Love as an Action
By Alex Hamilton, Class of 2016
Rutgers Hillel Student Board President
Alex is receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on religion in the political arena from Rutgers University. This piece was first published by The Times of Israel on November 17, 2015.
There is a positive mitzvah that only very few follow. It’s not time-bound, so gender is a non-factor (regardless of religious affiliation). This positive mitzvah is possibly the only realistic method to combat the growing tide of anti-Semitism. This is the mitzvah laid out in Leviticus, V’ahavta Lereicha Camocha, or the obligation to Love your neighbor like yourself.
We as American Jews follow, what I see as the opposite, “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you” (Confucius). On the surface, these two lines appear to be the same, but in fact they are drastically different. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and prolific author, teaches us that, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference….” Confucius’ quote is a negative statement, similar to negative mitzvot such as: Do not murder. You may be following this mitzvah, but it’s passive. I don’t want people to say something mean to me, therefore I don’t talk to people. This is indifference.
For the most part, we as Americans are indifferent toward other groups and people. Perhaps when we hear about some brutal murder or other atrocious act, we feel sympathy and compassion, but we rarely go beyond that. Personally, I watched the video of Eric Garner’s strangulation and I said, “how horrible” and “what a pity,” but action did not happen. We watched, horrified as the attacks in Paris unfolded, yet much of what we did was to superimpose the French flag over our profile picture. If you want to see things change, if you want to see a different world, you have to act. The Torah commands us to act.
V’ahavta Lereicha Camocha is an active positive mitzvah. Let me offer you my analysis of these three words and reflect it’s relevance on today’s society. V’ahavta, “and you shall love”. This is the imperative part of this mitzvah. How can we love? What does this love mean? It means we love people by showing that we care. Not merely by changing our profile photos to the tri-color of France, not by shaking our heads and saying, “what a pity,” but by actively standing beside the ones we are supposed to love. You have to actively do something. Talk is not enough. Superficial action is not enough.
Lereicha, “your neighbor”. Who are our neighbors? Are they Jews? Are they non-Jews? Is proximity an important factor? Simply put, neighbors are those that live around us. Now, Jews tend to live together. This is plainly seen in places like Teaneck, NJ; Skokie, Illinois; or around Pico and Robertson Streets in Los Angeles. Fellow Jews are often our neighbors, but there is the rest of the world around us. It is not always those that are in our network of fellow Jews, nor is it exclusively those that live within a certain proximity to our homes. It is those who we can reach out and hold their hand and help them get on their feet. I would define a neighbor as one that you can extend your hand to.
Camocha, “like yourself”. We are Jews. We help Jews. This is seen through the numerous Jewish non-profits seeking to help struggling Jews. Hatzollah, a Jewish first medical responders organization, is an example of just one of these organizations that does great work, but is designed to help Jews. We need to reach out and help the population as if they were Jews. That’s what “like yourself” means – it’s a collective idea of “yourself”.
As seen above, we are commanded to actively help people. That could be standing next to the Black Lives Matter, or fighting sexual assault, or perhaps volunteering and helping addicts recover. But as of now, for the most part, we Jews are not standing up to injustices, or perhaps, we are simply standing up enough. We are simply not hurting the downtrodden. That is not the mitzvah of V’ahavta Lereicha Camocha.
Martin Luther King Jr once taught that: Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Perhaps, if we show love toward our non-Jewish neighbors, we will drive out the hate against us. If we drive out racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or xenophobia, perhaps, we will also drive out anti-Semitism.
Hatred is all tied in together. People don’t call hate, “hate”. It is masked by words like “free speech” and “tolerance of other ideas”. In my experience as a Jew growing up in Oklahoma, people tolerate the idea of hatred, not because they agree with it, but because we, as citizens, are taught to permit people to say whatever they want in the name of free speech or freedom of ideas. An individual might find the ideas of some repulsive, but it will be allowed to continue because they have a right to their ideas. Those who hate are defended by those with the proper authority, yet what about the rights of those who were hated?
Many also mask their hatred by calling others haters. On campus, there are those that are so preoccupied with calling Israel an apartheid state and that Jews have no claim on the land. They call us colonizing imperialists that had a diabolical, racist plan to hurt and oppress innocent Palestinians. What they fail to acknowledge is the rhetoric they are using. They are so intent on vilifying Israel that their opinions and biases quickly become words of hate that harken back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
It seems to me that hatred is a tree. It has a thick trunk with dozens of branches, each with different poisonous fruit of hatred on it. Many of the branches weave together and can’t be separated. When one branch of the tree falls, a new, bigger and sturdier branch takes its place. The leaves of the tree mask the hidden, poisonous fruit. This makes it difficult for the casual passersby to notice the deceptive fruit. Yet the fruit grows and multiplies. The fruits will often fall to the ground and animals and passersby will eat them and fall ill to the poison of hatred. The only way to remove this tree with the thick trunk, the convoluted, dense branches, with the poisonous fruit that is hidden in dense foliage, is to cut down the trunk and to take all of the hate with it.
We are commanded to fight racism, not merely anti-Semitism and often by fighting racism, we defeat anti-Semitism. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z’’l) marched with Martin Luther King in Selma. He claimed that his “feet were praying” as he marched in solidarity against institutional racism. Heschel, shortly afterward, got the Catholic Church to reverse its 1800 year old charge of deicide. This led to a drop in anti-Semitism around the world.
If you disagree with this thesis that extending a hand to those that need it will reduce anti-Semitism, don’t let that stop you from trying to help those around you. The world doesn’t need or want sympathy. The world needs action, and the Torah demands it.