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Relations with the Other
In his speech in the Great Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II emphasized the need to rediscover the ethical values contained in the Decalogue, and he explicitly recalled the Hebrew source of the obligation to love one’s neighbor and the foreigner (Lev 19:18 and 34), as well as the commandment to help the widow, the orphan, the poor and the foreigner (Deut 10:18). The pope also mentioned the “shalom which the legislators, the prophets and the sages of Israel desire.”
The Pentateuch speaks more than forty times of the respect which is owed to the foreigner (ger). The law was the same for the foreigner and for the native person – something which is justified both by human fraternity and by communion in suffering (“for you were a foreigner in Egypt”). A person’s rights are founded on something which is external to that person’s adherence to the State religion (Levinas). “Monotheism is not an arithmetic of the divine. It is the perhaps supernatural gift of seeing each human person as being absolutely similar to the human person in the diversity of the historical traditions which each person continues. It is a school for xenophilia and antiracism.” (Levinas)
This is precisely why the monotheist religions should fight together, in common – and not one against the other – in order to advance the cause of human rights. Religions and human rights do not contradict one another; rather, they meet in their service of the dignity of the human person. This is the only road which can block the path to violence. And it is the most sure way to give interfaith dialogue its meaning and its goal.
The difficult world in which we live would be better off if each individual person, each group, each State really were aware of the Golden Rule which Hillel the Elder formulated: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (TB Shabbat 31a) This fundamental rule of wisdom and behavior, which was expressed with variations in so many civilizations and which as such belongs to the patrimony of humanity, can and must be taken seriously at every moment and in every circumstance. How can we get there? Can the spiritual families contribute to this? Is this not part of our responsibility?
As E. Levinas said, “the obligations towards the other (even if he or she be furthest away or the most different) have precedence over the obligations towards the Most High or, more precisely, the other is the path of the sacred. The only path of respect for God is that of respect for our neighbor,” or again: “The true correlationship between the human person and God depends on a relationship between one human person and another, for which the human person takes full responsibility, as if there were no God on whom he or she could rely.”
In the relationship with the Other, it is also essential to practice Hillel’s second commandment: “Do not judge your neighbor until you have stood in his place.” (Avot II,5). We know well: it is often difficult to put oneself fully in the place of the other. Nevertheless, this must not dispense me from the effort of doing everything in order to try to understand the other as if I were standing in his or her place. Where this is concerned, to take a particularly sensitive example, the situation in the Middle East as it is at present in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians could set out on a new and promising path if the protagonists succeeded in making the effort of putting themselves in the other’s place. The interfaith trip to Auschwitz which was organized by the “parish priest” from Nazareth, Fr. Emile Shoufani, is a step in this direction.
We should think about the categorical imperative of responsibility which the other’s gaze creates in the sense in which again Levinas says: “the significance of the other’s face asks of me, begs of me, assigns to me.” I must see in the other not an adversary but a call which will help me to be a better human being myself under the gaze of the Most High.(1)
It was out of concern for the Other that the Hebrew prophets were at one and the same time great patriots and authentic universalists, to pick up Vladimir Soloviev’s phrase. Nobody is really a patriot if he or she is not first of all a pacifist.
Concern for the Other, that is to say, the refusal to look only at oneself, is expressed repeatedly in our liturgy. I do not only pray for myself or only for my community or my people, but for the entire world. The first of the blessings at dawn (“who gives the rooster intelligence…”) is the most universal one can imagine. Many examples could be cited where prayer has in mind “everything that lives”, “every mouth”, “every distress”. When I recite grace after meals, I do not forget the other’s hunger, and I pray to God that it might be satisfied.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves about the place of the other in prayer and teaching?
The paradigmatic figure of our father Abraham teaches us first of all and above all the binding duty of full hospitality towards each person, whoever he or she might be. The beginning of chapter 18 in Genesis gives us to understand that it is through the welcome he gave to the three passersby in the desert – surely three Bedouin –immediately, from the door of his tent which was open to the winds, that Abraham manifested the Lord’s presence. And when he planted a tamarind in Beersheva, he synthesized the demand of hospitality: to give food, drink and lodging: the symbolism of the noun eshel (Gen 21:33).
Our relationship with Abraham certainly creates a duty for those who claim him as their common ancestor. They cannot forget that the title of nobility which they are thus claiming can only be justified by the obligations which this title represents and by the way in which these obligations are fulfilled.
The Other cannot be the one who is pushed aside or whom we seek to exclude, but rather, the one whom we must know how to welcome.
Finally, to shed still more light on my relationship with the Other, we must again listen to Hillel. “If I am not responsible for myself, who will be? And if I only think of myself, what am I? And if not immediately, when?” (Avot I,14)
It is thus urgently necessary to give concrete and operative, as well as exacting meaning to such concepts as shalom and (in the African sub-Sahara world) ubuntu, which are so rich and uplifting.
* Professor Jean Halpérin is the president of the preparatory committee for the Colloquia of French-speaking Jewish Intellectuals, a member of the International Liaison Committee between Judaism and the Catholic Church, and a member of the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations.
This talk was given to the Jewish-Christian dialogue group of Geneva on January 21, 2003.
Translated from the French by K.E. Wolff
1. On this point, a doctoral thesis in theology, defended by Anneke Ravestein-Geense at the University of Utrecht in 1999, De Roepende (The Caller, a theological study of the character of call in the relationship between God, the other and myself), is very instructive. Cf. also : Pierre Bouretz, « Les chemins de la paix : l’horizon messianique de la responsabilité », in La responsabilité. Utopie et réalités, 38e Colloque des intellectuels juifs de langue française, ed by. Jean Halpérin and Nelly Hansson. Paris, Albin Michel, 2003, pp. 31-46, and also Henri Cohen-Solal, « Le Chema Israël », ibid., pp. 65-78.