Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Loving Our Neighbors

Another interesting day at Hartman. We spent a great deal of time studying in hevruta, the traditonal way of reading sacred texts with a partner, and discussing its meanings together.

The first focus was on the difference between the Torah's commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and Hillel's famous reiteration of that principle: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others." We delved into the commentary, wrestling with the differences between these two approaches. I much prefer the Hillel version, for two reasons. First, it focuses on action rather than attitude. It is hard--maybe impossible--to command love; by contrast, it is very reasonable to expect people to understand how they want to be treated, and then to extend that same courtesy to others. It is easier to act lovingly than it is to love. And, for me, to act lovingly is enough. I think it is just a lot more effective to change behavior by addressing the behavior than commanding an attitude adjustment.

And second, I think Hillel sets a lower--and more realistic--bar. Can we really love our neighbors? Strangers? It is hard enough to love our own families, or even (especially?) ourselves. I believe "love your neighbor" raises impossible expectations, and thus sets us up to fail. Hillel, by contrast, does not demand that we be angels. He asks only that we co-exist peacefully. For now, that seems sufficient.

Our second text was the book of Jonah, and what it offers us as we seek to respond to crisis. God orders Jonah to prophesize to Nineveh. Jonah tries to run, but after the long excursus with the Big Fish, he eventually does come to Nineveh and does God's bidding, telling the people that God is about to destroy their city. Then something amazing happens: the people actually listen to the prophet and repent.

God responds by retracting the divine decree and sparing the city. And how does Jonah react to this? Angrily. He is furious that God does not wipe out Nineveh. Perhaps Jonah thinks that God has made him look bad, or maybe he just really believes the city is unworthy of divine mercy.

At any rate, God's and Jonah's divergent reactions to the situation in Nineveh represent two very different responses to crisis. God recognizes that realities shift, and therefore the appropriate response at one moment--anger and justice--no longer applies when things change (i.e. after the people repent.) Jonah, by contrast, is stuck. Once he has prophesied the city's destruction, he cannot see any other option. He is intent on sticking to the original plan, for he lacks resilience in his response.

So, too, with each of us, in every crisis. We can respond with innovation and flexibility, or we can just keep doing what we've always done, ignoring the fact that our reality has changed. We can be like either God or Jonah--the choice is ours.

I'm heading back to Hartman for dinner and then home for the evening, with a lot to think about!

1 comment:

Karen said...


Keep your class discussions coming. There is so much food for thought in these sessions. I am learning along with you.

It is great that dinner is included. So much for cooking your last two weeks.