Friday, April 29, 2011

"Loving your neighbor as yourself:" Not so fast!

 Torah portion: Kedoshim Leviticus
If we took a survey about the state of our country’s moral climate today how many of us would put ourselves in the glass is half full category and how many of would say we are in the glass is half empty group? We are facing so many issues from the sluggish economy, three wars, a rolling stone political culture damaging our nation’s democracy and a percolating stew of American citizens that represent every race, religion and creed imaginable in our society today. Despite all this tumult do we feel that we share the same fundamental sense of right and wrong that unites us as a country?
The same set of questions can be applied to our American Jewish community let alone to Israel. We are living in an age when synagogues and Jewish communal organizations are learning how to do more with fewer resources. We are watching the demographics eat away at the longstanding sense of Jewish continuity as Jews struggle with values regarding whether or not to raise Jewish families or how to accommodate interfaith families who want to identify in the Jewish community but who still feel a kinship with other religious traditions of the non-Jewish spouse. Is the glass half empty or full when it comes to preserving our heritage and traditions?
Our Torah portion this week is Kedoshim and it addresses the basic ethics of what it means to be a Jew today as it spoke to our people in ancient times. The portion is referred to in scholarly circles as the holiness code because it says that god wants us to imitate divine behavior by living in a sacred community and following the mitzvoth that make us feel close to the Divine Presence. This portion guides us on how to maintain a glass half full approach knowing full well that we are all making decisions about how we live Jewishly and what it means to us to be united as a Jewish community. We are concerned about our own survival and, yet, we also worry about Israel as it contends with an explosion of political unrest in the Middle East. Are we not all asking what values unite us as a Jewish community despite all the different philosophies and observances of the Jewish community as well as the non-practicing Jews in American society?
Somehow the Jewish people over history have had to answer the question of how do we balance our internal priorities with our relationships to the world, more specifically, the communities we lived in. Today is no different. We know we should preserve our distinctive identity and at the same time we share in the life of the world. Our rabbis, of blessed memory, in commenting on this week’s Torah portion, were cognizant of this balancing act. They focused in on the phrase in the Torah portion, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not just about how we live with our non-Jewish neighbor but about how we get along with our fellow Jew and Jewish community. It is not just about how we view our neighbor but how we think about ourselves.
Only Jewish hermeneutics could dissect a simple phrase like “you shall love your neighbor as yourself, “ and say the meaning of the verse is more complicated than what meets the eye. One of Judaism’s all time famous and respected sages, Rabbi Akiva, said it was the most important teaching in the Torah. ‘Not so simple’ said the grandson of the commentator Rashi in the 10th century whose acronym was Rashbam. He was a little more real politik by saying that we should love the neighbor only if that person is good but if he or she is wicked then let the fear of God be upon the person.
Another great ancient sage by the name of Hillel took a completely different approach by saying that maybe the negative of this verse could be more inclusive than the positive dictum of loving one’s neighbor. He said, “Whatever is hateful to you do not do to the next person.” I like this phrase because even though it feels better and more politically correct to sound a more affirming or positive tone,  the truth is that we as Americans will most likely disagree on most issues. But we have a better chance to achieve moral consensus on issues by agreeing on what we all would despise done against us as compared to rallying around the positive of what should or should not be done to someone else. In effect the glass empty approach might be the preferred way of teaching more universal truths.
And then the sages ask, what do we do when we just don’t respect ourselves? How can one person love someone else when they have no regard for themselves? The rabbis struggled with this idea. Another sage Ben Azzai who disagreed with Akiva about this issue expressed the concern that the criterion of love to one’s neighbor is not the measure of love towards oneself. One who is indifferent to his or her own lot in life, who has no self respect, is not entitled to show any less respect to their neighbor. Ben Azzai quoted another verse in Genesis “This is the book of the generation of man,” is truly a fundamental principle superior to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.” The fact that god created us all trumps the fundamental dictate to act kindly to others. 
The truth of the matter is that our rabbis were realistic and practical about human strengths and flaws. They knew full well in ancient times the nature of human beings and how we act out our own flaws upon others.  Without being psychologists, they diagnosed the moral ills of a society and taught that no matter how we see ourselves we have an obligation to behave in a civil way in public. A civil society demands that people restrain themselves and their actions on an emotional level and a physical level. Not to do so would lead to the self destruction of our society.
We can see that this point is coming out more poignantly with the recent observance of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Sincere and hard reflection is necessary but not solely about recreating civil war battlefield scenes and who won but recognizing the fact that 620,000 troops perished together on all sides. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” somehow got lost somewhere in the excitement.
We are also instructed in this week’s portion that it is not just about how we feel about people but more importantly how we act towards them that really makes a difference. “The stranger who resides with you shall be treated the same as the native –born, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is not just about where we have been born but about where we are in our core values and experiences that determines whether we as a society will survive or decay. Has not our Jewish immigrant past taught us that lesson?
Whether my cup is half full or empty depends upon how I am feeling about the world I am living in. There are times when we need to set up boundaries for not only someone else but for ourselves. Remembering to keep a smile on our face or think before we speak or remembering that good manners takes precedence over the Torah itself are the kinds of maxims that come to us from the Torah portion. Whether we believe in the conventional ideas of God is immaterial, what is important is that the Torah says that God gave us these laws not just for what ritual items matter but for how we were supposed to create a sacred community. That is what this is all about. Not just how good we can be but also how bad we shouldn’t be. That gets us to the same place at the end of the day.
Shabbat Shalom