“What was new and remarkable in the Bible was the idea that love, not just fairness, is the driving principle of the moral life.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Torah includes three commandments to love: to love God, to love our fellow humans as ourselves, and to love the stranger. If love is the driving principle of the moral life of the Torah, then the actualization of that love is the foundational enterprise of rabbinic Judaism. The Torah gave us the aspirational; mitzvot endow us with the behaviors that will bring those aspirations closer to earth.
The first two of these commandments — love for God and love for our fellow humans — are actualized through mitzvot, a system that shapes ideals into behavior and is deepened through communal norms. One individual whispering about love while binding her arm with leather straps that hold sacred text is a curiosity; millions of others engaging in this activity across time and geography make real the idea that one way to show devotion and love for God is through the mitzvah of tefillin.
So, too, with mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, the commandments that govern how we show our love for one another. We all need many things: gifts of money and kindness, hospitality, ethical business practices, and the scrupulous avoidance of gossip and untruth. Together, these behaviors are a call and response of giving and receiving that affirms our love for humanity — if not always in the particular, then powerfully in the general.
But what of the command to love the stranger? What behaviors demonstrate this love and how are they actualized and reinforced by communal norms? Of our three love commands, this one possesses the clearest emotional rationale: a radical empathy for those thrust into the vulnerable circumstance we have known. Loving the stranger on the basis of our shared understanding of estrangement returns us to a remembered version of our own vulnerability and displacement. But what have we done for the stranger with this love? What are the needs of the stranger, such that our love is a salve?
And what of this love? Do we accept this command upon ourselves, or is it subject to our political proclivities? Do we love the stranger only when it is politically expedient? Have we forgotten who we are? Have we forgotten who we were?
Judging whose estrangement is worthy of love does not fulfill the commandment to “love the stranger.” In this painful time in our nation’s history, we must love and we must actualize love. If there is indeed a breach between love for the stranger and ritualized, communal action on his behalf, then we must work toward filling it, with bold, purposeful action.
Mitzvot bein adam l’ger, the commandments to love the stranger, lack any clear-cut associative behaviors. Thus, we need to learn together, and in real time, how to actualize this mitzvah. These communal actions could include ad hoc legal clinics at airports as immigrants are detained and in need of legal services; they could include new coalitions between Muslim and Jewish communities to face threats to our communal spaces together. They could include synagogues becoming sanctuaries for undocumented Americans and members of suburban communities preparing safe rooms in their homes to protect those threatened with deportation.
As we perform these acts of love, they form in us a new memory — not of our vulnerability or nostalgia, but of our capacity to act. These mitzvot of love will become, we hope, as familiar as our established mitzvot already are. They hold open the invitation, always, for depth, intention, and truth.
Rabbi Joanna Samuels is the executive director of Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center, an innovative multicultural community center and settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side.