Letters / On “On Loving Jews”

I enjoyed Arielle Angel’s recent essay, “On Loving Jews.” But I would like to add one point. Angel is correct that Gershom Scholem’s concept of “ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people,” does not appear in the Bible, but nor does it originate in a commentary to Leviticus. In fact, it appears nowhere in classical rabbinic literature.

Many rabbis, including Maimonides, do believe there is an obligation to love individual Jews, based on the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But that is quite different from an obligation to love the Jewish people, understood as a national collective. Moreover, in traditional sources, the responsibility to love one’s fellow Israelites remained entangled with the covenantal responsibilities of the Torah and its mitzvot. One was obligated to love a Jew because of shared commitments and obligations—and as some commentators note, when a Jew fully rejected those obligations, it was not clear whether the mandate to love them remained. As scholars Shira Kupfer and Asaf Turgeman show in their remarkable study of the famous debate between the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem and the political philosopher Hannah Arendt—over the latter's argument that European Jewish leaders were complicit in the Holocaust—a norm of loving the Jewish people emerged only in modernity, in 18th- and 19th-century Hasidic sources, especially those wrestling with how to understand the Jewishness of irreligious Jews. Thus, ahavath Israel freed itself from religio-ethical limits and became a doctrine of national, ethnic solidarity only through a process of secularization; eventually, mostly secular Zionists, jettisoning both God and the commandments, reinterpreted the concept as a traditional antecedent for their nationalism.

I offer this footnote to Angel’s powerful, provocative article because I would not want readers to think the principle of “Jewish solidarity” which it discusses is a traditional, religious conception—or, conversely, that ethical-political critique of such solidarity is distinctively modern and secular. Rather, the opposite seems to be the case: The idea that one must love Israel as a generalized, collective nation and irrespective of its behavior or commitments is a product of secularization, whereas the covenantal, religious limits on ahavath Israel in the traditional sources imply a critique of such an unfettered imperative. In this case, and perhaps others, the secularization of an old concept has not been liberatory; it has in fact produced a nationalism more chauvinistic than anything any premodern rabbi entertained.

Raffi Magarik
Chicago, Illinois