This week at Northwestern has been filled with conversation–in person and on email–about the secular humanist student group’s decision to draw stick figures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on the walkways of the university. They did this in the name of free speech. The discussions I have been a part of have been heartening, in that they have focused much more on the question of the responsibilities of speech than on the question of rights (which are assumed by all parties to be absolute).
While I will give a fuller treatment to the question of Jewish approaches to the duties and responsibilities of speech, both in public and private, in a public class on Wednesday evening (stay tuned for details), I can’t help but read this week’s Torah portion with these questions in the back of my mind.
To me, the question is ultimately tied up with a question of intimacy and anonymity. If I know, or think I know, my neighbor, then I will want what is good for him. I will not go out of my way to cause him pain or humiliation, and he will do the same for me. But if I do not know my neighbor, if I don’t have a bond with him, then I don’t necessarily feel this same sense of responsibility towards him. He is anonymous–another resident at the inn to be tolerated, at best; a competitor for scarce resources to be eliminated, at worst.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:10) teaches as much:
He who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” This is an average person…”
He who says “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.” This is a fool.
He who says “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” This is a righteous person.
He who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” This is a wicked person.
The first type, which can be summarized as “live and let live,” is a relationship of anonymity–one which can at best achieve tolerance, but will never rise to the level of altruism (type 3). Fair enough. But what the ellipses leaves out are the rest of the words the Mishnah uses to describe this philosophy of living: ”He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. And there are those who say is the type of the people of Sodom.” That is, Sodom–the most wicked of places, the place in which dehumanization became the norm–was based simply on a live and let live philosophy. The message is clear: that isn’t enough.
Parshat Bamidbar begins with a count. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families,” God instructs, “listing every man by name, one by one.” (Num. 1:2) The purpose of this exercise is to organize the people into the army they will need to be in order to conquer the land. But the count is not to be anonymous: Moses and Aaron are to count not just the number of the people, but count them “b’mispar shemot,” every one by name. The fifteenth century Italian commentator Sforno writes that “every member of that generation was considered according to the name that revealed his true essence… in the way that God tells Moses (Ex. 33:17), ‘I know you by name.’” This is not a count that reduces people to numbers; it is a count that includes the fulness of individual stories in the numbering.
Sforno continues that this was a unique type of counting, one which is not repeated after this generation loses faith in God and is condemned to spend forty years dying out in the wildnerness to make room for a new generation. But it was the ideal type of counting, and it reflected an ideal of community: not a community of anonymity, suspicion, distrust, but a community of intimacy, care, trust, and love. That was what we were meant to be, and what we failed to be in the wilderness.
It may be true that we live in a society of live and let live, a society of anonymity. But as the Mishnah tells us and the Torah reminds us, that is not what we should aspire to. We should aspire to fulfill the instruction of Hillel the Elder: ”That which is hateful do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” We do not need to be intimate with everyone–that isn’t possible. But we do need to see them, to recognize them, and to love them in the ways that we can.