Posted on January 7, 2016 by Johanna Press
In my Pardes Social Justice class, we recently discussed the complicated status of non-Jews in our community. Texts throughout Jewish history – from Tanakh through modern responsa – present conflicting views regarding non-Jews; in one place, we are instructed to love the stranger and in another, the destruction of idolatrous non-Jews is enthusiastically called for. Although we can make a case for a universalist reading of many of our classical texts, there is also an undeniable stream of particularism in our sources, often condoning systems of inequality and violence. After several days of study and discussion, we as a class experienced how challenging it is to navigate the halachic implications of these perspectives. I don’t have any answers, but I want to share what compels me to choose universalism.
It can be easy to speak about non-Jews with a certain distance, particularly at a time when we are living and learning in an almost exclusively Jewish environment. But for many Pardes students, this doesn’t reflect our entire life experience. In fact, I bet most of you reading this can think of a neighbor, a friend, or a family member who is not Jewish but with whom you have a close relationship. As you continue reading, hold this person in your mind.
In Tanakh, there are of course many examples of political conflict with alien nations. But in stories of personal interaction, it is not uncommon to see intimate and loving relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Yitro, a priest of Midian (and an idolater!), serves as an important father-figure and mentor to his son-in-law, Moshe. Ruth and Naomi love each other deeply, kissing and crying in each other’s arms, before Ruth converts to Judaism. This is not to mention the many other characters whom we see connect with non-Jews through friendship, political partnership, and marriage, developing enough trust to include each other in their community.
Our modern world is not such a departure from Tanakh. Most of us have lived in close contact with non-Jews and have developed similarly deep relationships. On a personal level, many of the people I am closest to are not Jewish. I have dear friends and family members of other faiths, or no faith at all, whom I love and consider a part of my community. Beyond sharing a fundamental humanity, we share interests and goals and life experiences; yet like many of my Jewish friends and family, we also have many differences. Sure, there are sometimes challenges communicating and even justifying certain aspects of my worldview to non-Jews, but this happens just as much in Jewish spaces. In a room of only Jews, we have to work just as hard to bridge differences in age, race, class, nationality, gender identity, sexuality, and other factors as we do in a room with people of different faiths. Every intra-cultural conversation is also an inter-cultural conversation; we are always communicating across differences, and in some sense we are all strangers to each other.
I know that the concept of pluralism can seem a modern, western idea not native to Judaism. But it is in fact an integral part of our tradition to embrace difference in the form of makhloket (disagreement). Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who saw the world in fundamentally different
ways and thus held very different practices, not only listened to and taught each other’s ideas, but also included each other in community. This tradition of makhloket shows me that we need to go even farther than mere tolerance of diversity to embrace and celebrate our pluralistic reality. My wonderful non-Jewish loved ones are positive forces in my life, sharing joy, mutual support, and growth. How could they – Christians and Hindus and atheists whom I love – be any less than my Jewish loved ones? This suggestion not only conflicts with my experience in these relationships, but is also impossible to reconcile with the principle of b’tzelem elokim, that all humans are created in the image of Gd.
My relationships with non-Jews – as well as with Jews who are different from me – have fostered a wonder and appreciation for the incredible diversity that Gd has created. Pluralism not only broadens my awareness, but also challenges me to articulate and refine my own views. The unknown is what seems threatening, but coming into relationship – like Moshe and Yitro, and Naomi and Ruth – replaces the threat of the other with love. I treasure so dearly and gain so much from my relationships with non-Jews. The particularistic reading of our sources conceals a huge sacrifice: in this world where we are blessed with the tools and opportunities to connect with so many different people, closing ourselves off only results in perpetuating misunderstanding and fear of difference. Just tolerating each other is not enough. Positive public relations is not enough. Distanced respect is not enough. Only in loving relationship can we fully embrace both our fellow and the stranger, honoring each other as humans b’tzelem elokim.