be no threat of conflict and war between the beloved sleeping departed. “Chavurah\חבורה ” is a business organization or a congregation that is involved in studying and scanning the Scripture and the Mishnah.

But “chaver/חבר” was, in the old days, the first step in the process to becoming a rabbi as a student who was given a letter allowing him to more closely participate in holy Services (Talmud Shabbat 63a). It may be linked to “chabbar” (Parsee priest) in Talmud Shabbat 11a. This aspect of dedication to praying/learning/preaching activities was the main feature of the spiritual structure of the Jewish people.

Interestingly, Jesus may have used “chaver\חבר” as a confirmation given to his disciples. He never performed any “ordination” that developed with his disciples in the Acts of the Apostles, after he ascended to heaven. The Syriac Christian tradition considers that the blessing that he gave to them at this exceptional moment, corresponds to some sort of formal ordination or consecration.

On the other hand, he said to his disciples: “I no longer call you slaves (avadim/עבדים) because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I call you “friends (chevarim\חברים)” because I have told you everything I heard from my Father (God). It was not you who chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that will remain… love one another” (John 15:15-17). It is quite possible that his disciples became “associates, friends, chaverim” in a spiritual sense that developed over two thousand years  into a very wide open range of possible connectedness.

Everything is good or seemingly correct when it goes with Jesus. It is not that certain as for now: in many societal circumstances, individuals and groups are reluctant to accept authority. Spiritual authority often turns to despotism and condescending blindness. It is quite frequent in all jurisdictions, just as in all religious circles. A hierarch, the Head of a community would not even visit the sick, the prisoners, the refugees. Verticality then appears as a sort of whipping off with opaque pretence to be entitled to govern the flocks, which makes no sense in any true spiritual tradition. We see how “the friends” – as Jesus called his disciples (not his apostles yet) – can nowadays turn to be exploited, unknown to their spiritual leaders.

Some years ago, the Chief nurse of a reknowned hospital and elderly home in Jerusalem, the kind of German strong woman, severely reprimanded all the heads of the local Churches because they never visited their elderly priests and nuns… or they only would meet with those who are of their rank.

A lot of people, nations have the nerve to be arrogant. One peculiar component of this “essence” is the pretence to be best, first, primal, successful, prestigious, mighty (though ready to help at your early convenience), undauntedly powerful as stated in the Mishnah: “how irrepressible (chatzifah\חציפה) is the land of Israel that is still productive after all devastations” (Y. Talmud Taanit IV:69b).

“Efshar la’azor?/אפשר לעזור? – may (I) help you?” is uttered all the time in Israeli and Arab societies. The intention is real, assistance-oriented first. A Hebrew way to to show very polite and then to drop you as an old donkey and become a nighmare of arrogance.Definitively not always. I have seen numerous cases of true and loving, caring assistance to human beings of any backgrounds as to animals which is significant. It is a major point at present in the war in Ukraine.

The Gospel about the Samaritan (St Luke 10, 25-37) is famous. He assisted the man who had been attacked, robbed and left, barely alive, on the road. It seemingly sounds like a joke. The Samaritan did too much. Do remember that, by the time Jesus, there were no Church, no autocephaly, no pentarchy, no “patriarchs”… Well, it depends how you put this, because the ”reshey galutha/רשי גלותא” were the supreme leaders of the Jewish academies in Mesopotamia, for instance. The examples given by Jesus belong to his generation and ways of thinking, connecting and also using or mocking the way people accept or not to be friendly with one another.

But Jesus never saw any Christian as they had developed over two millenia. It means that when he told the story to the scribe, the account was a parable on people who were in contact or in a state of juridictional acceptance or rejection at his time. The question on who is the neighbor to our fellowmen referred to the commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself”. Why a heretic appears to be the best friend and truly loving neighbor? Who is the neighbor of our friends who, at the present, can turn to be “heretics”, disqualified for Holy Communion and the Service of the Brothers (and Sisters, in between)? who excludes, anathemizes, though claiming to save our souls and not those of the others? This is a major question in internal and extermanl relationships determined by Jewish, CHristian and Muslim community  customs.

I often face this as something expressed by the people I meet or am in contact with. Yesterday, A Russian recent olah/newcomer to Israel who had to flee Russia and the present political system, a rather renowned journalist who had spent long months in Israel, wrote to me that now she feels as we all have to cope with each other in the small country and do our best to enlarge our views, to accept the others and know our “borders” as we cannot change the mind systems that still live together in the region.

In the Middle-East, the faithful are born to be “others”. Each tribe would first count on who is in a tribe and then consider that some “special friends” can join the club… What to do when it becomes a sign of “loving-kindness” to consider “friends” as “heretics” and kicked out in order to be compelled to come back, to repent?

It looks like a game, children playing in a kindergarten. We say that we are in a gan hayeladim\גן הילדים – a true kindergarten. By the way, Jesus said to his audience that they look like children who play in such an environment, with a sort of light-minded look.

There is more in the monotheistic traditions. Constant, steady, persistent combat. Not the simple basic fight we have to face because of long-long-long-term, age-long and stubborn rejection, hatred or misunderstanding. This is normal. And it is normal because of what happened when Yaakov wrestled overnight with a shapeless person, called “ish/איש = man”. It belongs to the standards of alterity and similarity between God and Israel. It just continues inside of the Christian world.

Yaakov’s problem is evident: he was a man who always depended on his mom, Rebekah/Rivkah, and her good old nanny, Devorah, only mentioned in the TanaKh, because she died and was buried at Beth-El. He was “fashioned” by his wives, in particular his beloved Rachel.We speak of love! Good enough: the Jewish tradition considers that it has been a three-generational educational process. Abraham showed loving-kindness toward Sarah because he buried her accordingly. Isaak was kind to Rivka (Rebekah), but frentic love only matured and showed with Yaakov being cheated by Laban, his boss and father-in-law who had given him the order towork over-years to marry Rachel! The then special way of Shidduchin… without dating online.

Love, true love is not evident. In St. John chapter 21, the Greek version makes a subtle distinction in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter: “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?/Σίμων Ἰωνᾶ, ἀγαπᾷς με, asked the Lord. Kaipha aka Peter aka Simon son of Jonas answered: “Yes, Lord, you know that I like you (feel well toward you)/ναί, Κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε”. There is a “differential” of understanding between the Lord’s loving intensity and the feeling expressed by the disciple. Jesus called him after the name that he had used when Peter had confessed the messianity of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (St Mathew 16:16). Note that the first Kippur (Atonement) celebration in the new rebuilt Temple of Jerusalem after King Cyrus’ edict that the Jews return to the Holy City was conducted by the High Priest Simon, Bar Jonah (Book of Ben Sirach 50: 16-20; See Talmud Yoma 3,8).

Love, trust, friendship rely upon pardon beyond life and death. It is unfathomable for many people. It requires very deep spiritual insights that we ought to revive in the present stand of our communities.

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.