Why we should love “the stranger” in our land and treat him/her fairly
What does it mean to be “holy”? And, what could this mean for us today in contemporary Israel? And, in the Diaspora?
We find the answers to these questions in the opening passages from the section in the Book of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code — Parashat K’doshim— which we will read in our synagogues this Shabbat morning in Israel and around the world, along with Parashat Acharei Mot. This section of the Torah begins with the words “You shall be holy” (Lev. 19:2), and goes on to teach us in a very practical way what it means to be “holy” wherever we live, and especially in Israel. These are undoubtedly among the most famous and most relevant passages in the Torah, and indeed, in all of world religions.
A key question that has always interested me is: what is the meaning of the word “neighbor” in the statement “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to some commentators, the Hebrew word for “neighbor,” rei-acha, refers only to Jews. This view is supported by the context in which the phrase appears in the Torah, which can be translated as follows: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not take revenge or feel resentment against the children of your people, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:17-18). Looking carefully at this, it seems clear that “your neighbor” falls into the same category as “your brother” and “the children of your people,” all explicitly referring to one’s fellow Jews.
According to this view, “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not refer to anyone outside the Jewish people. However, “neighbor” is not an accurate translation for the word rei-acha. The Hebrew word for “neighbor” is shachen; the Hebrew word rei-ah means “a very close companion” and sometimes rei-ah is used to mean “spouse.”
So, who are our “neighbors” or “close companions” today? Are they only our fellow Jews? Can we extend the meaning to include all “human beings”, whether we live in the Diaspora or in Israel?
If we read the rest of this famous chapter in the book of Leviticus, known as “the Holiness Code”, we come to some additional verses (19:33-34), which shed some light on these questions and offer a corrective to the notion that we should love only members of our own tribe or our own collective family. These verses relate to others who live in our midst–“the stranger who resides with you”– i.e., the non-Jew. How do we engage with him or her? How do we relate to someone who is not a member of our people?
In these verses the Torah is very clear: you should love the stranger as yourself. Why? Because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” that is, because of our history as a persecuted minority in someone else’s land, we Jews should have a special sensitivity to the non-Jewish citizens in our midst.
We can understand these verses therefore differently with regard to living in the Diaspora or living in a Jewish state. In the Diaspora, Jews no longer live only among their own tribe, as they did in biblical times or in other periods in Jewish history. In today’s multicultural societies, one’s neighbor is just as likely to be Christian or Muslim or a member of another religion, culture, or people. In a modern democratic society, where members of many religions and nationalities are citizens of the same state, it should be clear that a universalistic interpretation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” would be more important and relevant than ever before.
Yet, we have some natural tendencies that lead us to love people in our own family — and in our own collective family — more than we do people outside our family. This is probably the original meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself”; there is certainly a familial or particularistic dimension to this commandment.
In the state of Israel today, we can see the tension between the particular and the universal in a clear way, in the light of this Torah teaching. On the one hand, Israel was created as a Jewish state for the survival of the Jewish people, for our brothers and sisters who had suffered so much throughout Jewish history as a minority group in various diasporas. Therefore, the Law of Return is one of our basic laws, which allows all Jews (in principle, though not always in practice) to come home.
On the other hand, the state of Israel is not only for Jews. There ought to be a significant place for minorities within its midst, for Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship, be they Muslim, Christian, Druze or other. The Torah teaching in our portion is forthrightly prescriptive for our contemporary reality– we must not wrong strangers; rather, we should regard them as fellow citizens and even love them as ourselves, which should translate into granting them equal rights.
In other words, the state of Israel — which seeks to be a Jewish as well as a democratic state — should take both verses referred to above as essential. We must love our fellow Jews as brothers and sisters in a historic, unique collective family, and at the same time we must love the stranger as we love ourselves, i.e., we must treat the non-Jew with the same human dignity that we would wish and envision for ourselves in all places in the world.
Several years ago, I taught these texts at the beginning of a series of dialogues, based on text study, with a group of Jews and Muslims of Israeli citizenship. After I taught them, my co-leader of the group, an Israeli Muslim Arab, turned to me and asked me sharply: “Do the rabbis in Israel know these texts?”
I responded by saying that they know them very well, but all too many of them have chosen, for reasons beyond my understanding, to give them a low priority in their contemporary Jewish theologies in Israel. Indeed, some of the most outrageous rabbis in the West Bank—who guide the ideology of the far- right political parties under the label “Religious Zionism” (which is fundamentally non-religious and anti-Zionist) totally ignore these foundational texts. Maybe they need a seminar to remind them that they exist.
On the other hand, I have been part of a coalition for the past 11 years, called The Tag Meir Forum (Light Tag Forum), which is a coalition of more than 50 Jewish groups in Israel —including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Secular, and Cultural Jews—which fervently believes, preaches and practices this central tenet of Judaism. Every time that innocent Palestinians are attacked by extremist Jewish settlers, we visit the family or the people in the institutions that have been vandalized, in what we call “solidarity visits” in which we say that the Jews who attacked them do not represent authentic Judaism. Rather, we insist that treating “the stranger” fairly, even with love, is an essential principle of Judaism. When we do so, we are mindful of the famous rabbinic sage Hillel, who taught us:
“What you yourself hate, don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary. Go and study.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
This importance Jewish message is particularly relevant this week as we celebrate Israel’s 75th Independence Day. It is perhaps more timely now than ever before as a serious struggle for the Jewish soul is going on in recent months in Israel. Too many Jews in Israel, especially those on the far-right who are trying to turn Israel into a dictatorship which will oppress minorities within and outside the Jewish People, have forgotten this basic Jewish value. They should read this week’s Torah portion carefully. It will remind them of some basic Jewish ideas that they seem to have abandoned.
In the meantime, the massive protests all over Israel–which seek to re-establish Israeli society on these sacred Jewish values–are continuing with growing strength and determination. They seek to bring us back to the prophetic values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 1948:
The state of ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.