Who is my neighbour?

(Photo: Unsplash)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on what it means to 'love your neighbour as yourself' from the Jewish perspective.

Who exactly is my 'neighbour', as in the Levitical injunction to 'Love your neighbor as yourself?' In his book Judaism is about Love, Shai Held takes the straightforward view that the Levitical text is talking about fellow Israelites, i.e. fellow Jews. Further, the full injunction states 'You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You must rebuke your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him. Don't take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.'

This passage is very difficult, because it is not completely clear which four types of people are being addressed. Shai translates 'brother' as 'kinsfolk'. 'Children of your people' can also mean 'countrymen', with ben meaning far more than simply 'son'. So according to Shai, these first three terms refer to members of one's own people, 'fellow participants in Israel's covenant with G-d.' Therefore, it appears that the term 'neighbour' follows suit.

Whereas it is true that nowadays that from a Jewish perspective, a 'fellow participant in Israel's covenant' may well be a convert to Judaism, broadening the scope of family, tribe, people and therefore neighbour, at that time the idea of 'conversion' was not the same as today.

However, even when we apply the narrowest interpretation of the person termed 'neighbour' who we must 'love', this does not at all signify that we must hate, or remain indifferent to, everyone else. If we have followed the story of the Jewish people thus far, we have noticed in the earlier books of Genesis and Exodus that loving members of your family, including mother, father and siblings, let alone wider family, can be difficult enough. The brothers are constantly falling out and in the books of Joshua and Judges we will see that the tribes don't exactly always get on with each other, to put it mildly, with often dire results.

Therefore, and this must be emphasized, it is simply not true, as so many have stated, that the Biblical injunction to 'love your neighbour' is in the Jewish interpretation nothing more than a prime example of Jewish narrowness and tribal exclusivity, while Christianity embraces the whole world. This conclusion would be unfair in the extreme, especially given the tremendous religious and cultural treasures offered to the world for thousands of years by Jews and Judaism, including huge acts of charity, often in the face of huge antisemitism, leading to expulsions and executions.

I would like to argue instead that the Hebrew Bible is teaching us that once we have managed to love our immediate family and kinsfolk, warts and all, only then can we really learn to love those who do not necessarily adhere to the same point of view as ours, but share enough common ground to be regarded as 'neighbour'. The modern world, at least in the West, tends the other way, with people often embracing peoples who live, or have come from, abroad, from a hugely different culture, with which we share very little, if anything, in common.

Traditional Judaism always works from the centre outwards. By contrast, it appears that this tendency has been turned on its head by many, for whom family is an inconvenience at best, whereas the 'other' must be embraced. In my experience, the only Western exception to this generalization is the State of Israel for whom family is sacrosanct (including among non-observant individuals); the old are revered; and a new baby is an occasion for huge rejoicing. But then, Israel is not really a Western country in many ways.

So if we have defined 'neighbour' as 'a fellow participant in Israel's covenant with G-d', who, exactly is the 'stranger'? And can the 'stranger' ever become a 'neighbour'? Again, contemporary norms may differ from Biblical categorizations, but 'stranger' in this context does not mean 'everyone else'.

In the Hebrew Bible, 'stranger' is a technical term referring to someone who hasn't taken on the covenant, but who resides among the inhabitants of the Land of Israel, known as Bnei-Israel, and is therefore expected to conform to at least basic accepted norms. Later, two distinct groups of 'strangers' are defined. One keeps the seven Noachide laws incumbent on gentiles. The other group may go further and actually commit to becoming 'a fellow participant' in the entire covenant.

It appears to many that in the last thirty years at least, the Western approach to the 'stranger' has failed. In the UK, for example, entire swathes of people live in their own areas, which have become 'no-go zones'. In these 'no-go zones', newer residents often follow religions, traditions, or ways of life that are not simply different but, in many cases, incompatible with societal norms in the host country.

Moreover, many of these 'strangers' expect their own norms, often based on tribal practices prevalent in their ancestral places of birth, to be observed by everyone else, and especially in the political arena. We can see examples of this tendency playing out at the moment during our own general election period.

It was, for example, pretty upsetting to view a video of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, swathed from top to toe in garb she wouldn't wear elsewhere, and in her own constituency and my home city, of Greater Manchester, promising to the noticeably all-male gathering that once her party returns to power, she would see to it that Gaza is no longer 'occupied' and that she personally would make sure that there will be a 'two-state solution'.

Such chutzpah, mingled with fear, is typical now in our own country, where the newest incomers are permitted by the elite to run the show. As Bari Weiss has stated in a recent Ted Talk, 'the fringe are [now] calling the shots' and much of this is based on 'race essentialism'. In other words, as a minority person I must be oppressed and if you disagree with me on anything, including foreign policy issues which have nothing to do with me, then you yourself will be tainted as a racist. Another word for this type of fringe group behaviour in the Western world is 'bully-boy tactics'. And it is prevalent.

No wonder that, currently, hundreds of UK Jews are taking serious steps to leave this country as soon as possible. And yet, Jews, first arriving here 2,000 years ago with the Romans, then again 1,000 years later with the Normans in 1066, subsequently expelled in 1290 and finally allowed in again by Cromwell in 1656, have every reason to be concerned by the contemporary misinterpretation of the Biblical meaning of 'stranger'.

In contrast to many contemporary 'strangers', Jews opted in writing almost 2,000 years ago, that in diaspora the law of the land would be obeyed to the letter but, importantly, Jews have taken the term 'stranger' to mean not 'imposer' but a person who integrates without assimilating completely. In the largest diaspora community, Jews have gone further and rightly feel that they have helped to build up the United States of America and are therefore part of what America is all about. Therefore American Jews still express the fervent wish to help other 'strangers' who might also emigrate to their shores.

Alas, however, Sephardi Jew, Emma Lazarus' 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free' seem to be in a minority. Many recent immigrants to those shores, as to those in Europe, including in the UK, arrive with an often racialized sense of huge entitlement, which, encouraged by the powers that be, plays itself out in political parties, churches, universities, and, most of all, in the streets. And this is not a sudden phenomenon; it has been growing exponentially for a number of decades, resulting in the rot which many of us are experiencing today.

What has transpired in the last thirty years is not only a certain amount of 'difference' which is inevitable, but a huge clash of cultures, in which the host community, if there is such a thing, has taken on the newest set of immigrants with huge enthusiasm, while treating the Jewish community with utter contempt, and, since 9/11 at least, an increasing amount of hatred and hostility.

And this is largely, I would argue, partially due to a misunderstanding of the term 'stranger', as well as the term to 'love'. 'Love' in Hebrew denotes an amount of preference or special favour which, the West, taking Christian interpretations to their extreme, has translated into 'universal benevolence'.

By contrast, most Hebrew Bible scholars see concern for the 'stranger' as being akin to concern for the 'vulnerable', which many of the contemporary minorities certainly aren't, because they have managed to take on the organs of power pretty quickly and actually now very often run the show. As stated above, 'the fringe are now calling the shots.'

In any case, it is not only the 'stranger' who may be vulnerable, but also the poor, the widow and the orphan and others who are down on their luck. Many of these in the contemporary UK are not 'strangers' as such, but nevertheless feel 'alienated', because they see that their neighbourhoods have been taken over and that their life chances are now nil. The command to love the stranger, therefore, 'is not an act of universalization but rather a response to a particular condition of vulnerability.'

In an interesting footnote that readers of this website are likely to disagree with (p 427: 96), Shai cites Professor of Jewish Studies, Joel S Kaminsky, who argues that 'in contrast to the radical ethics articulated by Jesus, Leviticus upholds a much more realistic ethic ... Much of the brilliance of the Hebrew Bible's theology is its keen awareness of working within the real limitations we humans have.' In addition 'the extraordinary standards of behaviour demanded by both Jesus and Paul, in contrast, are a function of their belief that the end-time was near.'

Whether or not most Christians agree with this conclusion, it is undoubtedly the case for Jews that the Hebrew word for 'stranger' does not mean what is commonly understood today by the word 'stranger'.

The contemporary understanding of the sterm 'stranger' is based for many of us in our reading of the French classic 'L'Etranger' (1942) by the great 20th-century existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-60). This novel was for a long time the set text for 'O' Level French when French was still a compulsory subject at most schools in this country.

Here, the main character is completely alienated; a white citizen in African Algeria; a French citizen in a mainly Muslim environment, he is alienated from society in general, and most of all, from himself. This type of alienation – what we might now call 'depression' - is not at all what the Hebrew 'stranger' is all about.

In fact the Hebrew ger lends itself to the idea that eventual 'conversion' might take place (not that it is necessary). However, in Biblical Israel, if the ger simply accepts and practises basic norms, then he or she is allowed to reside in the country, with access to rights enjoyed by the majority population.

In other words, therefore, loving the 'stranger' means to love anyone who is vulnerable. This is because G-d Himself loves the vulnerable. We are enjoined to walk in G-d's ways. This is why we must love the vulnerable. This love is demonstrated by providing food, clothes (Deuteronomy 10:18) and, according to Maimonides (1135/38-1204: Mishneh Torah Treatise on Charity), a job, to those who are without. Nowadays, one would probably add an education for life, and not simply for the elite.

But the Talmud is already there, encouraging parents to give their children a thorough education from age five, including teaching them how to swim, as well as instructing them in a trade. These sources teach the art of argumentation without resorting to violence!

Some religions teach total obedience; others teach how to be judgemental. Others preach being 'open to all.' In my own experience, Judaism teaches the art of imbibing both one's own culture and the culture of the environment (often the same thing), as well as the art of polite but assertive disagreement.

As the Dalai Lama has stated, 'The Jews have learned the secret of survival in exile, and we should learn their secret from them.' Alas, given the drastic reinterpretation of what it means both to be a 'neighbour' and a 'stranger', I fear that it is possibly too late for most Jews living in the contemporary diaspora.

In the realm of the Jewish mystics, many of whom were more idealistic than most Jews who had to earn a living in the real world, 'a virtuous person ... loves every person, Jew and non-Jew alike.' This was according to Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620), who lived in the holy city of Zfat in northern Israel (currently under daily bombardment from Hezbollah in Lebanon).

This thought was expanded by Israel's first Ashknazi Chief Rabbi under the Mandate, Rav Kook (1865-1935), living in Jerusalem. He states that for a person who loves G-d, 'it is impossible not to be filled with love for every creature, for the abundance of G-d's light shines in all of them, and all of them are revelations of G-d's sweetness.'

This may well be the case, but in his official position as head of the Asheknazi Jewish community, Rav Kook boycotted the British Governor General who permitted the Hebron Massacre of Yeshiva students and their families to take place in 1929. Moreover, Rav Kook himself was the butt of scorn and derision of a number of British authorities stationed in Jerusalem from 1922 and who were taken aback at Rav Kook's lack of compliance and refusal to conform. Then, as now, the British were simply not used to this assertive behaviour from Jews.

So, it may be the case that traditional Jews living in their own country can afford this sweeping statement of positing love for everyone – and even a la St Francis – including in this type of love all living creatures, i.e. animals, if not plants. But, for every traditional Jew, non-compliance with the norms of the society in which you wish to reside (leading in many cases to a complete breakdown of law and order) should result in that person being treated as an outcast, or criminal, rather than as a 'stranger' in the sense of a ger, and that person should, for the sake of the majority, be accepted neither as a neighbour nor a stranger in the Biblical sense.

So, to sum up, loving one's neighbour as oneself really appears to mean loving one's neighbour who is 'as oneself'. This does not necessarily mean coming from the same background, family, religion, ethnicity or country. This does mean from the Jewish perspective, however, accepting basic norms of Judaism without necessarily converting.

I hope in my next article to develop this theme and offer some definitions of different types of Biblical 'stranger', with examples from contemporary life.

In the meantime, however, Biblical teaching does not impose on us the duty of care to those who want to destroy us. A 'stranger' can be compared to a guest in our home. A guest who completely takes over our home would probably get short shrift. But by that time, it might well be too late.

In the words of the great Swiss novelist and playwright, Max Frisch (Bidermann und die Brandstifter 1958), by the time things have reached this stage, our home may well have been burned down to a cinder. Bidermann is the ordinary person and die Brandstifter are those who, under the very nose of the ordinary person, would set everything alight.

If we in the West do not want to go up in flames, it might be a good idea to adopt some of the Biblical views of love, neighbour, stranger and commitment. This is what is meant by 'fellow participants in Israel's covenant with G-d.'