Among the questions making the rounds in the wake of last week’s horrendous earthquake in Haiti are two that are reminiscent of ones I was asked after Hurricane Katrina.
On Shabbat, during my sermon, I suggested that Jews had an obligation – as Jews – to help with the relief effort and that, as such, the money should be funneled either through American Jewish World Service or UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s emergency fund, which it is running in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Keeping the Faith Asked a congregant: Why donate to a Jewish organization intended for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti? Would it not be better to donate money directly, say, to the Red Cross, or to some other secular agency directly involved in relief?
The second question is one that is making its way across sections of the Jewish blogosphere (and was asked of me in the wake of Hurricane Katrina): Why give Jewish money to help non-Jews? Our only obligation is to help our own.
I agree. We should donate to help ours alone – and that is precisely why we must help the people of Haiti, for they are us and we are them. Just ask Ben Azzai.
To be sure, there are various rabbinic rulings and comments made over the last two millennia that would agree with the questioners on the blogosphere. We have no responsibilities to the outside world, say these rulings, and Jewish law may even forbid becoming involved with that world.
The most extreme such dictate comes from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who said it was a mitzvah to “kill even the nicest among the gentiles.” (See M’khilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, B’shallach Chapter 2; also, the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Kiddushin 4:11.) This comment most recently surfaced in a different context – in the writings of the radical Chabad rabbi Yitzchak Ginzberg, who uses it to justify the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza.
How – and why – did Rabbi Shimon, as he is often referred to in the Talmud, reach such a harsh decision?
According to the Torah in the parashah we will read next Shabbat, Pharaoh gathered “600 chosen chariots” in order to run down the Israelites in the wilderness. (See Exodus 14:7.) Yet, if all of Egypt’s livestock was killed during the plagues, where did the horses come from to draw those chariots? As the Torah reported regarding one plague in the parashah we read last Shabbat, “he who feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses.”(See Exodus 9:20.)
In other words, those Egyptians who feared the God of Israel saved their horses and Pharaoh used those horses to try to kill the People of Israel. Reasoned Bar Yochai, even the best and most well meaning among non-Jews endanger Jewish lives.
In truth, though, the Torah teaches no so such lesson. It emerged from the world in which Shimon bar Yochai lived. His was the Roman world of Hadrian’s time. It was a harsh world that treated Jews more harshly than others. It was against Hadrian’s rule that Bar Kochbah led his revolt. It was Hadrian’s minions that executed the greatest lights of the Jewish world in the most brutal ways imaginable before the Holocaust. Among those martyred in this way was Rabbi Akiva, Bar Yochai’s revered teacher. “Said Rabbi Shimon to his students: My sons, learn my rules, because my rules are the best of the best of the rules of Rabbi Akiva.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin 67a.)
In other words, Bar Yochai’s opinion evolved amid the bitter oppression and bestial repression of Jews on the part of Hadrian’s Rome.
Bar Yochai’s opinion, however, was never normative. Thus, for example, the 13th-century French commentator Rabbi M’nachem ben Shlomo Ha-Me’iri states, “In our times, no one observes these practices, not a ga’on, not a rabbi, not a sage, not a pietist nor even an alleged pietist.” (See the introduction to the section on idol worship in his Talmud commentary Bet Ha-b’chirah.)
There are other rabbinic statements that also demean the non-Jew and also caution us not to have anything to do with them, including lending them a hand in times of trouble, but these, too, are not normative.
A 19th-century halachist, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, was blunt in his statement: “It is a general principle that wherever the Talmud or the commentaries speak in derogatory terms about the heathen, this refers to those ancient nations that did disgusting perversions and rejected God’s providence. They are the exact opposite of the nations under whose rule we now live. These nations observe their religion; they are men of high ethical and moral standards who punish lawbreakers through their judicial system. And although their religion is vastly different than ours, God forbid that we should harbor even the smallest notion of contempt.”
This is so if for no reason other than that we want to maintain good relations with our non-Jewish neighbors. Thus, BT Gittin 61a states, “Our Rabbis taught: ‘We support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel [in a non-Jewish cemetery], in harmony with the ways of peace.”
We do have an obligation to help “the other,” but the truth is, there really is no “other.”
When Rabbi Akiva said that “‘love your neighbor as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18] is the great principle of the Torah,” another of his students, Ben Azzai, disagreed. “‘This is the record of adam’s line’ [Genesis 5:1] is the greater principle,” he said. (“Adam” in Genesis means “human”; it is not a proper name.)
What Ben Azzai meant is clear. Obviously, “This is the record of adam’s line” is not a principle at all, but a statement of fact. If that fact is understood, however, then there is no need for any kind of principle relating to how one person treats another. If all human beings are descended from the original unique human being created by God – if we are all descended from “the adam” – then regardless of who we are, what we believe, what color our skin is, what continent we live on, what language we speak, we are all brothers and sisters.
When one’s brother or sister or other family member is in trouble, we must move heaven and earth, if necessary, to help.
As God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” our job is to teach by example a moral and ethical code that, as Ben Azzai said, is summed up by a simple statement, “This is the record of adam’s line.”
That is why, in tragedies such as the Haitian earthquake, the Jewish community must be visible in helping the survivors. Donating to the Red Cross or some other such entity is invisible. It is only through our institutions that our presence is felt.