What Do We Teach When We Teach About Ahavat Yisrael?

By David J. Steiner, Ed.D.

In the correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt following her coverage of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, Scholem evokes Ahavat Yisrael: “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete – what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people.” But, he continues, “With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.” Writing from Jerusalem in 1963, Scholem believed that he understood this term, yet his explanation is deeply unsatisfactory. What was Arendt lacking, and what is it that we teach when we teach about Ahavat Yisrael?

In Leviticus, in what is known as the Holiness Code, it says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself (Lev 19:18).” This “Golden Rule” is also “a principle of Torah,” as Rabbi Akiva said. Hillel the Elder, however, understood a lack of humility in this decree, why should I assume that you will love things because I love them, so when asked what the core of Judaism is by an aspiring convert, he proclaimed, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow (BT Shabbat: 31a).” In this, he was preceded by Confucius (C. 500 BCE), “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself,” Thales (c. 624 BC – c. 546 BC), “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing” and others.

If we look to Torah itself to understand love, we learn that, “Isaac loved Rivka (Gen. 24:67).” He also loved Esau, while Rivka loved Yaacov (Gen. 25:28). Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:18) and Schem loved Dinah (Gen 34:3), even though he decided to rape her. That said, love is also that feeling Isaac had for stew (Gen 27:4).

Jacob worked seven extra years for his father-in-law, Laban, in order to marry Rachel (Gen 29:20), but Rivka’s love for her son, led her to betray her blind husband, Isaac, and Amnon’s love for his sister, Tamar, led to an incestuous rape. In these examples, love is a motivation force, but not always a positive one.

Of course, there is also the love that God craves. In Exodus, he favors those who love him (Ex. 20:6), but he also wants the stranger to be treated with love (Lev 19:34). In Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the people to love God with all their heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5) and promises to reciprocate if they love God, “walk in His ways, and keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, (Deut 30:16)”

So what did Scholem really want from Hannah Arendt? Could it be something other than love – and why does he use ahavat Yisrael to achieve this goal? More importantly, what do we want when we teach ahavat Yisrael?

“I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective – not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist.” Arendt tells Scholem. “The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.” She doesn’t deny the existence of other types of love, but “this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I’m Jewish myself.”

There is a lot to learn from the suspicion Arendt has for loving her own people. Her inability, at times, to love the collective is based on self-knowledge within the collective. She is Jewish but understands that she isn’t like all Jews. We are not all Bernie Madoff, nor are we all Bernie Sanders. Bella Abzug, Henry Kissinger, Golda Meir, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg may share Jewish ancestry, but so does the former Israeli Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, who was recently indicted for abuses of power, and no one is rushing to make that association.

Apparently, we assume collective identity when it serves us as individuals. We avoid it when doesn’t. Yet Scholem’s ahavat Yisrael seems unconditional. About this, we can also learn a lot from what Arendt saw in her people, but didn’t recognize at the time of her correspondence with Scholem. “[T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God – that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God.” Arendt identified with this “trust and love of God,” as defining characteristics of Israel, but when the values of the collective seemed to change her allegiance changed as well. Scholem pretends that the continuity of ahavat Yisrael is independent of character, while Arendt sees the two as intimately intertwined, thus she expects critical inquiry and holds herself to high standards. Hence, she writes to Scholem, “the injustice committed by my own people naturally provokes me more than injustice done by others.”

To truly choose identification with a collective, one must be self-reflective and critical. Think of the four sons at the Passover Seder. The wise son asks, “What are the statutes, the testimonies, and the laws that our God has commanded you to do?” while the wicked son questions, “”What is this evidence to you?” Both of these questions are asked in second person. The wise son is no different than the wicked son in that they both inquire from the outside, but the wise son includes himself in relationship to “our God” while not acknowledging directly receiving Torah. The second son is not essentially “wicked” because he asks his fellow collective members about their relationship to the evidence. It is the rabbis who ascribe this condemnation. Nevertheless, is it not a stretch of logic to assume that questioning your collective represents a lack of love or commitment?

President George W. Bush once claimed that you are either for us or you are our enemy, but Arendt reminds Scholem that “patriotism is impossible without constant opposition and critique.” You cannot identify with a collective without introspection. The “wicked” son’s question is wise. He wants to know what he shares with his fellow before he can love him, and, presumably, there will be no love if the commonalities don’t exist. Yes, he may love his fellow as himself, but when the fellowship is not representative of his values, it’s hard to demand the love. This, of course, is the conundrum we face when teaching ahavat Yisrael during a time when the State of Israel is behaving in ways that go against our democratic and Jewish values. When Israeli Jews uproot their neighbors olive trees and don’t treat the strangers among them with the same laws we live by, it seems only right to ask, “What are we trying to teach when we teach about ahavat Yisrael?” and then we need to ask whether our students can live with this answer.

David Steiner, Ed.D, is a mediator in Chicago and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.