By Rabbi Norman Lamm, zt”l

February 1971—Historians tell us that when they find a law in a document, they assume that the mode of conduct that the law prohibited is the one that generally prevailed before the law was passed.

With this in mind, let us turn to a Talmudic law enunciated as a commentary on one of the verses in this sidrah. We read, as part of the Torah’s civil legislation, “If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with you…” (Ex. 22:24). This is the verse that serves (in addition to the prohibition of usury) as the source of the commandment to lend money to those in need. Troubled by the odd construction of the verse, “My people, the poor with you,” the rabbis deduced the following order of priority as to who should be the beneficiary of receiving the loan: If two people solicit your loan, and one is a fellow Jew and one a gentile, then all things being equal, if you only have enough to lend to one, the Jew takes precedence. If the two people come to you who are otherwise equal, but one is a poor man, the other a rich man, then the poor man comes first. If you are approached by a poor man who is a relative and a poor man who is a neighbor, then the relative comes before the neighbor. If one of them is a poor man who lives in your town, and the other is a poor man who lives in a different town, the poor man from your town takes precedence over the poor man from afar. (Bava Metzia 71a)

Note that the Talmud does not bid us to neglect the gentile, the non-relative, or the stranger. It does give us a list of priorities. What the Talmud is telling us is that a totally altruistic ethic that does not recognize intimate human bonds and affiliations is unnatural and impractical, hence, morally bankrupt. On the other hand, an ethic that affirms human bonds such as nationhood, family, and community, is morally invaluable.

That would seem to be an acceptable, self-evident principle. Yes, the Talmud saw a need to legislate this into law because, as the rule indicates, this principle was often violated. There are many people who would rather assist the stranger over the acquaintance, the non-relative over the relative.

Indeed, I would diagnose this phenomenon as an American Jewish disease! Western Jews, since the Emancipation, have grown up on the myth of “Universal Man,” a universalism that negates ethnic identity and national-religious uniqueness. It is the kind of myth that fed anti-Zionist classical Reform and the American Council for Judaism from which, thank Heaven, we hear less from as time goes on.

I recall a passage in the notorious “Symposium of Intellectuals,” that appeared several years ago in “Commentary” magazine. One writer, who apparently came from a warm, ethnic Jewish home against which he had been leading a decades-long adolescent rebellion, complained that in his family, people would, upon reading the casualty list of an airplane disaster in the newspaper, scan the names for those that sounded Jewish and express horror at finding such names. I confess that for many years thereafter I was embarrassed when I found myself doing the same thing. The embarrassment, however, was short lived, because I soon noticed that this nefarious, tribalistic habit was not unique to Jews. When an airplane disaster occurred overseas, the American press would list the names only of the American passengers. And in the listing of Vietnam War casualties, the New York newspapers only listed New York names, the Chicago newspapers, only Chicago names, etc. It dawned on me, as it never dawned on the pretentious writer in “Commentary” who had liberated himself from his parents’ Jewish provincialism, that it is quite rational and natural for people to give emotional and practical priority to those who are closest to them, either in flesh, faith, or geography. I realized that one can feel a greater attachment to his fellow Jews in reading of such unfortunate events without in the least detracting from his fundamental human compassion for all his fellow men. To give priority to Jews does not imply disdain for gentiles. To give precedence to the poor of your city does not compel you to an attitude of cruelty to the poor from afar. To love your family does not imply to hate your friends.

The New Left, whether in the U.S., Europe, or Israel, seems to be guilty of that same perversion of human spirit. The Jewish members of the New Left apparently believe that every nation has the right to its own national self-determination, except the Jews, who must be “universal!” When Jews assert their national or ethnic individuality, then that same attractive spirit of nationalism undergoes a traumatic change from glorious self-determination to an ethnocentric jingoism that is beneath contempt. The same nationalistic consciousness, when practiced by Castro or Fatah, is described by the New Left as a “healthy, emerging liberation movement.” But when a nationalistic consciousness is practiced by the Zionists, it is referred to as an “oppressive, imperialistic, colonialist movement.” They have reversed the Talmudic dictum and believe that the stranger and poor of another city come first.

But of course, the parents of the New Left—if not biologically, then ideologically—are not much different. The immediate predecessors of today’s interreligious dialogues were the little lamented “interfaith” meetings, which assimilated and semi-assimilated American Jews approached with so much solemnity, but were really empty and vacuous. A famous anecdote about such events expressed a great deal of truth in its wit: After one such meeting, a Jew was asked by another Jew how many people were present, and he replied, “There were two goyim and ten ‘interfaiths’!

The time has long passed for us to do away with the pretext of non-sectarian bodies with all-Jewish membership. By now we should have sufficient dignity to dispense with that colossal pretense when defending Jewish interests. There is nothing wrong with defending your interests and those closest to you. Show me a man who does not love his own children, and I will show you a man whose love for other children I do not trust. If there is a person who has no feeling for his own people, his feelings for other people are meaningless. There is no need to excuse American Jewish support of Israel by the old UJA slogan that, “Israel is the only bastion of democracy in the Middle East.” It is true that it is the only fortress of democracy in the Middle East. But what if Lebanon were similarly democratic, would that call for the UJA to divide its funds equally between Israel and Lebanon?

There is nothing undemocratic, non-humanitarian, or unenlightened about Jewish solidarity. It is natural, proper, and understandable. For too long we have allowed the apostles of universalism to lay exclusive claim to the prophetic tradition, as if the Prophets of Israel demanded that the Children of Israel abandon all claims to self-interest and think first and foremost about the welfare of the Hittites, Egyptians, and Babylonians. That, of course, is nonsensical. The Prophets’ universalism grew out of their nationalism, and was not at all in conflict with it. Remember the famous words of Isaiah (58:7) which roll down at us with the force of a thunderclap every Yom Kippur afternoon when we read them as part of the Haftorah. The prophet tells us that the true fast must result in a genuine moral transformation of man, so that he will break his bread and share it with the hungry; and bring into his own home the abandoned poor; and offer clothing to cover the nakedness of those who can afford no garments. But the climax comes in the last three words: “From thine own flesh hide not thyself!” Do not imagine that charity to all means neglect of those closest to you! Of course, you must break bread with all the hungry, offer shelter to all the poor, and give clothing to all the naked, but without this last reminder not to ignore your own flesh and blood, what came before is simply universalistic preachment that makes good copy for a liberal press, but is otherwise ineffective and meaningless. With it, you have true prophecy, the kind that can become actualized as a real ethic of life. The prophets did not preach love of Man, but the love of men, beginning with your own. Only if “the poor of your city take precedence,” will we learn to care as well “for the poor of another city.”

The Talmud (Hullin 63) asks why in the Bible the stork is called “chasida,” which comes from the root chesed, which means loving kindness or charity. The Talmud says: It is called “chasida” because the stork performs acts of chesed or benevolence with its friends and children. Whereupon the Hasidim ask: If so, why does the Bible consider the stork an unclean bird, non-kosher, and unfit for human consumption? The answer is because it is kind only to its own young and not to the young of other species of birds!

If we are to be sane, natural Jews, we must care for our own first; but if we are to be kosher Jews, we must not neglect the others.

We must therefore strike a balance between ethnic introversion and exclusivity on one hand, and universalistic masochism and self-denigration on the other. Like Maimonides, we must choose the middle path in this as in all else, between the unhealthy consequences of the universalistic myth and the commandment, “From thine own flesh hide not thyself.”

The trouble with some people is that for them charity begins at home and stays there. The trouble with others is that their charity excludes their own home, and ends up as an empty, vacuous joke. The right way is for charity to begin at home and progress in ever-widening, concentric circles outward, to encompass all people.

This was best summed up by Hillel the Elder in his immortal aphorism: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who or what am I?”

Jewish moods are notoriously volatile, often gyrating from one extreme to the other without going through the transitions.

It is best that we remember and practice both principles: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” to prioritize our own needs. “And if I am only for myself, who or what am I?” to proceed therefore to serve other human beings.

Both together represent the Golden Mean of enlightened self-interest.

Above all, now is the time to reassert this authentically Jewish doctrine, for “if not now, then when?”


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