04/30/2013 01:44 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2013

Jewish Peoplehood and Multiple Paths to Loyalty

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We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes

under our pillows and a memory of blood that is ours

raining down. We honor only those Jews...

who walked into the strange and became strangers.

-- Marge Piercy, "Maggid"

Do we owe special allegiances to "our people," above and beyond our responsibilities to other human beings? What is and ought to be the relationship between our collective identities and moral scope?

In the American Jewish community, op-eds and communal forums have surfaced these questions in debates over philanthropic priorities (do we take care of own first?) and political sympathies (do we stand in solidarity with our people in time of war, and what does doing so mean?). Regrettably, the vitriol through which many of these debates have taken place -- and at times distortions among interlocutors of each others' positions -- has overshadowed the substance of these important questions, which have been with Judaism since its inception.

Jewish commentaries on proper treatment of the ger (stranger), including in our Torah portion this week, are one place these questions come to a head. The Talmud highlights that the prohibition against oppressing the stranger recurs no less than 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment, including the injunction to keep the Sabbath, refrain from forbidden foods, and love God (Baba Metzia 59b).

Conventional, contemporary invocations of this teaching notwithstanding, those who argue that Judaism is through-and-through particularistic could invoke the stranger principle, at least according to its dominant history of reception in Jewish tradition. The rabbis generally define the ger as an in-group other, whether the convert (ger tzedek) or the "righteous gentile" who lives under Jewish political power (ger toshav), and commits to a basic code of ethics if not other mitzvot (religious obligations).

In Jewish law, the command to "love the stranger" is generally limited to the neophyte ger tzedek, who binds his fate to the Jewish people, while the ger toshav living within a Jewish polity is treated as a lapsed legal category. Already, the Book of Leviticus defines the stranger restrictively as the resident alien, the immigrant living under Jewish jurisdiction, rather than non-Jews at large.

Arguably, the stranger to whom we are exhorted to direct love and empathy does not mean all others, but rather the other who is "one of us" and who shares in a collective moral horizon with us. Our empathy for the stranger is conditioned on reciprocity.

Reciprocity is one of the foundations of the argument -- countercultural in 21st century America but as old as Genesis and Leviticus -- that loyalty is just. Many of us have internalized the Kantian idea that moral maturity means making moral judgments unbiased by distinctions, transcending our personal prejudices to distribute resources and care equally and impartially. But, goes the classic particularistic argument, preference for our own is both inescapable (empirically) and right (normatively). Cosmopolitanism is hollow, implausible and inauthentic. How could we not favor those to whom we are indebted -- those who have given everything to us (our parents and families) or who would die for us (our people) -- out of sheer gratitude?

Reciprocal altruism is viewed as the fountainhead of ethics in evolutionary biology and psychology, well-documented even in the animal kingdom. Mutualism, according to this view, necessarily defines the hierarchy of our responsibilities and should do so. This does not mean that our moral concern need stop at the door of our relations, but rather that particularist commitment (philia) is the prerequisite for genuine universalist aspiration (agape). Love is nothing if not specific and concrete; it is unrealistic, unfeeling, unjust and un-Jewish to extend care to all humanity without primacy to those close to us.

One can make this argument from Jewish text, including the stranger principle as refracted through rabbinic commentary. One can also make the opposite.

As is commonly noted, the Torah grounds the imperative to empathy in the Jewish experience of persecution in Egypt. What model of identity and moral scope is this? In context, the stranger directive seems a call to transform parochial pain into transcendent compassion. It is hard not to read it as an assertion -- grounded in our foundational story -- of the dangers, to ourselves and to others, of not doing so. Jewish slaves in Egypt were hardly an in-group other (let alone proselytes). They were the consummate victims of inward-looking hardened hearts. Many rabbinic commentaries lionize the midwives as Egyptians whose moral standards trumped their tribal fealty and privilege; the midwives are later held up as forerunners to those "righteous gentiles" who risked their lives saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The call to "know the heart of the stranger," both in its original context and many rabbinic commentaries (eg. ibn Ezra, Sefer Hinuch), can be read as an exhortation to become midwives in kind, to extend beneficence and compassion beyond and alongside our group loyalty. It can be read as a charge to correct our collective blind spots, to step imaginatively into the hearts of those marginalized or harmed by our power, to see ourselves through stranger eyes.

At its most radical, it could be read as a bidding to grant priority to whomever is enduring suffering and injustice, anticipating Elie Wiesel: "When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must -- at that moment -- become the center of the universe." In this view, we betray Jewish memory if we care for Jews alone or even primarily; ethical concern, for others alongside ourselves, is part and parcel of what gives Jewish peoplehood its meaning. Such a reading makes choosing between Jewish and non-Jewish lives and basic needs nonsensical.

In a further breakdown of us-them logic, the Torah many times identifies stranger-hood as part of our very self-definition as Jews. Abraham and Moses both self-identify as gerim (Genesis 23:4; Exodus 2:22). In this week's Torah portion, we are called gerim, sojourners, upon the earth (Leviticus 25:23). We are at root strangers not just geographically, but existentially. The other, paraphrasing French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, is in the very midst of our identification. The other is not secondary to the self, but harbored and inscribed within us.

One can make the argument for exclusive -- or at least disproportionate -- concern for Jewish existence from the stranger principle. One can also make the argument for solidarity and compassion for all who suffer, morally, pragmatically and as a core expression of our Jewishness. This tension arises not only among commentaries on the stranger, but in other texts that explore priorities of tzedakah (charity) and acts of kindness (Baba Metzia 71a; Gittin 61a; Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:12; etc.).

These teachings don't fully get at what happens when there are genuine conflicts between "us" and "them" -- or when the stranger in question inflicts or threatens harm. They don't get at how compassionate we should be to the enemy on the battlefield, or to enemy populations. Traditions addressing these questions also exist, and they pull in dual directions along a spectrum: toward group allegiance and protection at all costs on the one hand, constraint and "mercy for all His creatures" (Psalm 145:9) even in conditions of self-defense, on the other.

Does allegiance to Jewish memory subordinate compassion toward others or elevate it? Does commitment to peoplehood mean devotion and solidarity with our own before all others or alongside them? Both voices sound in tradition, and they are both Jewish. We have to navigate between them. That too is Jewish.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.