Normative concepts and values: religion as a set of teachings, religion as practice

The values of Va’ahavtem et ha-Ger (love of stranger) and Ve’ahabhath le-Re’akha (love of neighbor), as contained in the Hebrew scriptures, are an extremely important and significant set of teachings in this discussion. This duty of love of stranger is spoken about 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures, the best known of these teachings is in the Book of Leviticus:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

(Lev. 19:33-34)

This teaching clearly states that if a non-Jew has come to live and work in a Jewish land then they are to be treated equally, without discrimination; they are to be treated as an equal citizen. Further reference to treating the stranger as one of your own citizens is present in the later teaching of Leviticus: “You shall have one standard of law for the stranger and the citizen alike” (Lev. 24:22), and in Numbers 15:16, which is referring specifically to the stranger who wishes to present a fire offering to God, it states, “There shall be one law for you and the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages”, and the basis of this teaching is that, “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord” (Numbers 15:15). The underpinning principle in this teaching is justice. The importance of not oppressing the stranger and practicing justice towards them appears in various places in Deuteronomy.

As with the treatment of the stranger, numerous teachings appear in the Hebrew scriptures of both a legal and ethical nature, aimed at providing a code of behavior covering all aspects of relations between neighbors. While there is not sufficient space to deal with this in depth here, it is worth considering key aspects of these teachings. The emphasis on being truthful, fair treatment, and not thinking or practicing evil against a neighbor is found in a number of the texts, including in the Book of Zechariah (Zech. 8:16—17). These teachings are considered to be encapsulated in the command: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). Both Rabbi Hillel (110 bce-10 ce) and Rabbi Akiba (40-137 ce) taught that the fundamental principle of the Torah is the Leviticus commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Ginzberg 1906: 1034; Finkelstein 1936: 210). Ben Azzai, a student of Akiba, commented on the same commandment emphasizing the importance of love for all humankind because “all human beings are descended from Adam, a common ancestor which means being bound together by the kinship of a common origin” (Cohen 2008: 225). More recent articulation of Akkiba’s understanding is seen in the writings of 18th-century Rabbi and Kabbalist, Pinchas Elijah Hurwitz, who argues that the core essence of love of neighbor consists of loving all of humankind because of their identical humanity (Hurwitz 1818). During the 20th century a number of Jewish thinkers also argued that the command concerning love of neighbor must apply to non-Jews (Cohen 1907; Buber 1958; Katz 1961).

Even if the Palestinians and Negev Bedouin are considered as strangers—then, surely the admonishment “you shall not wrong the stranger who lives alongside you” means they should be accorded fair treatment, including recognizing where possible land claims or adequate financial/land reparations on a level that would be given to any Jewish citizens. Unfortunately, there continue to be those within the current Jewish establishment in Israel that certainly do not agree with this approach. An example was witnessed in 2010 with the views of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and then current Head of the Council of Torah Sages and spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party. In a Saturday night sermon, some of which was audio recorded and later broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10, Yosef said in relation to the issues of what work non-Jews can perform on the Sabbath, “Goyim (non-Jews) were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the People of Israel” (Oyster 2010: 1). Challenges to such views of Rabbi Yosef in religious circles come mostly from the Reform and Liberal religious communities in Israel. The next sections discuss how the Jewish values of love and care for stranger and neighbor are being promoted and actioned by various religious groups in Israel by focusing on the work of Rabbis for Human Rights, founded in 1988, consisting of Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students, and the community Wahat al-Salam—Neve Shalom, jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel in the 1970s, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

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