Among the many legal provisions of this week's sedra is one stated briefly and unemphatically, yet it has far-reaching implications as well as subtlety and moral beauty:
“If you see your enemy's ass sagging under its burden, you shall not pass by. You shall surely release it with him. (Ex. 23: 5)”
The principle is simple. Your enemy is also a human being. Hostility may divide you, but there is something deeper that connects you: the covenant of human solidarity. Pain, distress, difficulty - these things transcend the language of difference. A decent society will be one in which enemies do not allow their rancour or animosity to prevent them to coming to one another's assistance when they need help. If someone is in trouble, help. Don't stop to ask whether they are friend or foe. Get involved - as Moses got involved when he saw shepherds roughly handling the daughters of Jethro; as Abraham did when he prayed for the people of the cities of the plain.
There are several significant nuances here. The first arises out of the parallel command in Devarim:
You shall not see your brother's ass or his ox falling [under its load] in the road, and hide yourself from them. You shall lift it [the load] up with him. (Dt. 22:4)
Exodus talks about enemies; Deuteronomy, about friends. On this the Talmud states:
If [the animal of] a friend requires unloading, and an enemy's loading, you should first help your enemy - in order to suppress the evil inclination. (Baba Metzia 32b)
Both equally need help. In the case of an enemy, however, there is more at stake than merely helping someone in distress. There is also the challenge of overcoming estrangement, distance, ill-feeling. Therefore, it takes precedence. The sages were here reading a nuance in the text. The phrase, 'you shall not pass by' is apparently superfluous. What it signals is that when we see our enemy suffering, our first instinct is to pass by. Hence part of the logic of the command is 'to suppress the evil inclination'.
More remarkable are the Aramaic translations (Targum Onkelos, and more explicitly Targum Yonatan). They take the phrase 'You shall surely release' to mean not just the physical burden, but also the psychological burden: 'You shall surely let go of the hate you have in your heart towards him.'
There is an accusation against Jews and Judaism in the New Testament which has done incalculable harm: 'You have heard it said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say to you: "Love your enemy also."' Nowhere in the Pentateuch does it say 'hate your enemy'. To the contrary: Moses commands: 'Do not hate an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not hate an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land.' (Deut. 23: 8). These were the paradigm cases of enemies. Edom was Esau, Jacob's rival. The Egyptians were the people who enslaved the Israelites. Yet Moses commands that it is forbidden to hate them.
A more general prohibition against hating enemies occurs in the very passage that commands the love of neighbours:
Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Lev. 19: 17-18)
On this, Maimonides writes:
You shall blot [any offences against you] out of your mind and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. The Torah therefore emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong should be completely obliterated and no longer remembered. This is the right principle. It alone makes civilized life and social interaction possible. (Hilkhot Deot 7: 8).
In speaking about enemies, the Torah is realistic rather than utopian. It does not say: 'Love your enemies'. Saints apart, we cannot love our enemies, and if we try to, we will eventually pay a high psychological price: we will eventually hate those who ought to be our friends. What the Torah says instead is: when your enemy is in trouble, come to his assistance. That way, part of the hatred will be dissipated. Who knows whether help given may not turn hostility to gratitude and from there to friendship. That surely is enough to refute the suggestion that Judaism contemplates, let alone advocates, hating enemies.
There is, however, a fascinating provision of the law. The text says, 'You shall surely release it [the burden] with him'. From this the sages deduced the following:
If [the owner of the animal] sits down and says to the passer-by: 'The obligation is yours. If you wish to unload [the animal], do so' the passer-by is exempt because it is said, 'with him' [meaning: they must share the work]. If however the owner [is unable to help because he] is old or infirm, then one must [unload the animal on one's own]. (Mishnah, Baba Metzia 32a)
Why should this be so? After all, the beast is still suffering under its burden. Why should the enemy's refusal to help excuse you from the duty of help?
A fundamental principle of biblical morality is involved here: reciprocity. We owe duties to those who recognise the concept of duty. We have a responsibility to those who acknowledge responsibility. If, however, the person concerned refuses to exercise his duty to his own overloaded animal, then we do not make things better by coming to his aid. On the contrary, we make it worse, by allowing him to escape responsibility. We become - in the language of addiction-therapy - co-dependents. We reinforce the very problem we are trying to help solve. We allow the individual to believe that there will always be someone else to do what is morally necessary. We create what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls 'learned helplessness'. We may feel that we are being super-righteous; and we may be right. But we are thereby making ourselves better at the cost of making society worse. And biblical morality is not a code of personal perfection but of social grace.
Tenakh, the Hebrew Bible, is not a code for Utopia. That is a prophetic dream, not a present-tense reality. In the here-and-now, however, the Torah tells us something not without its moral grandeur, namely that small gestures of mutual assistance can in the long run transform the human situation. At the heart of the law of the overladen ass is one of Judaism's most beautiful axioms (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 23): 'Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.'
International Conference Against Anti-Semitism
HOUSE OF COMMONS, LONDON
16 FEBRUARY 2009
Let me thank all of you who have come to this gathering. Let me do more than thank you. Let me bless you for being here. For one of the worst things about being hated is the fear that you are alone. Because of you, Jews know that they are not alone. Speaking about another kind of hatred, Martin Luther King said: What we will remember is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. You are true friends, and you have not been silent. So I thank you from the depths of my heart.
What is anti-Semitism, and why does it exist? There have been many theories, but one includes them all. It is dislike of the unlike -- the fear, then the hate, of people who are different. And it has been the fate of Jews to be different. For centuries, in Christian Europe, Jews were not Christian. Today, in a largely Muslim Middle East, Jews are not Muslim. But that fact alone tells us why the fight against anti-Semitism is so important.
Because we are all different. No two human beings are the same, not even genetically identical twins. Difference is what makes us human. So a world, a nation, a country, that has no room for Jews, has no room for humanity. Anti-Semitism may begin with Jews, but it never ends with Jews. Anti-Semitism is an assault on our humanity.
What is different about the new anti-Semitism? Three things. First, it focuses not on Jews as individuals but on Jews as a nation in their own land. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. But it becomes anti-Semitism when Jews are attacked in the streets of London, Paris, or Amsterdam, when synagogues are vandalised and Jewish schools set on fire.
Second, it focuses on the Holocaust. Millions of people throughout the world took to the streets between 2002 and 2007 in protest against the war in Iraq. What did they say? 'Stop the War', 'War is not the answer,' and 'Not in my name.' If that is what they said about Israel and Jews, we would not complain. We would not be afraid.
In January of this year, people protested throughout the world against the war in Gaza. But they used a different kind of language altogether: 'Israel, The Fourth Reich,'
'Israel the new Nazis,' 'Stop the Nazi Genocide', 'Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.' People walking to synagogue here in the middle of London were shouted at with the words
'Hitler should have finished the job.' When the Holocaust is used, not as an argument against hate, but as an expression of hate itself, something dangerous is taking place.
Third, the new antisemitism is not local. It does not belong to this country or that. It is global, spread by the new media of the global age, by satellite television and the Internet. That is why this conference is so important, because a global problem needs a global response.
How bad is it? Well, in January of this year, antisemitic incidents rose to their highest level since record-keeping began. There were 250 incidents in Britain alone: Jews abused in the street, Jewish students intimidated on campus, and attacks on synagogues and other Jewish buildings.
But this is not the 1930s. What worries me are not the physical assaults, but the climate of opinion that is being formed. People are preaching and teaching hate, and hate is never harmless. It may take a year, even ten years, even a generation, but hate eventually becomes violent. That is why we have to take a stand, now, when we still have time.
So I thank you again, all of you, our hosts the British government, and you who have travelled to be here. This week you will have the chance to begin something great in the midst of difficult and dangerous times. It takes courage to take a stand against hate. You have that courage.
So I end as I began, with a reminder that antisemitism begins with Jews but never ends with Jews. An assault against difference is an assault against our humanity. For the sake of humanity, may all you do be blessed.