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Love Which Neighbor?

In response to:

Sounding Off from the April 17, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

I should be grateful if you would print the following open letter to Professor J.M. Cameron.

Dear Professor Cameron,

I want to thank you for your attack on my book, Hope and History (vol. 54 of World Perspectives) in The New York Review of April 17, p. 36. I cannot say that I am glad to have made you think, but I am delighted to have made you sputter, especially since in doing so you gave such wide circulation to my opinions.

As an expression of gratitude, let me correct your mistake about the Old Testament. To refute my interpretation of Lev 19.18 (that in “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” the word “neighbor”—Hebrew re’a—means “fellow Israelite”) you appealed to Lev. 19.34 and Dt. 10.19. Neither of these texts, however, refers to the re’a. Both speak of the ger, a term which in Deuteronomy meant “migratory worker,” a lower-class alien who might be fed food unfit for Israelites, Dt. 14.21; notice that he is not to be loved “as yourself,” but merely to be “loved,” i.e. given friendly treatment. In Leviticus (a later text) ger has come to mean a “proselyte,” i.e. one who has become a fellow Israelite and must therefore be given full benefit of the Law. (See the study of the history of these terms in my Palestinian Parties and Politics, Columbia University Press, 1971, pp. 178-82 and 276-78.) That re’a means “fellow Israelite” is the consistent teaching of all the oldest rabbinic commentaries on the Old Testament laws involving the term. I spare you the references, since I don’t suppose you could check them anyhow, but if you want them, I’ll be glad to supply. Meanwhile, let me add one piece of friendly advice: Henceforth do not hastily think others as ignorant as yourself.

Morton Smith

Professor of Ancient History

Columbia University, New York City

J.M Cameron replies:

I am obliged to you for your letter. Here, in the RSV, are the passages under discussion.

… The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribes. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy, 10.17-19).

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus, 19.33,34).

A modern Jewish translation of the Torah (Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1962) renders the Deuteronomy text: “God befriends the stranger…. You too must befriend the stranger.”

As you must know, far better than I, the problem of the relationship of the qehal YHWH, “the community of Yahweh,” to other peoples persists through the Old Testament and is treated, with poignancy, in the exemplary story of Ruth the Moabitess. The Israelites did not think of themselves as autochthonous; they were the people of the Covenant, they were constituted a holy community by God’s choice; and what they were never to forget was that they had been brought out of the land of Egypt, where they were gerim, strangers. Ger, gerim are words that denote status, not ethnic origin; the ger, Israelite or not, who lives within a community is a resident alien, a metic, as an Israelite was in Babylon during the exile.

Now, you will remember that in your book you maintained that “Biblical laws…were to regulate the members’ behavior towards each other, not towards outsiders.” The Deuteronomy text certainly refers to those who are in some important way, if not wholly, outside the community of Yahweh. What you wrote must surely, then, be too strong. You state that in Leviticus ger means proselyte. Scholars are not in agreement about this. Ger = proselyte among the Rabbinical commentators: “…in Rabbinic Hebrew the proselyte is called ger, whereas in Biblical Hebrew the ger is the resident alien…. So all the laws in the Pentateuch enjoining kindness to the ger are by the Rabbis applied to the proselyte” (C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, 1963). New Testament commentators are compelled to look at the problem (after all, Luke 10.25-38 is a comment on our texts and on Dt. 6.4,5), and the writer in Kittel (Eng. tr., Vol. V) in the course of what seems a judicious discussion speaks of the Rabbinical interpretation of ger as momentous and suggests that the LXX translators of ger proselutos are probably not responsible for this interpretation of the Rabbis.

The seventeenth-century German Kabbalist Horowitz spoke of the “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” as the leg upon which the whole world stands. I like that; and I just don’t believe that he is unfaithful to the Torah in what he says. I don’t wish to sentimentalize the Torah or remove it from its historical contexts; but I believe that it is a source of health for us today and not a source of weakness, as in its generalized form you think it to be. This is my last sputter.

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