Friday, March 14, 2008

Who is my neighbour?

Who is my neighbour: the Torah on loving disbelievers

In my ‘Notes for Christians ’ on A Common Word between Us and You, I pointed out that when Jesus said ‘love your neighbour’, he included enemies in the category of the ‘neighbour’. What does the Torah, the law of Moses, say about how to treat people who live near you, but are not from your tribe and may not share your religion?

In the Torah, there are many instructions for how the Israelites should conduct themselves. Among these instructions are rules for how they should relate to ‘aliens’ – non-Israelites, who were most likely not followers of the religions of Israel – living among them:

Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

These instructions establish that non-Israelites who live in Israel are people to be treated with compassion, not disregard or contempt. As vulnerable people, they are, along with orphans and widows, to be shown justice and a duty of love no different from that showed to Israelites. Indeed positive discrimination is required towards them, to mitigate the impact of their vulnerability:

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

The ethical principles underlying these regulations are reciprocity and equality, compassion for the vulnerable, and the fear of the Lord. Just as God had mercy on the Israelites in Egypt when they were themselves aliens subject to arbitrary and cruel treatment, so also should the Israelites show mercy to those who are aliens among them. The aliens should be loved, as if they were Israelites too, because the Israelites can recall what it felt like to live as aliens.

The later prophets list mistreatment of aliens as among those sins which were inviting God’s judgement upon the nation:

So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. (Ezekiel 22:6-7)

The biblical principle of care for one’s neighbour, including non-Israelites, was reiterated by Jesus in his parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25ff), which holds up compassion towards an outsider as the epitome of what it means to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Such love, Jesus says, is required of someone who wishes to ‘inherit eternal life’ (v.25).

A distinctive of Jesus’ teaching was that he taught, not only the love for the outsider, but also love for one’s enemies. In proclaiming this message, Jesus was however building on and extending a traditional Jewish understanding, clearly presented in the Torah, that it was not enough to love one’s own Israelite co-religionists: the believers should love people of other tribes as well, and positively discriminate in their favour when their otherness causes them to be vulnerable and at risk.

The principle of equality of treatment for others, of loving one’s neighbour as oneself, irrespective of whether they happen to share your faith, or belong to your tribe, should be foundational for all societies, for it is a recurrent message of the Bible.

A question to be asked

Since love for outsiders is clearly taught by Moses in the Torah, and then reinforced by Jesus in the Gospels and extended to include love for one's enemies, a reasonable question to ask the Muslim authors of A Common Word between Us and You, who have offered ‘love of the neighbour’ as part of the common ground between our two faiths is this: Where in the Quran or the hadiths can the teaching of love for disbelievers be found?’

1 comment:

Jasper said...

The reference to Ezekiel 22:6-7 was incorrectly given as Ezekiel 2. Now corrected.

The discussion of alien was amended, to better reflect the meaning of the Hebrew for 'alien'.