A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life – Part Three – Otherness

Jewish culture By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon 14th Sep 2016

This is the last of three articles in which I set out an approach to what it means to be Jewish. Last month’s articlecan be read here.

Previously I have articulated a rational supernaturalist approach to belief and a way of thinking about love and Jewish observance. In this article I want to articulate a Jewish ethic.

I believe in the observance of classic modes of Jewish practice, but that’s not enough. For one thing punctilious observance of Kashrut or Shabbat, guarantees no level of decency in behaviour. That’s a problem recognised by Nachmonidies who coined the term naval bereishut hatorah to refer to a person who misbehaves even though they are technically fulfilling each of the black-letter commands of the Halachic system. Secondly observance of the letter of the law can only take us ‘so far,’ beyond the strictures of commanded behaviour we need an over-arching ethic to guide us. Finally, for those occasions when the black-letter of the law is contradictory, we need a ‘meta-halachic’ framework to guide the resolution of this contradiction. It’s not enough to follow the law.

The heart of a Jewish ethics is the single most emphasised idea in the entire Torah – the command to love the stranger – the Ger. The Ger, in the Biblical mind, is the non-Jew who comes to live among the Jewish people in a Jewish state where they have no land and, therefore only slim possibilities of evading absolute poverty. Gerim are the most fragile, most poor and most weak members of society. But we are commanded to love them, forbidden to oppress them and, in possibly the most stunning moment in the Torah, we are given a precise reason why – ‘ki gerim hayitem beretz mitzrayim’ – for you were gerim – strangers – in the Land of Egypt.

Nachmanides expands on this reasoning arguing; Don’t imagine that your status as the landed, secure and powerful is so secure. Once upon a time the Egyptians were in charge and you were oppressed, now you are in charge, don’t think that I, God, can’t roll the dice again and you will find yourselves back underneath the power of others.

Love of the Ger, is more than a demonstration of our humility and gratitude for the bounty we possess, it’s the ultimate test of whether we understand what it means to be decent. Do we respond as a master in a better way than our masters behaved to us when we were slaves? When God tells Abraham that his descendants are to be oppressed and beaten by others he couldn’t have imagined the awful catalogue of abuse and hatred suffered by the Jewish people through the generations. But our experiences of being on the receiving end of oppression can never justify our own oppression of others, in fact the contrary is the case. Our experience of oppression can perhaps only be justified as sensitising us to the awfulness of anyone being oppressed.

We must love the stranger for we were strangers. We must love those who are different to us, and especially those who are less secure than we are, for we have a profound understanding of what it is to be different and insecure – as insecure as a Fiddler on the Roof.

The central tenet the formation of a religious Jewish ethic is otherness. How do we treat otherness when, as Jews, we meet it, as indeed we must meet it all the time? We are on the territory of the great French 20th century Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was obsessed by the face-to-face encounter – a phrasing he adopts from the Torah where God and Moses meet Face-to-Face. A face to face encounter is a the moment when we are challenged to recognise the radical otherness of the other, to recognise that their fate is bound up in decisions we make. When we recognise the other’s otherness we realise we can’t simply subsume their interests and desires into ours, for they are different to us. More than this, says Levinas, when we encounter the other face-to-face we realise that the other is mortal and fragile. If we truly serve as a witness to this fragility our behaviour has to shift to care for their survival and happiness. Seeing the other face-to-face is the central ethical moment of human existence.

But this ethical encounter isn’t something that happens at the expense of our commitment to Jewish ritual, keeping Kosher, observing Shabbat and the like. Rather we can see ritual observance as a training in appreciating nuance; Shabbat is a different day to Tuesdaay, milk and meat are radically different entities and so on. Halachic life sensitises us to difference. Halachah trains us in the encounter with otherness.

Can we recognise difference and allow it, not wishing to suppress it as we have been suppressed so many times and in so many ways? Can we treat difference in such a way to as to reveal we understand that all humanity is created in the image of God, our fellow and the stranger alike? Can we love difference, and through that act of love, reveal our love of God and our fellow?

This is the Jewish task. It’s a task that is worthy of our every effort for the obligation is great, but, I believe, the rewards equally so.

Jeremy Gordon is the rabbi of New London Synagogue.

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