‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ — Really?

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Last week, Matt Rosenberg, the Hillel rabbi at Texas A&M University, sought to convince white-supremacist Richard Spencer of the error of his ways by citing a ‘Torah’ message of ‘radical inclusion and love’. Spencer masterfully responded by citing Israeli policy, Zionism and Jewish exclusivity, which left Rosenberg speechless. 

Rosenberg professed that this ‘radical inclusion and love’ is what the Torah teaches. But is this really true?

One of the most iconic phrases in the whole Torah, which Jews will typically refer to, is ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’. You will also hear some Jews bragging about it, because it got picked up as the 2nd most important commandment by Christianity (after ‘love thy God’), and so this is often regarded as Judaism’s ‘gift’ to humanity – love and kindness, as it were. See for example here in ‘Judaism 101.’

But let us scrutinise the source, really. It is Leviticus 19:18:

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃

This translates commonly to: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”.

There are two problems in the common translation: The main one is that “your neighbor” is not really precise. ‘Re’acha’ in Hebrew could better be understood as ‘your friend’ or ‘your companion’. The second one is that ‘your own people’ is ‘amcha’ in Hebrew, which is commonly understood today as ‘your nation’. In an ancient tribal society, this could be very much the perception.

So the question becomes, how tribal is one’s perception? Is this about just loving the ‘Hebrews’ or later the ‘Jews’, loving each other amongst themselves?

“The Jewish soul”

Classical Jewish Talmudic tradition is full of qualifications that not only distinguish ethics between Jews and non-Jews – it even contains opinions that regard a Jewish soul as blessed and elevated above the level of the gentiles. See for example how Chabad.org’s Tzvi Freeman answers a question on the ‘Jewish soul’:  

“Here’s how the Jewish soul works, according to the classics: We are children of the three greatest people that ever lived, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They tied a bond between their children and Gd forever after them”…”In that way, we are chosen, and in that way, we have performed our chosenness. If it were not for Jews, there would be no concept of human dignity, of meaning and purpose, of the right of every person to education and knowledge, of social justice and of the value of world peace. These (along with psychology, relativity, quantum physics, anthropology, Hollywood and superheroes) are among our many vital contributions to the world.”

Or on the same Chabad site, where an inquirer asks, “Why do you speak of a “Jewish soul”? How can you put souls in boxes?” Aron Moss answers:

“The idea that all souls are the same is one of the biggest mistakes of modern spirituality”. 

Whilst Chabad is a Hassidic movement that leans heavily on Kabbalah mysticism, we should not make the mistake of assuming that this view of a Jewish soul being superior to that of a non-Jew is a mere fringe view in Jewish religious culture today. Indeed, as rabbi Hanan Balk (rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudas Israel in Cincinnati) poses in his study on the subject:

“The view expressed in the above heading [The Soul of a Jew is Superior to that of a Non-Jew, ed.] —as uncomfortable and racially charged as it may be in the minds of some—was undoubtedly, as we shall show, the prominent position maintained by authorities of Jewish thought throughout the ages, and continues to be so even today. While Jewish mysticism is the source and primary expositor of this theory, it has achieved a ubiquitous presence not only in the writings of Kabbalists, but also in the works of thinkers found in the libraries of most observant Jews, who hardly consider themselves followers of Kabbalah. Clearly, for one committed to the Torah and its principles, it is not tenable to presume that so long as he is not a Kabbalist, such a belief need not be a part of his religious worldview”. 

This religious notion of a ‘superior soul’ has found its way into Zionism and Israel, beyond the limits of religious observant culture as such. It can be seen in the very words of the national anthem. It goes:

“As long as in the heart within

A Jewish soul still yearns…”

This representation of the ‘Jewish soul’ may seem benign, if it were not for the religious culture surrounding the term. It does not matter that in Hebrew it is more literally “the soul of a Jew” (“nefesh Yehudi”) – the reference here is clearly collective, and even the stateofisrael.com site which translates ‘soul’ to ‘spirit’ is clear about the collective sense:

“As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart” 

As I have noted in an earlier article titled ‘Jews aren’t special,’ the notion of Jews being special simply because they supposedly are, is prevailing in no uncertain ways even amongst liberal, secular Zionists. I had noted this conversation with one of these. It went:

(Her): “Jews are special”.

(Me): “Well, all people are special you know”.

(Her): “All people are special, but Jews are even more special”.

Anyone can be forgiven for having associations to Orwell’s Animal Farm arise in them when reading the last phrase.

Israel’s Law of Return of 1950 has embraced this ‘specialness’ in nationalist ways. Any Jew from anywhere is welcome to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship and a welcome support package for the “new ascenders” (“Olim Hadashim”), whilst those whose souls are not Jewish who happened to live there with long ancestries may be dispossessed and denied return. This is how special we are.

Are gentiles even considered human in classical Judaism?

The Talmud contains extremely problematic, to put it mildly, passages regarding the biological status of non-Jews, gentiles, referred to by the code-word of “worshippers of stars and fortunes” (Ovdei Kohavim Umazalot”, or the acronym AKU”M, which interestingly sounds as the word ‘crooked’ in Hebrew).

In Bava Metzia 114b it says:

“Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: The graves of gentiles do not cause ritual impurity in a dwelling as it says (Ezekiel 34:31) “Now, you [Israel] are My sheep , the sheep of My pasture, you are Man (Adam)…” You [Israel] are called Man (Adam) and gentiles are not called Man (Adam)”.

In Keritot 6b it says:

“One who uses the official anointing oil [that has been consecrated] to smear on an animal or vessels is innocent of violating the holiness of the oil, to smear on gentiles or corpses is innocent. Certainly an animal and vessels as it says (Exodus 30:32) “It shall not be smeared on flesh of man (Adam)…” and an animal and vessels are not man. One who smears on corpses is also innocent since it is dead it is called a corpse and not a man. However, why is one who smears on gentiles innocent? They are men! No, as it says (Ezekiel 34:31) “Now, you [Israel] are My sheep , the sheep of My pasture, you are Man (Adam)…” You [Israel] are called Man (Adam) and gentiles are not called Man (Adam). 

Whilst there are milder interpretations, these opinions certainly leave a wide space for perceiving non-Jews as lesser than human. And it is possible to speak with Yeshiva students at orthodox Yeshivas in Israel today who will quote the sentence “You [Israel] are called Man (Adam) and gentiles are not called Man (Adam)” as an indication of Jewish superiority.

This indeed seems to be the perception of the rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur from the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yitzhar. In their 2009 book “Torat Hamelech” (“King’s Torah”), they opined that the prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’ applies only “to a Jew who kills a Jew”, that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature”, that attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us.”

That’s not very ambivalent. They have just incited for the murder of babies. Did their advocacy influence the arsonists who burned alive baby Ali Dawabshe and his family in Duma last year? 

In any case, their incitement to murder was NOT considered incitement by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who wrote in his dismissal of a potential indictment, that Torat Hamelech is written in a general manner and does not call for violence. 

Incidentally, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, heads the Kushner Foundation which donates to the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva – the funding of which has been stopped in 2011 by the Israeli government itself, as it has served as a base for launching violent attacks against nearby Palestinian villages. Trump said a couple of weeks ago that Kushner could head up US efforts to broker a peace agreement in the Middle East, despite not playing a formal role in his administration. 

Also worth mentioning here is the endorsement given to The Kings Torah book, by rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba, the settlement near Al-Khalil (Hebron). Rabbi Lior has in the past praised Jewish terrorists such as Baruch Goldstein (who massacred Muslim worshippers at the Al-Ibrahimi mosque in 1994, killing 29). Lior ruled that Goldstein was “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.”  Rabbi Lior is teaching courses for young religious recruits in the police, in a program called “Believers in the Police”, which expects to produce 500 graduates over the next five years. 

Can there anyway be ‘love’ for Palestinians?

To be fair, when regarding the Leviticus 19:18 passage, one should also regard the following mention of ‘love’, appearing in 19:34, especially because it regards the ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’ (‘ger’ in Hebrew):

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.”

That looks quite good on the face of it. Indeed, it makes a qualification that could balance the ‘tribal love’ of the formerly mentioned passage. But there are various problems here that may not be so obvious to the non-Hebrew speaker. The biggest one is in the term ‘ger’. There are various rabbinical opinions about who these ‘foreigners’ are, and what they need to do to qualify as legitimate ‘foreigners’. We must note that Judaism didn’t have a national-territorial sovereign entity as Israel before 1948, except if you go back to Judean times (hence the source of the name Jewish, or ‘Yehudi’ as in ‘Yehuda’, Judea), and that would be 2,000 years back. It is interesting to note that the common Hebrew term for converting to Judaism today is ‘giur’ – a noun produced from ‘ger’. So there is a common perception of interrelation between being a Jew and being able to reside in the land legitimately, even as a ‘foreigner’. Whilst this is a complex issue, I would simplify here and summarize that even with the qualification of ‘love’ for those who are not Jews, there can be a myriad of interpretations which, in the end, leave the non-Jews as ‘exceptions’ who are apparently not worthy of this ‘love’.

Indeed, one may wonder, how it is that the Palestinians, who are the real natives, were made ‘foreginers’ and ‘strangers’ in their own land? And how did those who really were the ‘strangers’ and ‘foreigners’ (Zionist settlers) then become the ‘locals’ in their ‘promised land’, from which they would dispossess Palestinians? This is the inversion of rights which is a rather common and typical colonialist one. In the Zionist case, it is based upon the religious mythology of the ‘chosen ones’ and their ‘promised land’. Whoever inhabited the land in the meantime was thus simply a temporary ‘foreigner’.

Even if Palestinians seek to go as far as converting to Judaism, thus attempting to fulfill the most strict interpretation of ‘giur’, they are not allowed to. They are automatically rejected. Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, director of the Israeli government’s Conversion Authority, told the State Control Committee of the Knesset recently, that the threshold requirements “are that applicants be sincere and that they are not foreign workers; infiltrators; Palestinian or illegally in the country.”

So – no ‘love’ for Palestinians.

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Jewish sources are so vast , a virtual ocean, that you can find justifications for practically any point of view. You can find expressions of blatant supremacism and racism, as well as the opposite, as in the following verses: Exodus (22:20): And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall… Read more »

This was a good article – I liked it in that it was able to take a dissident critical view of religion, in particular ancient Judaism. I would like to see if Marc Ellis would comment on it. Sadly, I haven’t seen his articles on Mondoweiss for a long time.… Read more »

Jonathan, You asked a good question: Rosenberg professed that this ‘radical inclusion and love’ is what the Torah teaches. But is this really true? It is hard to agree that the Torah teaches “radical inclusion”, because it de facto treated gentiles, those who are outside the Mosaic covenant based on… Read more »

I am content that most tribes, peoples, have thought of themselves as special, as superior. Naturally. And no surprise that old religious writings (Jewish, here) take the same view. And since in modern times, many people have taken to a universalizing way of thinking about many things including morality, it… Read more »

“Judaism doesn’t solve problems via discussion. You are either in agreement with the rest or you are an enemy.” Sheer ignorance. Judaism only solves problems through discussion. The purpose of the Talmud is discussion not dictates. Jon S. is right about the vast multitudes of halacha – and contradictions. Its… Read more »