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Two Jews, Many Obligations

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SAID KHATIB via Getty Images
SAID KHATIB via Getty Images

"You work with Bedouins?!", he asked, in a question that was noticeably more of a statement. I could sense that the man was growing increasingly agitated as I described my work to him. I explained that as part of my year as a Jewish Service Corps Fellow with the Joint Distribution Committee's employment initiative in Israel, I taught English to the staff of an employment center in the Bedouin city of Rahat.

Based on the tense energy that engulfed me as I spoke, I quickly ascertained that many people in the Jerusalem hotel conference room shared his sentiment. Later in the day, some people expressed that they were only interested in donating to initiatives that help Jews exclusively.

This interaction left me bitter and heartbroken. I grew up with the idea that Jews are obligated to not only help fellow Jews, but everyone. How did these individuals' Judaism look so different from my own?

I recently learned that the debate about our responsibility to help non-Jews is almost as old as Judaism itself. Right before the start of the Common Era, two of the most famous and respected Rabbis in history, Hillel and Shammai, could not agree on this issue. Shammai asserted that Jews should have no interactions or communication with non-Jewish people. Hillel took a softer stance, rejecting Shammai's black and white approach.

At one point, Hillel and Shammai's constant and mostly productive disagreements exploded into a destructive conflict of massive proportions. Many believe that the arguments that fueled this violent shift related specifically to Jewish-non-Jewish relations. Thousands of students died, leading the Talmud to declare it a day of mourning. Today, a new movement is trying to recognize this date, the 9th of Adar, as a Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. My frustrations are clearly nothing new.

We all know the joke: two Jews, three opinions. Jews are even experts at deriving different morals from the same piece of text.

For example, the Talmud also says, "We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace" (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a). Maimonides related this concept to Psalm 145, which says, "God is good to all, and His mercy is on all of His creations" (Yad, Laws of Kings,10:12). However, one could also interpret "for the sake of peace" to mean that the Talmud provides these instructions in order to safeguard Jews from the wrath and disdain of their neighbors.

I fall cleanly into the Hillel and Maimonides camp. I believe that I should be empowering the Bedouin population through authentic, sustainable efforts rooted in the community because they are a vulnerable population in Israel and neighbors with both Jews and other Arab groups. It is simply the morally correct thing to do.

However, even for those who read "for the sake of peace" as relating to Jewish defense and stability, there is still an argument to be made. If Israel's Arab population can achieve a higher employment rate and break the cycle of chronic poverty, it will not only make struggling people's lives better, but also strengthen Israel's bustling economy and complex social fabric.

For me, it is enough to know that I helped someone, either with my money or with my time. For the people I met that morning, perhaps this work could be more compelling if they perceive efforts to help others as one day inevitably also helping Israel.

Looking back, I wish this painful and awkward moment could have been turned into a constructive opportunity. If I had been less startled and upset, I could have tried to place myself in the shoes of a person who came from a different generation and received a different kind of Jewish education. I wish I had the time and ability to unpack his reservations, fears and distrust in a language that was familiar and comfortable for him.

I would have told him about my supervisor Danny, who arrived in the Philippines a couple days after Typhoon Haiyan to lead JDC's multi-million dollar sustainable relief efforts. In an unbelievable irony, Danny's grandparents were among the 1,000 European Jews whose lives were spared from the Holocaust by taking refuge in the Philippines. I see JDC's amazing century of work with people from disaster victims in the Philippines, to unemployed Bedouins in Southern Israel, to Jewish teens in the Former Soviet Union, as all rooted in Jewish values and obligations.

It is no longer the time of Hillel and Shammai. In our increasingly interconnected world, all of humanity is tied together. My redemption is bound to the redemption of my neighbor of a different faith. My suffering is intrinsically linked to the suffering of those on a distant island. My ability to effectively enact these values hinges on my ability to engage with those holding alternative viewpoints.