Understanding Jewish Friendship, Extending Friendship Beyond Judaism

Alon Goshen-Gottstein

The choice of friendship as a site for reflection and collaboration between scholars of the Elijah think tank grows out of the accumulated experience of work at Elijah. Our common experience has taught us that the foundations for interfaith collaboration are in friendship. However, the choice of topic grows no less out of my own personal experience. Ordained an Orthodox Rabbi, a scholar of rabbinic Judaism, and a practicing Jew who seeks to live the spiritual ideals of his tradition to the full, I nevertheless have benefitted enormously in my spiritual life from friendship with the faithful of other faiths. I put the matter precisely this way, rather than saying, as many Jews might, with non-Jews. Let me explain. Being both a people and a faith, Jews can think of the Other either in distinction to ethnic identity, hence as non-Jews, or in relation to the particularity of the other’s faith – Buddhist, Christian etc. For many Jews, especially those who are informed by the halacha, the topic might be framed as friendship between a Jew and a non-Jew, with their specific religious identity playing a secondary role, if it figures at all. I, however, have enjoyed profound and in some cases decades-long friendships not simply with non Jews, but with faithful Christians, as well as Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. What has characterized these relationships has been precisely that the religious element was not ignored. Rather, faith, including differences in faith and in approach to ultimate questions, was and remains at the heart of these friendships. These friendships may thus be viewed as spiritual, religious or interreligious friendships. These friendships have been deep, intimate and transformative. They have allowed me to cultivate and explore aspects of myself that are different from what my friendships with Jews enable. My understanding of what it is to be religious, what it is to work from the heart, how to live faith in daily life and many other issues, germane to the spiritual life, have all been impacted through friendship with faithful of other traditions. I will say more on these matters below. I have thus benefitted from the very religiousness of the men and women whose friendship I have enjoyed for many years, and it is the very coming together of their humanity and their faith that has provided the basis for friendship and that has transformed me in many ways.

I find in music a close analogy to the religious life. Songs may differ from one another, in terms of musical style. While most musical systems resort to similar notes, scales and rhythms, what they produce with them is distinct. Some people are moved and touched only by a specific range of music, usually that associated with their tradition. I myself am a lover of many, if not all, forms of music. Similarly, I am touched by the different tone, sound and music – nuances of the spiritual life, produced in the lives of faithful of different faith traditions. I am moved and touched by expressions of the spirit in its various manifestations. While there is much to satisfy musical, as well as human and spiritual needs, within my own tradition, no one can detract from the beauty and inspiration that I have found by listening to the music produced in the souls of members of other faith traditions.

The present paper will contribute to two fronts – understanding friendship in a Jewish context and exploring how friendship might be constructed, understood and accommodated in an interreligious context, from such a Jewish perspective. Jewish notions will be explored as a basis for extending friendship beyond the bounds within which it is usually contained. A consideration of friendship in a Jewish context suggests that the notion is underdeveloped, both in primary sources and in secondary analysis of the subject. There seems to be a particular dearth of discussions of the notion of spiritual friendship. To the extent that my own experience is meaningful, it allows me to revisit notions of friendship in Judaism, in light of the experience gained in relation to faithful of other faiths and their own theoretical articulation of the value of spiritual friendship.

Friendship in Jewish Sources

Let us begin by offering an overview of friendship and how it is configured in Jewish sources.[1] In what follows I make two claims. The first is that friendship occupies a fairly low position in the overall scale of Jewish (rabbinic) values. The second is that friendship is limited in its uses because of how it is viewed. Rather than being a value to be celebrated on some level in and of itself, it is instrumentalized in favor of the governing spiritual values, be they Torah study or other aspects of the spiritual life.

Jewish friendship teachings are, almost without exception, instrumental and utilitarian. A friend is not an end in him or herself, but is needed in order to attain one or another of the tradition’s ideals and values. Beyond the physical, social and political need for human company and friendship, even on the religious and spiritual level, friendship is instrumentalized. The primary need for a friend is in order to learn Torah with him.[2] Friends are also needed to remind one of one’s shortcomings, to help one become better, to encourage one along the way, to help battle the weaknesses of human nature, etc. A friend is an important instrument of the spiritual life. But the friend does not seem to be an ideal in and of itself. If I have understood it correctly, in some traditions friendship is not only a means to achieving the telos; true friendship is part of the realization of the telos. This seems to me a very significant distinction and one that I would not want to dismiss too quickly. If fuller understandings exist in other traditions, or can be imagined, this invites reflection on why friendship plays such a limited role in Jewish reflection and why it is so instrumentalized.[3] It further invites us to explore whether one can construct a more robust notion of spiritual friendship from Jewish sources.

I can see several converging factors that would allow us to understand what I just described. Contrasting Jewish patterns of thinking with Greek and Christian patterns is telling. Christianity inherits Greek modes of thinking as well as the actual content of the Hellenistic world. Friendship is an important virtue already in ancient Greece.[4] A medieval Christian tractate on friendship would thus draw on both the content and the form of such discussions, making it a meaningful subject of discussion.[5] By contrast, there is not a single Jewish tractate devoted to friendship. To the best of my knowledge, in over two thousand years of intense literary activity, we do not possess a single extended discussion of friendship and its virtues. Most of Jewish tradition is developed through a commentarial tradition where earlier core texts are expounded and studied. Even though many systematic tractates were developed on key philosophical issues, friendship was never deemed a topic important enough to justify the move from the traditional Jewish form of expression, through the commentarial tradition, to the novel form of systematic discussion and reflection. The history of application of the notion of friendship is thus largely a history of interpretation and this history seems to be severely limited by the key texts that have shaped it and their original concerns. These concerns are indeed instrumental, with special emphasis on the instrumentality of the friend in acquiring Torah. The formative references to friendship seem to have thus limited the scope of how the tradition developed the notion.

There is a further factor to bear in mind. Friendship is a social fact and therefore cannot be considered independently of the social institutions or reality within which it is practiced. Much Christian reflection on friendship developed within a monastic context. Does the bet midrash, the house of study, provide a social context that is more constricting or focused in terms of the ideals of friendship that it cultivates?[6] Indeed, one important example of a robust spiritual notion of friendship to be quoted below grows precisely within a particular social matrix that is more total in its engagement and that structures social relations in accordance with particular spiritual ideals. I refer to the social structure of the hassidic community, structured around achievement of particular spiritual ideals. Thus changing spiritual aspirations and varying social structures contribute to different conceptualization of friendship as an ideal.

Friendship is, by definition, a category that has multiple meanings, that are expressed in different situations. We may think of friendship as governed by a principle of elasticity – different situations call forth and make possible different manifestations of friendship.[7] This is particularly important for a discussion of interreligious friendship. The elasticity of friendship suggests that with shifting, or broadening, spiritual horizons that include members of other religions and with novel social opportunities new understandings of friendship could emerge, that include within the scope of a religiously based ideal of friendship also the friendship with the faithful of another religion.

I would like to move from these general observations to a presentation of some texts that will illustrate my claims. The method of presentation follows the method of classical Jewish learning, in tracing the commentarial tradition of key statements.[8]

The text which I have chosen as the prism though which to study Jewish perspectives on friendship is a mishna in tractate Avot 1,6:

Joshua ben Perachyah said: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.

The statement, like many rabbinic dicta, is composed of three parts. One of the hermeneutical challenges is to account for the relationship between the three parts. Each statement can be read on its own, in relation to one of the three, or in relation to all three. Dozens of possible readings have been offered over the generations to account for the relations between the three components of this teaching. For our purposes the most important fact to note is that acquiring a friend follows the counsel to make or provide oneself with a teacher. This juxtaposition draws most commentators, beginning with the earliest commentaries within the talmudic tradition itself, to consider the usefulness of a friend for purposes of Torah study. Teacher and friend thus form two poles of a learning system, a fact that is perpetuated to this very day in how Torah is studied. Still today, in classical schools of Jewish learning, time is spent between studying with a friend and studying with a teacher. Both teacher and friend serve the higher spiritual and cultural goal – the study of Torah. This becomes the primary context for considering the religious significance of friendship. A friend is an instrument for the study of Torah.

It is this instrumentality that actually makes the friend superfluous. If a friend is the other opinion, the means of working out the challenges of Torah study, then there may be other means of achieving the same goal. Rashi in his commentary on this mishna offers two interpretations. One understands the friend in the plain sense. The other interprets friends as books. Making one’s books one’s friends thus opens one up to the multiplicity of readings and opinions that the ideal learning partner might have provided. In other words, there may be a better instrument to learning Torah than a human person – a book. Other ways of rereading the tradition have also arisen. The word acquire, ukene, has been transformed into vekane, the stylus. Accordingly, the pen is the student’s best friend, as he takes notes and composes his own original Torah compositions.[9]

A very beautiful way of instrumentalizing friendship is found in hassidic tradition. Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773-1827) is reported to have offered the following definition of friendship. According to the anthropology current in the Lubavitch school of thought, the human struggle is that of the divine soul combating the animal soul.[10] Friendship allows for two divine souls to combat one animal soul. Sharing the spiritual process with someone makes the friend a partner to your own battle and allows you to draw strength from that person. And yet, this is still an instrumental understanding of friendship. Contrast it with the maxim attributed by Diogenes Laertius to Aristotle, couched in related terms: “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies”.[11] This maxim captures a feeling of intimacy and union that goes beyond the instrumentality of friendship, even when it is applied to the most intimate and personal spiritual struggles.

Because friendship is instrumentalized, even if for spiritual purposes, it can, as we have already seen, be transcended. We thus find interpretations of our mishna that remove it from the realm of the human friend. R. Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787), a popular hassidic author, reads “friend” as a reference to the soul. Acquiring a friend is engaging in the hard spiritual work that would make a person worthy of his soul consciously dwelling with him. “The soul is called the friend of a person, and the soul does not come to one except through investment and struggle in the service of God”.[12] We have here a powerful insight, clearly a reflection of his own spiritual experience. The dwelling of the soul is like the intimate fidelity, understanding and comfort of a friend. The soul can probably be a better friend than any human friend. But this insight is gained at the expense of the plain sense of friendship as a spiritual value. Similarly, the reading of Rabbi Israel of Kozhnitz (1737-1814) does away with friendship as a human reality. “By making himself and all his limbs a chariot to the divine presence, he will acquire for himself a friend, that is attaching himself to God, and God draws Himself to him and dwells upon his limbs and his entire body”.[13] This is a powerful spiritual vision. A person can be transformed into a vehicle of divine presence. This is a mystical summit of the spiritual life, involving the sanctification of the human body and the entire human person. The divine dwelling is conceptualized as friendship. This has, of course, huge potential for a theology of friendship: The dwelling of God upon a person is conceived in terms of friendship. However, what makes this reading possible is the wordplay, according to which attachment uses the same verb as friendship, hitchaberut. In fact, once again, friendship has been emptied of its content, and has been transcended in favor of a higher spiritual value, attachment to God and a form of union with Him.

This last quote may be informed by an important and inspiring passage in the Zohar, the most fundamental work of the Jewish mystical tradition. This passage quotes our mishna in a novel context, suggesting new ways in which we might think of friendship.

“Of every man whose heart prompts him” (Ex. 25,2). What does “whose heart prompts him” mean? Rather that the Holy One blessed be He, desires him (or: takes pleasure in him), as it is written: “Of You my heart has said” (Ps. 27,8), “the strength of my heart” (Ps. 73,26), “of a merry heart” (Prov. 15,15), and “His heart was merry” (Ruth 3,7). All these refer to the Holy One blessed be He. Here too, “whose heart prompts him” (refers to the Holy One). From Him “shall you take my offering”, because that is where He is found and not elsewhere.

And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, wants him and places His dwelling place in him? When we see that the desire of the person is to endeavor to pursue the Holy One, blessed be He, with his heart and soul and will, surely then we know that the divine presence (Shekhina) dwells with him. Then we should acquire that person, with full payment, to attach ourselves to him and to learn from him. And concerning this the ancients said “and acquire for yourself a friend”. One must buy him for a full price, in order to merit the divine presence. This is how far it is necessary to pursue the righteous man and to purchase him.

Similarly, the righteous one must pursue the wicked person and purchase him for a full price, in order to remove from him that filth and subdue the other side, and to make his soul (or: build him), so that it may be considered as though he (the righteous one) created him (the reborn wicked person). And through this praise the divine glory will be elevated more than through any other praise. (Zohar, Teruma, 128 a-b).

The passage describes someone possessed of God. The same divine presence we encountered in the previous text is encountered here. However, instead of reference to the limbs of the body, in this passage we have strong appeal to the heart. Various biblical verses that relate to the heart are read as epithets for God, and the heart is recognized as the dwelling place for God. God’s dwelling in the heart finds expression through the person’s ceaseless seeking after God with the entirety of his being. The search for God is itself a sign of the divine presence. Such a person, who is a dwelling place for God, is a gateway for others to encounter God. One should be associated with him and learn from him. Now, the Zohar applies the instruction of acquiring a friend to such a person. The friend is no longer any friend, nor even the friend with whom one can study Torah. The friend is the chosen unique individual who serves as an instrument for bringing God to others.[14] Following a note made by some of the earlier commentators, concerning the use of the word acquire,[15] and how it denotes willingness to spend money in making a friend, the Zohar highlights that becoming associated with such a holy person is worth all money. While friendship remains instrumental, here it is instrumental to God and is a direct means of associating oneself with God. In truth the figure is a teacher figure, and the Zohar speaks of learning from him. Yet the Zohar refers to him as a friend. This may be because it wants to highlight the total giving, associated with acquiring, literally purchasing, a friend. But we also have here, once again, the roots of a theology of friendship. This unique individual is either a friend of God or someone through whom we become friends of God.

The passage from the Zohar informs one of the most beautiful (though as always, fairly brief and highly exegetical) discussions of friendship, found in all of Jewish literature. I refer to the discussion of Rabbi Abraham Weinberg in his Yesod Ha’avoda (1804-1883). Several factors have converged to produce this discussion. These include the mystical orientation, which provides a common spiritual goal for friendship as well as the actual existence of a closely knit community of spiritual seekers. Combined, these have led to new articulations of what friendship is and how it is experienced as part of the spiritual life. While the statement is still instrumental, as indeed is the Zohar’s, it captures through friendship a complete vision of the spiritual life.

How great and wondrous is the virtue of the love between friends, who adhere together and who speak from heart to heart, and each one loves his friend as his own soul. And this leads them to true repentance, to humility and joy, to the delights of performing the commandments, to soul searching and to overcoming temptation. And through it they attain both worlds, this world and the world to come, and the awakening of the heart with God’s love and awe, and the quality of truth and peace, for the divine presence only dwells where there is peace.[16]/a>

Basing this panegyric for friendship, inter alia, on the Zohar assumes that the virtue of friendship is not limited to the one unique individual in whom God dwells. The Zohar’s association of this spiritual person with friendship makes it a spiritual rationale for all forms of friendship.[17] Friendship is understood as instrumental to the greatest virtues, and ultimately to the dwelling of divine presence.

The final stage in the presentation of Jewish texts, though without reference to the mishna on acquiring a friend, shows a full blown sense of friendship and love extended to all, based not only on the theoretical recognition of the existence of an individual who is himself “friend of God”, a point of the dwelling of the divine in humanity, but on the actual experience and testimony of one such individual. Because it draws on personal experience, it offers us a glimpse into how love and friendship can be extended to all, and how these grow from the power of divine love that cannot be arrested, grounded in a broader theological understanding that provides the foundation for a theology of love. The following is taken from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), arguably one the greatest figures that Judaism has produced, and whose greatness may be expressed as the greatness of a soul, fully manifested through a force of love that is all inclusive and a power of mind that is all encompassing. Rav Kook allows us to point to a specific individual who manifests the ideals of the Zohar, translated into a broad range of relationships that are consciously conceived by him in terms of friendship.[18] Rav Kook’s spiritual writings are strongly personal, expressing his own experience. Unlike those of Rabbi Weinberg, whose lofty ideas on spiritual friendship were couched in a technical commentarial context, Rav Kook authors a diary, or a collection of writings, that speak in an unmediated way of his experiences. In this light we should hear the following passage:

The Zaddik (righteous one) always stands between God and the world, binding the silent, dark world to divine light and speech. All the senses of the true Zaddik are given to the divine bonding (or: connecting) of all the worlds. His desires, wills, tendencies, thoughts, actions, talks, habits, movements, sadnesses, joys, sorrows, delights, all without exceptions are chords of the holy music, that the life of divinity, flowing through all the worlds, expresses through them their powerful voice. And endless souls and immeasurable treasures of life, that fill all being, they alone, as they strive to ascend from the bottom of the depth of the boredom of their lowliness to the heights of the joys of divine freedom, source of bliss and delight, it is they who impel all the activities of the Zaddik, as he regularly officiates as a priest in the holy service, where his entire life is sanctified to God. A great truth lives in his heart, a living and triumphant power is awake in his soul, and he feels his greatness and the splendor of the greatness of his desire; and according to the measure of his greatness so great is his humility, less than a spark of a light flare compared with the vastness of all worlds is he truly in his own eyes, compared to the greatness of the splendor of the living God, that regularly throbs in his spirit. Infinite love for God is his joyful gladness and an internal affection to every creature, a faithful friendship to all beings, and a devoted love in all its levels – to family, to friends, to nation, to mankind, to the animal, to the vegetable, and to all that is and exists – is engraved with all the fullness of its righteousness in the inheritance of his heart.[19]

The Zaddik lives the divine life, and his life is, as Rav Kook expresses it, a musical expression of the life of God itself. It is characterized by profound bonding, union, with all beings,[20] seeking to elevate them and to bring to light the fundamental divine unity of life of which he partakes. Love is the bond of divine life, and therefore the vision of unity translates itself into love for all. This love has no bounds. It includes the lowliest beings, who form part of his own spiritual journey, impelling him to ever greater perfection, even as he elevates them. In concentric circles, his love extends farther and farther to all that exists. One of the ways of expressing this love is through the concept of friendship. Rav Kook thus speaks of a faithful friendship to all beings, along with a devoted love to all levels of existence. God and love are the foundation; friendship is the concrete expression. As God and love have no boundaries, so friendship is extended to all.

If we have any doubt that Rav Kook is speaking from his personal experience, the following passage will dispel such doubt:

My many imperfections will not prevent me from benefiting (literally: bringing merit) to the many (or: public). For I desire to do (or: bring) good, and I desire the well-being of creatures, and I clearly desire to truly desire to be good. And my heart is full of the holy fire of friendship,[21] the delightful love of Israel and of the entire world, to raise everything to the source of good. And this will is a holy will, and I must acknowledge its sanctity.

I love all creatures. In no way will I change my quality internally. For everything I find favor and a positive aspect, literally for everything, and the light of God will appear upon all. “And His compassion is upon all His creatures” (Ps. 145,9).[22]

Friendship is extended from the loving heart that will not tolerate the boundaries that so many around Rav Kook would practice, leading them to limit their love to some, principally Israel, and not others. Rav Kook’s love for the world is an attitude of friendship and a desire for its well-being and welfare. While it does not translate into relationships of specific friendship, it does inform all of his relationships. The preponderance of the term “friendship” in Rav Kook’s communications with others, including his much beloved only son, suggests that it governs his active relationships, extending a spirit that is inseparable from the divine force of love, beating in his heart, to all beings.[23]

In biographical terms, friendship and hospitality characterize Rav Kook’s practice in the most thorough way. In theoretical terms, the practice of friendship is envisioned by Rav Kook as a part of ideal relations that govern not only the life of the Zaddik, but relations between peoples and nations. Friendship is a component of ideal or messianic relations, governed by peace and respect.[24] Thus, while Rav Kook practices universal friendship and love as the Zaddik would, he does so as an expression of a fundamental drive of ideal life, which is therefore relevant for one and all.

Extending Teachings of Friendship Across Religions

We have followed the notion of friendship to its limits. From an instrument for Torah study it has become, through association with the Zaddik, a feature of the divine life and an inseparable expression of the love and unity that ties all being together. I would like to now attempt to apply some of the lessons we have learned to the situation of interreligious friendship. For a tradition like Judaism, that for most of its history has not enjoyed friendly relations with the religious other, the very concept of interreligious friendship may need to be constructed, rather than being taken for granted or justified through the force of precedent. What, then, are possible contours of a Jewish theology of friendship and particularly of interreligious friendship? The trajectory of texts we have studied suggests some possible contours.

Our texts demonstrate how little friendship in the conventional sense means to rabbinic culture. It is transcended, transformed and substituted by a variety of other values and ideals, all deemed far more significant than friendship itself, however it is instrumentalized. In the context of reframing the uses of friendship we do, however, encounter an alternative telos to friendship than the reigning paradigm of Torah study – God and the divine presence. With the close association of God and friendship we have seeds of a future theology of friendship. If God is the friend, then it is only a step away to identifying God in the friend. Rabbi Weinberg made the move; Rav Kook’s entire worldview assumes that, even if it was not articulated in the texts we saw. Once social and conceptual conditions are ripe, one can readily conceive how a theology of friendship might find the Divine Friend in and through the human friend, even the friend belonging to another religion. The present essay is informed by the possibility that one dimension of the ripening of conditions for the development of a fuller notion of friendship is the expansion of the boundaries of friendship from the more particular community that shares the value of Torah to the broader community that shares the quest for God. Such broadening opens us up to examples, experiences and teachings that allow us to cultivate more robust understandings of friendship, that through appeal to God, redefine friendship, within the community and beyond it.

Reviewing the sources we analyzed, we note that not a single one of them considered the friend as a friend belonging to another people or religion. Even Rav Kook, who offered us the most comprehensive spiritual view of universal friendship, did not include interreligious friendship in his list of differences that are overcome by the power of love and the extension of friendship to all. He refers to friendship in global terms (humanity), in qualitative terms (good and wicked) and in national terms (different nations), but never in interreligious terms. This lack is an expression of the era in which his words were written; our ability to raise the question is a sign of our own times. If Rav Kook provides the theory, model and example of the full experiential, mystically based, practice of universal friendship, it remains up to us to translate his testimony into the interreligious field.

This is perhaps the appropriate place to point out what I have not been able to identify, in preparing this paper. In planning the present paper, together with the other scholars of our think tank, it was intended that each scholar should include a case of interreligious friendship from his or her tradition. A clear precedent would have provided strong support for the core argument of this project, namely that interreligious friendship is an appropriate contemporary virtue. However, as I prepared the paper, I realized that I could not identify a single meaningful case of interreligious friendship that fits the description of friendship offered in the introduction to this volume, and that corresponds to the finest experiences of friendship, practiced within the tradition. Good neighborly relations, practical collaboration, theological study and argumentation[25] or relationships based on lobbying for the needs of Jews[26] fall short of the ideals of friendship that this paper seeks to articulate. Constructing a romanticized version of some distant biblical relationship, as some friends suggested I might, certainly did not seem a serious option. In seeking a model for interreligious friendship I therefore preferred to highlight the spiritual and experiential reality of Rav Kook and the practice of universal friendship that it allows. Rav Kook’s spiritual cognitions flow almost naturally from some of the sources examined above, adding to them the power and authority of his testimonial voice.

Who, then, might be considered the first well known and documented case of someone practicing interreligious friendship? I would argue that the first documented case of interreligious friendship is that of Abraham Joshua Heschel. It is no accident that interreligious friendship is one of the notes sounded by “No Religion is an Island”, the essay that provides a conceptual platform for much of contemporary Jewish involvement in interfaith relations.[27] But Heschel is a modern.[28] His groundbreaking actions and relationships grow out of his embeddedness in tradition, but make no appeal to it, at least in terms of interreligious friendship. For those for whom Heschel is an authority, an important precedent is established. For those for whom Heschel is not a major figure, more is required. For both groups, constructive thinking is required in order to make sense of the relational possibilities pioneered by Heschel that are now part and parcel of common interfaith relations.

Where reflection on interreligious friendship takes us beyond personal example is in the possibility of rereading our texts and finding in them meanings that could extend to friends of other religious traditions. The challenge, or hope, of the present project would be to read texts such as those authored by Rabbi Weinberg not only in relation to friends of one’s own religion but also in relation to friends of another religion. Why should friends who belong to another religion not also be capable of speaking from heart to heart, loving one another as one’s own soul and inspiring one another to true repentance, humility and joy, to soul searching and the overcoming of temptation? True, Rabbi Weinberg also includes in this list the common observance of commandments. But surely this one dimension of spiritual friendship, central as it is, need not overtake all aspects of spiritual friendship and the possibility of practicing it with friends of another tradition. The present paper suggests that the finest teachings on friendship are those that go beyond the Torah centered instrumentality of friendship and make God the focus and the locus of friendship. To make God the focus suggests a common idea; to make Him the locus, suggests a common experience, a spiritual reality that transcends the realm of thoughts and beliefs.[29] This expansion, so I argue, also makes it possible to extend friendship to friends of another religion.

Following the norms of the Jewish tradition and its history of reading and rereading earlier texts, I would like to revisit the core text, the mishna in Avot, that has served as our prism for understanding Jewish friendship. I would like to offer a synthetic reading of the mishna, in light of the present attempt to construct a theology of friendship and of interreligious friendship, a reading that grows out of the history of interpretation, surveyed above.[30] Let us first recall the text of this mishna:

1. Provide for yourself a teacher
2. and get yourself a friend;
3. and judge every man towards merit.

The overwhelming majority of commentarial attention is devoted to the relations between the first and second part of the mishna. The various attempts to read all three parts of the mishna as a whole do little to clarify the nature of friendship. Let us revisit this point, in light of the history of this mishna’s interpretation. The first part of the mishna speaks of a master, clearly a term that is related to Torah study. The third part speaks of finding favor in every person. The scope is universal.[31] The second quote by Rav Kook gave us a first person testimony of how such universal extension of merit or favor is applied. The statement on friendship is located between the narrow focus on relations with the teacher and the broad universal focus on how every person should be judged. The Zohar offers us one way of constructing a coherent reading. The spiritual master, himself a friend of God, also makes us friends of God.[32] As one in whom the divine presence dwells, he has the power to transform all, to bring out the good in them and to make them too friends of God.[33]

Friendship must be based on more than common values. True friendship must be rooted in God. While some readings of our mishna have substituted God, or the soul, for the friend, these different readings may be integrated. The Zohar offers the example of the unique individual who is God’s dwelling place, whom we approach as a friend. But once we recognize divine dwelling as the goal of life, we must also see in it the purpose of all relationships, and the true ground of friendship. A friendship that is based in God is part of a spiritual process, hence grounded in a tradition, indeed grounded in a relationship with a teacher within the tradition (part A of the mishna). But at the same time it must be open to all, looking out for the welfare and well-being of all (C in the mishna). Acquiring a friend (B) and finding favor in all beings (C) are part of one and the same movement. It is a movement that recognizes the divine in all, coming to fruition in the friend. It is friendship because it bears no animosity. It replaces the habitual view of others, the sinning others, as spiritually repugnant with the caring attitude that seeks transformation for all, a vision of friendship to all, grounded in the experience of the divine.

It is easy enough to have friends in another tradition if those friends are, as Rashi suggests, books. Many Christians relate to Jews as just that, books, or carriers of the book they share in common. It is also fairly easy to have good relations in the ordinary sense of positive social relations between members of different religious communities. The real challenge is to recognize the other as a friend when one appeals to the true ground of friendship – God. Such recognition assumes full validation of the spiritual reality of the other[34] and an opening up of oneself not only to the theoretical recognition of the other but also to an experiential sharing of the very heart of the other’s experience, to the heart of the other, where, as the Zohar teaches, God dwells.

But it is at this very point that we reflect on the usefulness of this discussion for contemporary interreligious relations. In former days, when dealing with Abrahamic religions only, the suggested construct of God-centered friendship would have been fully adequate. Today’s interreligious reality provides us with opportunities for forming spiritual friendships with practitioners of religion who cannot relate to theistic notions of God. Are they to be excluded from a theology of friendship, or must they be reduced to anonymous theists, in order for us to “accommodate” them as genuine friends? At the very least, we must attempt to find a way of making spiritual sense of friendship with Buddhists and Jains. It may very well be that the quality of friendship or its depth may be different if one does or does not recognize God as the focal point that draws friends together. If by God we mean more than simply common purposes, and if God provides the experiential core and drive that forms relationships, then it may be that something fundamental is lacking in friendships that do not feature God as the ground of their relationship. This would be true, of course, for secular friendships as well as for non theistic interreligious friendships. Still, the latter would seem to offer more, much more, than secular friendships, both in terms of common purposes and in terms of a common experiential ground. I do not rule out the possibility that the common ground found between two spiritual friends, one believing in God the other not, may be equally deep, possibly identical to that found between two theistic friends. Having framed the question, we must leave it up to experience to determine whether there is a qualitative difference in spiritual friendships that have God as their common core. But let us now attempt to articulate a way of making sense of interreligious friendship across the theistic divide.[35]

The Zohar’s discourse on friendship opened with reflection on the heart. It was the centrality of the heart that led to the recognition that it is the divine dwelling place. While it is natural or fully intuitive to locate the divine seat in the heart, it is equally natural to recognize in the heart the chief instrument of the spiritual life. Who we are is determined by our heart. The heart, as used in religious traditions, is not only the place of good and bad qualities; it is the channel of life, communication and spiritual reality. The heart is the stuff of spiritual life, and religious traditions can, in the most significant way, be said to be in the business of working on and through the heart – cultivating it, purifying it, making it transparent, making it a vehicle for a higher reality. The heart is also the place of meeting, the seat of love. It is in the heart that people who love come together and this includes the coming together of people belonging to different religions. Where interreligious relations are more than collective diplomacy is where the heart is engaged. No religion has a monopoly on heart-works. And all religions bring us into contact with individuals whose hearts shine with the power of love, compassion and the beauty of the most precious values of their tradition, cultivated through years of spiritual discipline. For heart to meet heart, it is not necessary to engage the full gamut of the religion’s teachings. Heart contact is immediate, spontaneous. And members of different religions can share the wisdom of the heart, processes related to its cleansing, and all the fullness of life power and potency, life itself, as it is mediated through the heart. Believers may differ in understanding what it is that is made manifest through their heart. Religious superstructures, such as the Zohar’s teaching, point to God as the dweller in the heart. Some, though not all, Buddhists would say it is the Buddha nature that shines through the heart. But for the encounter of believers, the immediate contact with the heart, its purifying power and the lessons that it carries are immediate. They may be communicated through the religion’s teaching; but they can also be communicated directly, independently of it. If we are willing to recognize the centrality of the heart, we have a means for spiritual recognition of non-theistic traditions. With it comes a path for mutual enrichment and growth, the fruits of genuine interreligious friendship.

Having recognized the centrality of the heart allows us to understand why the teachings of friendship might be expanded and shared beyond the boundaries of the community, within which they were already framed. If the heart is universal, then the teachings of the heart may be communicated across traditions. We may take the point further. Just as we are touched by many hearts, in our life and in our religion, so we can be touched by the hearts that bring to light multiple aspects of the religious life. Hearts are one, yet they are manifold in their unique and individual qualities, each enriching us in unique ways. So it is with faiths, rather: so it is with the hearts of the faithful.

I am now at a point in my presentation where I can try to articulate some the lessons that I have learned from my years of sharing interfaith friendship. The discussion above not only provides a theoretical framework for a Jewish theology of interreligious friendship; it also captures my own personal experience of such friendship and the benefits it has brought me.

Let me begin with the most basic level of friendship, that of self knowledge. Returning to Aristotle, and to our mishna, I would like to echo a paraphrase of Aristotle, found in Maimonides’ commentary on our mishna. Maimonides refers to Aristotle as saying “The friend is an other who is yourself.” Obviously the term “other” has become much more charged in contemporary philosophical discourse than it was for Maimonides or for Aristotle. But if friendship presupposes otherness, or the play of self and otherness, then we are offered opportunities today for discovering new meanings in what friendship might consist of.[36] As there is otherness, so there is the potential for friendship, for self discovery and for discovery of the deeper unity that bonds self and other.

A second level touches on the theme of the heart and its centrality. The recognition that all religions seek to cultivate and purify the heart may seem trite, until one recognizes that the heart is not only the instrument for forging friendship but also its primary beneficiary. The spiritual life is an ongoing quest for deepening the reality of the heart. I speak from my own experience, which I believe is universal. Perhaps the difficulty of breaking through in this dimension of spiritual work is also universal, or at least a well known or broadly recognized phenomenon. That certain spiritual openings are not attained within one’s own religion may be explained through the habits of the life of religious communities, the boredom of the familiar and the various ways in which our human reality encroaches upon and compromises our spiritual lives. Exposure to the religious reality of the other often has a liberating effect, and my own experience has been that it is precisely the benefits of the heart that have been the most immediate gifts of interreligious friendship. Perhaps because the individuals I have met were either outstanding or engaged in a similar quest. But the testimony remains, and I believe it is broadly valid – interreligious friendship opens the heart in ways that are unique.

This leads me to the third level – finding God at the heart of a friendship. This too grows out of my own experience with friends of another religion, and it is fair to say that this specific experience characterizes my interreligious friendships more than those that grew, or initially grew, on Jewish ground. No doubt it has to do with the difference in how each tradition conceptualizes friendship. For Jews spiritual friendship is not central, not a means of coming to know God. The very notion that God is at the heart of a relationship is one to which I became exposed through friendship (and study) with Christians.[37] Needless to say, this has been a huge enrichment, both experientially and theologically. It has redefined my approach to friendship, and led me to identify those sources in the Jewish tradition that conform to or permit such an understanding. Thus, the entire thrust of the argument of the present paper would not have been possible were it not for the formative experiences and teachings gained through friendship with Christians, which were later carried to friendships with members of other traditions, not least among them Jewish friends.

The recognition of God as the bond that cements a friendship, as its ultimate goal and purpose, means that friendship is a means of coming to know God, through the friend. But it is more than just a means, it is a reality in and of itself, a reality of the shared reality of God. True friendship is part of the realization of the telos, not simply a means to its realization. This has been my single most important lesson from interreligious friendship. It has given a depth to relationships and to my own understanding of friendship, leading me to suggest how similar understanding might be stated on Jewish ground. Rather than selling out or losing the authenticity of the Jewish tradition, I see in this the deepest fruits of interreligious theology and friendship, where the strengths of one tradition, its highest ideals, can lead us to discover what until now has remained potential in our own tradition.

That interreligious friendship has taken me to a point beyond the instrumentality of friendships is significant both for understanding friendship and for a Jewish approach to non-Jews. Friendship in Jewish sources is primarily instrumental, even if for purposes of attaining spiritual excellence. Relations to non-Jews are also highly instrumental. Typically, where the conscious distinction between Jews and non-Jews is maintained, relations with non-Jews are instrumental, financially, politically or otherwise. They are rarely if ever self justified. Deepening our reflection on friendship allows us to consider non instrumental friendship, as an expression of the goals and ultimate reality of the spiritual life, precisely in relation to those individuals of whom we usually think mostly in instrumental terms. Thus, interreligious friendship brings out the highest aspects in our understanding of friendship as well as in our attitude to the other. Interreligious friendship thus helps us to realize the highest in ourselves.

Historical Challenges to Cultivating Interreligious Friendship

On the face of it, what could be more natural than to cultivate friendship to all, and to befriend all, in the name of one’s religion? The lessons of history demonstrate, however, that this is far from the case. The fact is that for Judaism, the very notion of interreligious friendship is novel, perhaps even radical. For most of history it was practiced either in superficial and rudimentary ways or within such parameters that did not leave their mark on the literary tradition, thereby failing to make it a model that could be emulated. The concept of interreligious friendship is anything but problem-free for Judaism, which comes to the task laden with a heavy burden of historical relations with other religions and serious challenges in how it views them. While we may point to good neighborly relations on the ground, in various societies in which Jews have lived over the centuries, we are hard pressed to offer either a theory or a positive example of a robust interreligious friendship. Relations seem to have been limited to the practical, day to day life, either of individuals or of the community as a whole. One cannot think of cultivating friendship under conditions of persecution, forced conversion, repeated expulsion, abuse and fear that characterized many, though surely not all, moments in Jewish life. In order to appreciate just how profound the challenge is, let us review the five components of friendship, proposed in the model offered in this volume’s introduction. Briefly summarized, they are:

1. Commonality of purpose. Friendship cannot exist without some commonality of purpose.

2. Support and practical collaboration. Friendship is not simply an attitude or a feeling. It finds expression in concrete actions of solidarity, support and collaboration.

3. Love. There is no true friendship without love. Without love, relationships are purely utilitarian, instrumental, not expressions of friendship.

4. Trust. Friendship implies trust. It is trust that makes friendship more than utilitarian and even more than simply a love given freely to all.

5. Resonance of being. What accounts for the fact that throughout life we encounter thousands of people, but only forge deep bonds of friendship, if at all, with only a few? The suggested shorthand for describing this elusive dimension of friendship is resonance of being.

In order to appreciate the obstacles and challenges to developing a robust Jewish theory of interreligious friendship, let us examine these five dimensions. Let us begin with the question of common purposes. Can Judaism recognize that other religions share its ultimate purpose? Yes and no. A bearer of a messianic vision of transformation of others, including other religions, will have a hard time recognizing that other religions, already in their present state, share the same higher purpose with Judaism. Recognizing common purposes has consequences for Judaism’s views on eschatology. One would have to view the eschaton as bringing about a transformation of other religions that is similar in kind to the transformation of Judaism itself, rather than as taking other religions from darkness and ignorance into the light of truth. The matter is particularly complicated if those religions are considered false or idolatrous. In order to recognize commonality of purpose one has to make various moves. These have been made, and do not amount to a revolution in Jewish thinking. But they have rarely been applied in full and their consequences for a theme like friendship have rarely if ever been made explicit. Theories that recognize the validity of other religions as appropriate for their worshipers and as adequate forms of religion must be preferred over and against theories that consider other religions as idolatrous.[38] This requires a choice.[39] Despite the existence of multiple views on this subject, it remains an unresolved issue in a Jewish view of other religions, with a decided majority still upholding views that would prevent full recognition of commonality of purpose. If another religion does not worship the same God, a discrepancy in purpose arises. Commonality of purpose could then be recognized only by identifying other purposes, such as moral or personal perfection.

Clearly, there would have to be strong motivation in recognizing other religions as equally valid, or at least sufficiently adequate to legitimate interreligious friendship. Motivation of formal authorities of Judaism, of all streams, seems at present limited to the needs of Jewish existence and collective co-existence. It will therefore only produce the kind of friendship that is born of common life, not of the higher aspirations of the spiritual life. Recognition of the spiritual validity and value of lives of practitioners of another religion should open us up to the testimonies of their spiritual life. But receiving such testimony is itself conditioned by the prior assumptions one holds. Only in exceptional cases, when the sanctity or attainment of someone from another religion strike one beyond all preconceived ideas can we expect openness to the spiritual life of someone of another tradition. Short of that, the attitude that our purposes are different than theirs will remain a default position for many.

Interior attitudes to other religions also do not lend themselves readily to cultivation of spiritual, or other, friendship. Friendship is based on love. On the whole, historically Jews have not felt the attitudes of other religious communities, especially those that have come in the name of love, to be expressions of love. If love generates acceptance, the ongoing struggle to justify one’s existence, either as a religion or as a people, creates the attitude that the Jewish people are struggling in a spiritual environment that is essentially hostile. Advances in interreligious relations have not extended far enough and deep enough into the broad community to allow one to drop the defensive posture, needed to protect oneself against a hostile environment. Advances in on the ground relations between members of different communities in the Western world are already a great achievement and they have led to good neighborly relations and the cultivation of friendship on a day to day level. However, only a few individuals, mainly those who sought to consciously cultivate spiritual relations with members of other religions, have been able to go beyond the essentially defensive position, and to forge relations based on love. Love is not yet the reigning paradigm in interreligious relations, which are mostly still working to overcome fear and enmity, through respect and tolerance. Interreligious friendship has therefore been limited to those contexts where love has been allowed to flourish – personal relations within a communal context, and rare cases of spiritual friendships based on love, that go beyond the common communal paradigm.

The same may be said of trust. It is hard to trust when one is fighting for one’s legitimacy and survival. The Jewish community continues to feel itself, on some level, as fighting for its survival. Diaspora provides opportunities for feeling secure. But overall, the battle for survival bridges the security concerns of the nation of Israel, the defense against missionaries and the continuing sense of an endangered religious minority. Even within the state of Israel, where for all intents and purposes Jews are a majority, the broader conditions of Jewish history, past and present, uphold attitudes of indifference to the other, making cases of genuine friendship on a religious basis extremely rare. If anything, friendships, both in Israel and in the diaspora, take place where the religious element is put to the side, thereby highlighting from another angle the threat that interreligious friendship might pose, the threat of assimilation.

Finally, it is next to impossible to identify a resonance of being under the conditions just described. Only spiritual seekers who break beyond reigning attitudinal paradigms, either within the religious world or beyond it, are able to cultivate relationships that could be called spiritual friendship, based on such resonance.

Considering the situation on the whole, then, Judaism seems to only be ready for the kind of interreligious friendship that is based on practical collaboration, serving the common purposes of daily existence of the community and the individual. However, even such friendships must be more widely practiced, much more widely. Theoretical reflection and education are necessary conditions for the cultivation of this type of friendship, not to mention the more intimate form of spiritual friendship. Along with reflecting on the value of interreligious friendship and its possibilities one would want to pay closer attention to changes in the attitude of other religions that lead to increased trust and open the way for more genuine expressions of love. One would want to highlight common purposes and work out possibilities for practical collaboration, so that a foundation of friendship in its basic form is constructed. If the many advances in interfaith relations are integrated into one’s worldview, serious possibilities open up for healthy communal and individual friendship.

There is, as mentioned, a higher form of interreligious friendship. I refer to the experience of those individuals who have gone beyond conventional relational paradigms. In important ways, they clear the path for others. Precisely because many of the preconditions for broad and universal friendship are lacking, there is great value in cultivating the higher forms of friendship. Even a single friend can transform our perspective on others. It only takes one. The ability to cultivate friendship with members of other traditions can help us offset prevailing attitudes.

If we were able to make the breakthrough to having even a single meaningful, spiritually based relationship of friendship with someone of another tradition, our entire internal orientation would be transformed. Such transformation would be highly liberating. It would liberate the power of love, long locked in our hearts. It would liberate us to relate to individuals in deeper and higher ways, commensurate with our deep spiritual aspirations. It would allow us to modulate our response as appropriate to the situation, rather than extending the same suspicious attitude to all. And it would liberate us to grow within ourselves, based on the lessons learned in relation to others.

Reviewing the journey we have taken, we find ourselves with the challenge of reconciling the possibilities of opening up the riches of Jewish tradition to the notion of interreligious friendship with what are obviously deep constraints and hesitations that impinge upon Jewish attitudes, if you will, upon the Jewish psyche. It seems to me two moves open before us at this point, The first is that interreligious friendship is possible; the second is that it is recommended, ultimately unavoidable.

The suggestion that interreligious friendship is possible means that it is a legitimate practice that may be undertaken by Jews without compromising ideals, guidelines or halachic rulings to which Jews would feel bound. There are large sections of faithful Jews for whom this assertion is anything but self evident. Thus, constructing an argument whose conclusion is that such friendship is possible is a meaningful achievement and still no easy task. As demonstrated above, it requires reading sources beyond their original horizon. Even more importantly, it requires adopting a series of theological, legal and attitudinal positions, each of which requires negotiation and the totality of which is by no means obvious. To claim that interreligious friendship is “possible” means it is neither mandated nor forbidden. Rather, it is a spiritual option that can be legitimated and upheld within a Jewish framework. We have already suggested there is inherent elasticity in the concept of friendship, allowing it to be applied and extended in multiple ways. The dynamics of friendship’s elasticity will be further demonstrated in an appendix that will examine a fundamental scriptural passage, indicating how love and friendship can be applied in either narrow or expansive ways. How love and friendship are applied is a function of changing metaphysical views, historical conditions and personal circumstances. Such elasticity is a fundamental feature of a tradition that contains within it complementary, if not contradictory, impulses. On the one hand, a great universal vision; on the other – an inward gaze, directed to the community and its survival. Within this tension, different aspects of tradition can be configured in ways that serve the one pole or the other, that bring to bear one set of metaphysical assumptions and emotional realities or another. Jewish history and the history of Jewish reflection are strung between these extremes, and they adapt to changes through an inbuilt elasticity that allows for the expansion of notions, in accordance with changing circumstances. I submit that the current reality of interfaith relations is one particular moment that calls forth the potentialities contained within the tradition, in other words – that makes possible the broader application of notions that were articulated in former times within a more limited context. If it is possible to develop a meaningful notion of interreligious friendship, we must leave the choice of whether to engage in such practices to individual and collective circumstances, to the opportunities of particular lives and to the deeper callings that individuals feel, to realize this possibility in their lives.

How we view interreligious friendship will depend on our starting point. If we begin with Jewish history, attitudes and mentality, we may be moved to recognize the value of interreligious friendship. Its merits make it a spiritual option of which some individuals may wish to avail. If, however, we see the world in the eyes of Rabbi Kook; if we identify those points in a theology of friendship where friendship is not simply an instrument, but a way of being, grounded in divine presence, we will be moved to take a stronger stance towards friendship, including interreligious friendship. If friendship is a meeting point with God, and if all of creation is included in the impulse of divine friendship, it will be next to impossible to place limitations on the fundamental drive for friendship. Such limitations will be, at most, practical, relating to concrete concerns of Jewish law and daily life. Beyond such limitations we will encounter the fundamental drive to universal friendship, grounded in creation itself and in the divine life force pulsating through it, beckoning us to the practice of universal friendship and to the cultivation of friendship with all, including specifically interreligious friendship.

Legal and Practical Challenges to Interreligious Friendship

Deep seated attitudes are reflected in and draw support from various aspects of the tradition. One of the constitutive aspects of Jewish tradition is halacha, the Jewish law. However we deal with attitudes and worldviews, we must also recognize that the legal tradition poses challenges, as well as potential obstacles, to the cultivation of interreligious friendship. For some observant Jews the practice may even be considered at odds with the internal orientation of the halacha. The following section seeks to engage this challenge to interreligious friendship.

Let us begin this discussion with the clear-cut recognition that there is no legislation – biblical, rabbinic or otherwise – that out and out forbids making a friend with the member of another faith. The obstacles are more nuanced, and therefore can also be tackled more easily in various practical ways. Over the years I have encountered all kinds of objections to cultivating friendships with non-Jews (note: with almost no specificity of religion), based on appeals to different strands of tradition. Some conversation partners suggested that the biblical prohibition on making a covenant with the citizens of the land of Cana’an really amounts to a prohibition on friendship.[40] This is in and of itself a fair argument, but one must accept its presuppositions, which I don’t, namely that the present day practitioners of other religions belong in the same problematic, even despicable, category as idolaters of old. Others have appealed to the prohibition of finding favor and charm in those same inhabitants, something that would surely be violated if friendship were practiced.[41] Once again, the application of this prohibition fails to take into account questions related to changed historical circumstances as well as to the fundamental question of whether there exists a religious or spiritual commonality between us and members of other faiths. Finally, there is a series of prohibitions, instated in the first centuries of the common era, around food issues. As commensality is a primary means of expressing and cultivating friendship,[42] various food related restrictions go a long way in limiting friendship. I have therefore often come across the argument that cultivating friendship across religions goes against the internal logic and purpose of these prohibitions. To be sure, there is no specific prohibition on commensality with a non-Jew. In fact, various talmudic sources assume it as a reality and a normative one at that.[43] But we do find prohibitions on various food products and on eating food cooked by non-Jews.[44] To limit the possibility of being hosted by a non-Jew is an effective safeguard against intermarriage, but it is an equally powerful friendship-blocker.[45]

At the core of Rav Kook’s view of friendship and consequently of its universal application, is a view of God, that encompasses all beings and all relationships. Conversely, at the core of biblical prohibitions that seek limitation of relationships as well as of the later rabbinic understanding of the reality of the non-Jews of the their time, was the basic perception that there was not a shared God or shared spiritual reality that could unite Jews and non-Jews. Therefore, in conceptual terms, what seems like the most pressing need for purposes of cultivation of friendship is establishing the grounds upon which a common spiritual ground may be recognized through the same God. The following discussion appeals to the common spiritual foundation, established by recognition that different religions turn to the same God.[46] The consequences of such recognition are not only theoretical or philosophical. They affect deeply the legal tradition and its views of other religions, thereby tackling some of the most important obstacles to interreligious friendship.

There are various strategies by means of which one can establish recognition of the “same God’.[47] I shall limit the present discussion to one particular figure, Rabbi Menace Meiri, (1249 – c. 1310). It is no coincidence that Rav Kook who develops a notion of universal friendship also upholds the views of Meiri, as these apply to non-Jews and to contemporary religions.[48] Meiri provides a principled approach to other religions that is grounded in an understanding of the spiritual workings of religion. His views allow us to transcend the facile dismissal of other religions as idolatrous, and to recognize them as performing the same function and ultimately pointing to the same God.[49] Clearly this provides a foundation for the cultivation of friendship with members of other religions. Moreover, Meiri draws the conclusions from his views, leading him to suspend or at least significantly reduce the scope of a variety of prohibitions that talmudic literature applied to non-Jews. Meiri presents us with a completely different attitudinal approach to questions of relations between Jews and non-Jews. The combination of his halachic, theological and historical views on non-Jews and other religions makes him an appropriate counterpoint to some prevailing attitudes and therefore the optimal halachic frame of reference for revisiting these attitudes.

Meiri developed a systematic view of other religions and in fact constitutes one of the earliest attempts to formulate a broad Jewish theology of other religions. Meiri provides an alternative to many views of other religions that consider them to be Avoda Zara, idolatry or forbidden worship. Meiri adopts an approach that recognizes commonality in the purpose of all religions and affirms that the same God is worshipped in all present day religions (known to him). Thus, his position allows us to overcome the fundamental objections that could impede friendship, by recognizing the common ground between religions. Meiri is the one and only halachist who resolves the question of Avoda Zara fully and exclusively by using a same-God strategy. Having recognized that the God of Judaism and of other contemporary religions are one opens the way for him to declare all talmudic issues pertaining to Avoda Zara as no longer valid for contemporary religions.[50]

Meiri does not overlook the diversity of religious practice, ritual and specific beliefs about God, as these distinguish different religions. Still, he is willing to consider them all as legitimate forms of religion. This assumes an ability to distinguish what is fundamental to a religion from what is secondary or instrumental. Ultimately, religion is about transforming the human person towards a higher spiritual vision, associated with God. Details of theology are secondary to approach to God. The same holds true for variations of ritual practice. Once it is recognized that a given religion provides access to God, all other details are secondary. Meiri’s core concern when viewing other religions is to ensure that one reaches God and has a relationship with Him. Such relationship is measured by the quality of moral life and by the overall impact that religion has upon the lives of its believers. What is important is that relationships mediated through a given religion be directed to God and therefore effective in bringing about personal transformation and appropriate moral ordering of the life of individual and society. If we are able to view other religions and their practitioners from this perspective, the question of right god-wrong god is replaced by questions that touch upon the transformative effects of religion and its fruits in our lives.[51]

However, when it comes to food related prohibitions, it is important to note that Meiri does not apply the relativizing mechanism that allows him to distinguish between religions of old and present day religions. Meiri explains the talmudic prohibition of eating food cooked by a non-Jew as follows: “Even though there is no concern that something forbidden (i.e. non Kosher) will be eaten, food cooked by non-Jews is forbidden, so as not to mingle among them too much, to the point where intermarriage might become a threat.”[52] The term that governs this discussion is “closeness of mind”, and the various prohibitions on purchase and use of food products prepared by a non-Jew are all accounted for in terms of preventing such “closeness of mind”.[53] Now, friendship is just that – closeness of mind. Whether we refer to the closeness produced through common purposes, common living or the resonance of being, all are aspects of such “closeness of mind”. It would seem then, that there is indeed a strong drive that limits or frustrates the possibility of establishing friendships. In fact, it would seem that the authority that more than any other aids us in overcoming negative and rejecting views of members of other religions can offer us little help when it comes to confronting certain prohibitions that were formulated for the express purpose of limiting the very closeness of mind that is the basis of friendship. This tension leads us to the final reflections of this paper.

Interreligious Friendship – Negotiating Complexities in Daily Life

The modern era has been a mixed blessing for the Jewish community, as perhaps for all communities. On the one hand, it has created new opportunities, new openings. It ushered in an era of equality, participation and the possibility for new relations with surrounding communities. But with the opening up of Jewish society to the world at large and overcoming the social constraints under which Jews lived for centuries also came the freedom to leave the Jewish community and to become absorbed in broader society. Today assimilation and intermarriage are some of the most pressing concerns for the Jewish community worldwide. The protective boundaries that talmudic legislation sought to erect have become undone to the point that they are no longer relevant for most of the Jewish world, while the problem they sought to avoid has become one of the primary concerns of Jewish education and policy.

Conversely, relations between religions have been constantly improving, creating over the past several decades opportunities that did not exist previously for collaboration, but even more so, for friendship, between people of different faiths. If maintaining Jewish identity and its stability are a pressing need for the Jewish community, establishing harmony between the world’s religions is a paramount global need. Yet, it would be utterly false to claim that interreligious relations globally have improved to the point that the new dynamics have replaced old paradigms. Religious extremism, as well as anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, are still rife. While one cannot say that problems of old have been vanquished, one can say that reality has become complex, with the “good” side of intercommunal and interreligious relations providing increasing opportunities for shaping relations. Ultimately, one must assess every interreligious situation in and of itself, in political, geographic and religious terms. Relations with Muslims living in Western countries often offer more opportunities for harmonious relations than with those Muslims whose approach to Judaism is heavily marked by a political agenda, whether it be a pan-Islamic one or one that grows from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Different Christian denominations offer competing models for relations with Jews and Judaism, and even within a body as centralized as the Catholic Church one can experience diametrically opposed attitudes to these questions, regardless of what formal teaching and Church statements would lead us to believe.[54] In short, it is impossible to describe the reality of interreligious relations as one thing. It is many things, often complex, conflicting and confusing.

It is naive to assume that one can practice universal friendship without taking into account all these complexities. If by universal friendship we mean the general attitude of goodwill to all beings, then the kind of generalizing loving attitude of Rav Kook could serve us as a guide precisely because it grows out of the privacy of his lofty experience, rather than out of lived relationships. But if by friendship we mean more than a friendly internal feeling, then we must recognize that some of the reasons why interreligious friendship has not been practiced throughout the ages are still valid, while other factors have arisen, that make the practice of such friendship a need of the hour and a path of personal and collective growth. How can these complexities be negotiated and what guidelines might be offered?

I would like to return to a key concept suggested above – elasticity. Love and friendship are dynamic realities that are adapted to varying contexts, their needs and realities. Accordingly, friendship itself means different things in different contexts. So does love. Applying the appropriate lens to the practice of friendship expresses a view of reality, a certain reading and interpretation of facts, their meaning and the overall scheme of things. For those who have a single reading, normally negative, but theoretically also exclusively positive, there is no need to master the art of adapting love and friendship to circumstances. For those who recognize complexities in reality and multiple levels and needs that have to be negotiated, friendship and love have to be integrated and applied, not simply as primary values, but as values that must find their place within a broader view of reality that at times calls for limiting such expressions of love. For the great hearted visionaries, such as Rav Kook, love has no boundaries. Even the evil of our enemies cannot serve as a barrier against love. Yet, in reality boundaries apply to varying situations. And in reality, most of us are not able to channel the divine love that coursed in the spiritual veins of a Rav Kook. We are therefore called to walk a path that strikes a balance between the needs of Jewish continuity, survival and faithfulness and universal love, acceptance and friendship.

What suggestions can we make as we seek to apply conflicting drives in the practice of friendship?

1. Meiri’s discussion makes us aware of the alternative categorization by which the other is viewed – as member of another religion and as member of another people. In relation to the former, Meiri breaks new ground, allowing us to recognize commonality of purpose, vision and spiritual path with the other. In relation to the latter, Meiri, like virtually all authorities till the present day, is concerned with questions of survival and continuity and the need to place brakes on relations that could compromise the integrity of Jewish existence. This distinction has an important potential application for interreligious friendship. It would seem to favor a friendship based on spiritual grounds, with each party firmly planted in his or her religious tradition. Meiri himself had a kind of spiritual commonality with Christian clergy of his time, though circumstances could not allow us to call this friendship in the sense that is possible in today’s conditions. I am however convinced that if he lived today, he would be a champion of interreligious friendship, but of the kind that grows between the professionals, experts and serious practitioners of the religion. In a day and age when most of the community is ignorant of their tradition, the special kind of friendship that is based on sharing the highest spiritual ideals is the calling, and privilege, of the few.

2. Friendship is the opposite of animosity. In relation to the broader Jewish community, we recognize the need to apply friendship with a very broad lens – the kindness, care and decency of personal relations in their most general sense, that we at times refer to as friendship. If some Jews seek to ensure the community’s long term survival through a strategy of isolation and if the price of isolation is harboring “anti-friendly” feelings, one can argue with certainty that such a strategy is out of place, given today’s world, and in particular advances in interreligious relations. A basic friendship to all, informed by the heights of the spiritual vision of Judaism, should be the norm, even where the burden of past and present suffering has not been forgotten. Recalling the mishna that served as our key text, we note that the mishna defines two kinds of relationships – acquiring a friend and judging every person with favor. If acquiring a friend in the present discussion is the special relationship, finding favor in every person and judging them favorably is the practice of universal friendship. This does not require establishing deep personal relations, but it does provide a clear alternative to prevailing attitudes. There are sections within Jewish society, including its religious leadership, for whom this recommendation is far from obvious, and therefore requires demonstration.

3. Interreligious friendship should be cultivated as a concept, distinct from general universal friendship. To go to college and to have a wide set of friends, regardless of their religion is not interreligious friendship. To marry anyone with whom one falls in love is similarly not interreligious marriage. I would like to reserve the term “interreligious” for those relationships that are grounded in and maintain awareness of religious identity and that seek to bring the particularity of their identity into the relationship, rather than allowing the relationship to override identity. Accordingly, “interreligious friendship” should be practiced while striking a balance between its two components. The deeper the “interreligious”, the deeper the “friendship”. With the deepening of friendship comes the mandate to deepen one’s self awareness, one’s commitment and one’s rootedness, at times in and through the relationship with the other of another religion. This guideline will apply differently to a synagogue seeking to establish relations with a nearby mosque and to a student going to college. But the principle remains the same – reaching out with one’s branches, sharing one’s fruits, while remaining rooted in the soil of one’s tradition.

Interreligious friendship is a very unique kind of friendship, quite different from the general friendship of all the people at school, at work, etc. What characterizes most relationships is that religion is cast aside, it is a fact of biography, but it is not formative of the relationship. The ancient legislations, that in some way seem clumsy in today’s world, sought not to let those differences become forgotten. But interreligious friendship is friendship that seeks to profile identity and use it as the foundation for the construction of a relationship. At its base is the mutual gaze of query, the curiosity of learning about the other and the challenge of coming to better understanding of the other. At its height is the recognition that true friendship is itself a gift of God, the one God who unites all in the depth of the human heart, who is known through all religions, and who is Himself both the essence and the goal of friendship. To quest after this kind of interreligious friendship is a distinct orientation, quite different from what commonly occurs in daily life. If we seek to offer an antidote to loss of identity and assimilation, we may do well to consider cultivating the practice of explicitly interreligious friendship, as an alternative to general friendship, that merely maintains awareness of one’s religious background. The old boundaries, consisting of prohibitions, that perpetuate a polar and often hostile view of the other, will no longer have meaning for broad sectors of society. If we seek a strategy for how to maintain relationships, while avoiding the pitfalls that tradition has sought to avoid, then we do well to consider a new art, a specific form of relationship – the art of interreligious friendship.

Appendix: Friendship’s Elasticity – Love Your Friend as Yourself

Throughout our discussion we had recourse to the idea that application of friendship follows a logic or a dynamic of elasticity, allowing for narrower and more expansive applications. I would like to illustrate how such elasticity is expressed in the history of interpretation of perhaps the most important verse that ties together love and friendship. Of all scriptural passages on friendship, Lev. 19:18: “love your re’a (literally friend, or fellow) as yourself, I am the Lord”, touches most closely the heart of the present challenge—identifying who is the friend.

The verse figures in a classic statement by R. Akiva, who proclaims it the great principle, thereby suggesting its theoretical significance.[55] In terms of practice, for the past several hundred years, it is common in many circles, especially those that have been influenced by Jewish mystical literature, to consciously undertake the intention of fulfilling this commandment as a preparatory step for daily prayer.[56] Its liturgical anchoring points to its potential centrality and the impact it could have in the lives of the faithful. Therefore, it offers us a valuable window on the question of who is the friend to whom love should be extended.

The boundaries of the love command are a subject of ongoing discussion both within Judaism and by others in describing the Jewish attitude to love.[57] The possibility that it may be narrowly interpreted, as applying to the Jewish people alone, has been a source of concern for some Jewish thinkers. They struggled with the universality of the love command by considering how it has been interpreted by various authorities. Accordingly, they seek precedent for extending the commandment to love beyond the bounds of the Jewish community.[58] While the narrow halachic understanding of the commandment assumes that the obligation to love, and concomitantly the definition of who is “the friend”, is limited to members of the community, we do find commentators who read the verse as relating to all human beings.[59] Rather than opt for one reading or the other, thereby finding justification or permission within tradition to extend love to the non-Jew, I would like to suggest that we view the application and practice of love of the friend as governed by a dynamic of elasticity. Whether we read it in an expansive or contracted way will be a function of a variety of factors that are in the background of the interpretation. These include the genre in which one is working, metaphysical worldview espoused, prevailing cultural and social conditions, the status of contemporary relations between Jews and non-Jews and finally the degree of spiritual attainment of the author, particularly the power and effects of love in his own soul. With these factors coming together in various permutations, we will encounter different positions that bespeak of love and its expansion as well as of how far friendship may be extended.

Let me illustrate how metaphysics, as well as spirituality, inform interpretation. The following commentary is brought in a commentarial collection titled Likutey Anshei Shem.[60] The author affirms that the love command includes all people, including non-Jews. The reason is that they are all made in the image of God. Thus, the image of God provides the theoretical framework in light of which one considers the boundaries of both love and friendship.[61] The author goes on to argue that the formulation highlighting love of the re’a, rather than of one’s brother, is chosen because re’a includes the non-Jew, as illustrated by various biblical passages, where the non-Jewish friends of great biblical friends are referred to as re’a.[62]

One author who quotes this teaching[63] also quotes a celebrated instruction of Rabbi Hayim Vital, the great kabbalist and disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, stating that one ought to love every person, even a non-Jew, as part of his instruction for attaining spiritual perfection.[64] Thus, the fullness of spiritual life mandates the totality of love. The kind of love expressed here is attitudinal, though it does not necessarily find expression through friendship and the social life that grounds it.

Different explanations for why one recites or undertakes to love the re’a before prayer reveal other theoretical foundations. One understanding is to create a bond within a mystical community, of those engaged in mystically oriented Torah study. Thus, a group is created within a group, based on commonality of purpose and greater spiritual affinity. Love is extended to both circles: the broader group identity and the special relationships established through common mystical study. Even more specific is the incorporation of one’s prayers in the intentions of masters of prayer, who are able to pray according to mystical intentions. In this reading, connecting oneself to all of Israel is but a means of ensuring one is attached to the Zaddikim, the spiritual masters, who uplift our prayers. We note that the specific metaphysical understanding will lead to a narrowing of intention. While broader application of love is not excluded, what really matters is much more specific than the general love command. One of the hassidic masters, Rabbi Menachem of Tchernobyl emphasizes the metaphysical foundations underlying this practice – unity of being.[65] Since all is one, one should attach oneself to all in love.[66] But precisely this recognition of unity raises the question of where unity stops. If one is serious about the metaphysical unity of all being and the ensuing love that must be practiced as a result, how can one place a boundary upon such love? If metaphysical unity leads to a love that is less than total, we must ascribe this to some block – psychological, ideological or sociological, that impedes the full realization of the internal assumptions of the religious system. It is precisely here that one wonders whether these very metaphysical understandings cannot find fuller expression when theological and social relations between religious groups have improved.

The various readings and interpretations suggest how flexible the application of love of the re’a can be, and how it draws upon changing theological and metaphysical notions. It should be recognized, nevertheless, that while both aspects of Lev. 19,18 – love and friendship, figure in the ritual application of the love command, most of the attention is on the love and its recipients, rather than on the notion of who is the friend. Thus, while we have here an important resource for exploring dimensions of friendship and their metaphysical grounding, much of this resource remains potential. The implication of these understandings to friendship require drawing out, which in turn requires motivation to develop this category. Thus under social, theological and spiritual circumstances that invite construction of a notion of interreligious friendship, the resources of earlier generations can be made to speak in new ways, providing the theoretical underpinning for extension of love and friendship beyond how these were mostly conceived by the earlier sources.


[1] The only extensive survey of friendship in rabbinic literature is that of Catherine Hezser, Rabbis and Other Friends : Friendship in the Talmud Yerushalmi and in Graeco-Roman Literature, The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture II, ed. Peter Schäfer and Catherine Hezser, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2000, pp. 189-254. While Hezser’s discussion is quite extensive, it often fails to see the big picture on account of the many details and parallels Hezser finds in relation to Greco-Roman literature. Reading Hezser, one gets the impression that friendship is far more important than it is, in my own estimation. Her conclusion, p. 254, presenting the rabbinic movement as consisting of small clusters of close friends is, in my view, an overreading the rabbis, or if you will, an application of looser standards of friendship than those that govern the present essay.

[2] Always him, never her. There is no trace of a notion of female friendship in rabbinic literature. Note however the benediction recited at a wedding, where God is praised for creating “love, brotherhood, peace and friendship”. In context, this does suggest friendship as a component of marriage. However, next to nothing of the sort is found in rabbinic reflections on marriage, let alone relationships with other females.

[3] Hezser, p. 190, raises one possible explanation for the low position of friendship in the fact that the theme is not of great significance for the Hebrew Bible, that conditions much of the rabbinic worldview. One alternative possibility might be that friendship focuses on the individual, while the classical sources focus on the community. Friendship is therefore appreciated only within the broader communitarian perspective and in the framework of the key values of the community, and therefore does not emerge as a central value.

[4] See the discussion by Volf and Mcannally-Linz in the present collection of papers, as well as the extensive materials cited by Hezser.

[5] See, for example, the discussion of Aelred of Riveaux in Volf and Mcannally-Linz’s presentation.

[6] Hezser certainly does not think so. However, given varying uses of “friendship”, we may both be right. My suggestion is that a comparison of the depth of rabbinic and hassidic thought on friendship could account for deepening reflection in relation to more intimate social structures.

[7] From a social studies perspective, the very notion of friendship is characterized by elasticity and flexibility. See Hezser, p. 205. Our discussion is less concerned with identifying what types of friendship exist, than with understanding what kinds of friendship are deemed important and when, and with whom, friendship is considered a value.

[8] It could be argued that for the purpose of the present exercise I have simply chosen the wrong text and that had I chosen another text, results would be different. This is, of course, possible. However, textual tradition has a way of cross referencing and compiling ideas into clusters. Taking as my starting point what I think is one of the most central statements on friendship in Jewish tradition has opened up dozens of other texts, through the history of its interpretation. Each of these texts is a window onto other texts and a vantage point from which we can examine changing patterns of thought. I therefore doubt that a major conceptual development has occurred without leaving its traces on the several hundred (digitized) documents I scanned or examined for purposes of this study. As a means of control, I also studied the history of interpretation of another talmudic dictum “either a friend or death” (Bavli Ta’anit 23a). The results confirmed the overall low view of friendship on the axiological scale of rabbinic culture. The text enjoys only the most meager (several dozen references) afterlife in the commentarial tradition.

[9] Rabbi Menashe Klein, Responsa Shone Halachot 6,165.

[10] Compare below our discussion of the Meiri and its implications for interreligious friendship.

[11] Lives of the Philosophers, Life of Aristotle, 11: He was once asked what a friend is; and his answer was, “One soul abiding in two bodies”. Contrast this with the notion of friend as alter ego. See Hezser, p. 210 and the discussion of Volf and McAnnally-Linz.

[12] Noam Elimelech, Mishpatim.

[13] Avodat Israel, Avot.

[14] Compare this to the understanding of undertaking to fulfill Lev. 19,18 before prayer as a means of attaching oneself to the Zaddik. See the appendix to the present essay.

[15] Compare Sirach 6,7.

[16] Yesod Ha’avoda Part 2, Chapter 10, section 10. The discussion of friendship continues for several pages. While most of it is commentarial, it is studded with some of the most beautiful gems in Jewish literature on friendship, that give direct expression to the life experience of this author and his community, Slonim hassidism. Consider the following: “The love of friends who care for God’s word and give each other advice, encouragement and great awakening of the soul in the worship of God” (section 11). “True connectedness (possibly: friendship) is only possible for friends who listen (echoing Song 8,13)…for when they unite with heart, soul and spirit and with constructive speech between one another, then God descends among these heroes (echoing Judges 5,13)…and the good unites them together and they become a great principle (or coming together) in the world…and God’s name dwells among them”. This text is explicit in claiming that only spiritual friendship is true friendship and that God dwells among friends, providing their common ground. The claims are conceptually as robust as any made in the history of religious or philosophical reflection on friendship. That they appear as small gems embedded in a commentarial discussion in a book that is not much studied suggests that the power of experience will ultimately prevail, even if it is expressed closer to the margins than to the center of tradition. See further his commentary, in section 12, on Ps. 132,1: “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers sit together”. “The sitting of brothers, referring to those who are beloved as brothers, even though they are not talking of the fear of God (in other words, of spiritual matters). For the love of the hearts draws them and brings them together (or purifies them) to one light, the candle of God which is the soul of man (Prov. 20,27), for the evil forces flee from the joint flame of the light of their souls, that are joint together”. The section goes on to develop the notion of friendship as bonding of different dimensions of the soul and person of the friends.

[17] As some of the quotes in the previous note suggest, this author has consciously taken the step from describing the person in whom God dwells as “friend”, to making all true friendship an expression of the dwelling of divine presence.

[18] Friendship, Yedidut, is a term that appears hundreds of times in his writings, especially in his many epistles.

[19] Orot Hakodesh 3,230= Shemona Kevazim 3,30.

[20] Grounding friendship in the unity of being echoes themes found in other parts of this collection of essays. Significantly, this note is sounded by the authors who discuss the Indic or dharmic tradition. Compare Rambachan’s discussion of Brahman as providing the basis of unity of life upon which friendship grows. See also the Buddhist understanding of the interconnectedness of being as the foundations of friendship, as expressed in the vision of Indra’s net in the Habito’s presentation. Finally, Guru Gobindh Singh’s proclamation of the unity of humanity is the foundation for a Sikh theology of friendship. See Eleanor Nesbitt’s contribution.

[21] I have added this coma, in order to avoid a triple construct, whose subject would be ambiguous.

[22] Chadarav, p.163.

[23] One might reasonably object to modelling spiritual friendship on Rav Kook’s testimony that his love is one sided, the love of the Zaddik who stands between God and creation. Such friendship lacks the reciprocity that is an important component of friendship, and that characterized many of the expressions of friendship reviewed above, notably those by Rabbi Weinberg. I would counter such an objection by suggesting that the love and friendship are shown from within the totality of creation, as expressions of God’s love. Rav Kook himself is thus a part of the dynamics of receiving friendship and love, as much as any aspect of creation, by virtue of their being an expression of God’s love. Ultimately, all love and all friendship revert to God and any individual, even the bridge between God and creation, partakes of these qualities as part of the ideal totality of life.

[24] See Ein Aya to Shabbat 44a.

[25] The same is true for coming under the sphere of spiritual influence. I consulted Paul Fenton as to whether Jewish Sufism provides us with precedents for interreligious friendship. In his view, it does not. Spiritual influence may have been major, but it did not redefine social relations, thereby excluding friendship. Similarly, neither Maimonides’ medical practice nor his shared philosophical universe of discourse with Muslim philosophers provide us with precedents for what we seek in this project.

[26] Such as the case of Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel. See Andrew Crome, Friendship and Enmity to God and Nation: The Complexities of Jewish-Gentile Relations in the Whitehall Conference of 1655, Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: Explorations of a Fundamental Ethical Discourse, ed. A. Classen and M.Sandidge, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2010, pp. 749-778. I thank Awet Andemicael for this reference.

[27] See my No Religion Is An Island : Following the Trail Blazer, Shofar 26,1 (2007) pp. 72-111.

[28] Another contemporary voice who appeals to friendship as formative of his theology and his views of Christianity is Irving Yitz Greenberg. See Irving Greenberg, What Would Roy and Alice Do?, My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Growth, Encounter and Transformation, ed. J. Howe Peace et al., Orbis, Maryknoll, 2012, pp. 11-16. This is a particularly important contribution, inasmuch as it points to one important dimension of interreligious friendship not highlighted in the present essay: the possibilities of speaking truths, and harsh truths at that, across religions, on the foundations of friendship. This concern echoes themes raised by Rambachan, Volf and McAnnaly-Linz, and Gianotti in the present volume, and therefore provides an important complement to my own efforts.

[29] One could suggest that God is the ground of every relationship, whether one is conscious of it or not. The present discussion highlights the common conscious approach to God as the basis of friendship. In any event, the present argument is not based on sharing an idea of God as much as of touching or experiencing a common reality of God. While the point is clearly theological, it draws as much on the realm of consciousness, typically approached through mysticism.

[30] I have not found a commentary of Rav Kook on our mishna. What follows could accord with his views.

[31] This statement, like almost all statements in Avot, and like all statements attributed to the earliest known rabbinic sages, that is, roughly speaking, sages that antedate the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, makes no mention of the distinction between Jews and non Jews, the religious self and other.

[32] The Zohar’s reference to the holy man as the one with merit, or the worthy one, zaka’a, reminds us of the third part of our mishna, “judge every man towards merit”.

[33] The Zohar itself does not offer a complete reading of our mishna. It does, however, provide a conceptual framework through which we may revisit it.

[34] As the next section of this paper suggests, such spiritual validation need not be equated with theological validation or with affirming the truth of the other’s faith, nor the unimportance of truth. As we will learn from the Meiri, there are more important things in the religious life than theological, or even ritual, correctness.

[35] I owe the following reflection to a recent visit to the Ling Jiou monastery of Dharma Master Hsin Tao, in Taiwan. Listening to some of his discourses and noticing the depth of the impact he has had on me and how deeply he touches me as a person have led to the following insight. It is thus the fruit of a concrete and specific instance of interreligious friendship. This suggests to me that an interreligious theology of friendship can only be carried out successfully from within a relational and experiential matrix.

[36] On the contribution of Levinas’ thought to this enterprise, see Anna Strhan, And Who Is My Neighbor: Levinas and the Commandment to Love Reexamined, Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, 19,2, 2009, pp. 145-166.

[37] Aelred of Riveaux, presented briefly by Volf and McAnnally-Linz, is a champion of this “sacramental” view of friendship. Note also the reference to Rumi’s mystically oriented sense of friendship in Gianotti’s paper within this collection. It may indeed be the case that mystically minded authors tend to a more “sacramental” view of friendship.

[38] See my Towards a Jewish Theology of World Religions: Framing the Issues, Jewish Theology and World Religions, ed. A. Goshen-Gottstein and E. Korn, The Littman Library, 2012.

[39] The dynamics of choice and the criteria we bring to bear when making such choices is a foremost issue of which we must be aware, within Judaism and beyond. A comparative discussion of this issue could be fruitful.

[40] Ex. 23,32 and elsewhere.

[41] The biblical foundation for this would be Deut.7,2, and the Hebrew code term for this prohibition is lo techonem, do not find favor in them. While covenant making is no longer a historical reality and therefore no longer poses a halachic challenge, the application of lo techonem to individual relationships remains an ongoing possibility. In fact, it continues to govern the attitudes of many halachic Jews, severely limiting their positive appreciation and capacity for forming friendships with non-Jews. Of even greater concern is the place that this prohibition has assumed in practical terms relating to Jewish-Arab relations and in public controversies that it engenders. See http://www.idi.org.il/sites/english/ResearchAndPrograms/Religion%20and%20State/Pages/TheRabbisLetterAndHalakhah.aspx.

[42] See also Hezser, p. 191.

[43] See Bavli Beza 10b; Bechorot 32b.

[44] The various talmudic prohibitions were reviewed in detail by Zvi A. Steinfeld, A People Apart: Studies in Tractate Avoda Zara, Bar Ilan University Press, 2008 (Hebrew). Two points of note emerge from his work. The first, that he presents as the thesis of his work, is that all prohibitions show a move from stringency to leniency. If tradition moves that way, either as an inherent drive or under historical circumstances, then the present situation forms a latter day chapter of the same drive. But more important is the observation that almost all the prohibitions discussed by him can be, and have been, understood in one of two ways, either as a safeguard against possible contamination by forbidden foods or other prohibitions, that one might come into contact with through association with a gentile, or as prohibitions related directly to the encounter with non-Jews, seeking to minimize it. One can offer different understandings for why one would want to avoid or minimize contact with non-Jews, but the important point for our purpose is that these prohibitions have been understood not necessarily in relation to the non-Jews themselves, thereby creating an attitude of personal distance, but in relation to customs of non-Jews. If so, the concerns of these various prohibitions ensure proper observance and faithfulness to the commandments, rather than limiting contact or association with non-Jews.

[45] It should be noted that our discussion at this point moves from the specificity of alternative religious identity to the broader categorization of Jew and non-Jew. We have already acknowledged that the challenges of interreligious friendship involve both ways of framing the issue.

[46] Extension of friendship to others, based on recognition of the same God can be traced back to Philo of Alexandria. See Hezser, p. 212.

[47].       These have been discussed by me in detail in Do Jews and Christians Believe in the Same God, in a forthcoming volume on the subject of “Same God”, edited by Miroslav Volf.

[48] See *. See further my essay in Jewish Theology and World Religions, cited above, as well as that of Eugene Korn, in the same volume, describing different halachic attitudes to Christianity.

[49] Based upon the Meiri, it is possible to consider other common spiritual ground, or at least common moral ground, as the foundation for friendship with non-theistic traditions. The argument from Meiri might also be constructed through appeal to his notion of religions that espouse morality, even if for Meiri himself such teaching had to be grounded in some appropriate teaching of God, and the ensuing application of a “same God” strategy. For a contemporary application of Meiri’s principle in relation to Buddhism, see Adin Steinsaltz, Peace without Conciliation, the Irrelevance of “Toleration” in Judaism, Common Knowledge 11,1, 2005, Duke University Press, pp. 41-47.

[50] On Meiri see Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Oxford University Press, 1961; Moshe Halbertal, “Ones Possessed of Religion: Religious Tolerance in the Teachings of the Me’iri”, Edah Journal 1,1, 2000.

[51] I am not able to cite a source in which Meiri speaks directly of friendship, in relation to non-Jews, but there is at least one source in which Meiri speaks of brotherhood. See Bet Habechira to Bava Metzia 2a with reference to returning a lost object to its owner. Deut. 22,1’s reference to “your brother” is expanded by Meiri to include nations and religions that live a moral life. Within the community of the faithful, of all faiths, one must apply the notion of brotherhood. The move from brotherhood to friendship does not seem like much of a stretch.

[52] Bet Habechira to Avoda Zara 38a.

[53] See also his commentary to page 35b.

[54] The reception history of Nostra Aetate , its diffusion and application can serve as a yardstick for how deeply new paradigms in Jewish-Christian relations have advanced and how this varies from one locality to another.

[55] Sifra Kedoshim 4. Marc Hirshman raises the question of whether its importance, and its being a great principle, actually translate into it being one of the commandments. See Marc Hirshman, Love Thy Companion as Thysef: Musings on its Usage in Tannaitic Literature and the Sermon on the Mount, Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman, ed. J. Malino, Ashgate, 2004, pp. 228-233. Even more thought provoking is Jacob Neusner’s point concerning the golden rule (a parallel to Lev. 19, though not necessarily identical with it). Even though it is described as a great principle, an examination of rabbinic literature suggests it is inactive, and by no means a generative principle that defines the system. See Jacob Neusner, The Golden Rule in Classical Judaism, Review of Rabbinic Judaism, vol. 11, pp. 292-315.

[56] The discussion of this custom and various reasons for it is found in Moshe Hallamish, Transformations of a Kabbalistic Custom: I Undertake to Fulfill the Commandment of Loving my Fellow as Myself, Kiriyat Sefer 53,3 1978, pp. 534-556 (Hebrew).

[57] Most recently this has been the subject of a minor international storm, when a certain prelate suggested Christianity’s superiority over and against Judaism resides in the universal application of the love command. See http://www.adl.org/PresRele/ASInt_13/6145_13.htm.

[58] See Ernst Simon , The Neighbor (Re’a) Whom We Shall Love, Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, ed. M. Fox, Ohio State University Press, 1975, pp. 29-56.

[59] Simon brings on the one hand the halachic ruling of the Rambam, Hilchot De’ot, 6,3, and on the other the interpretation of Rabbi Yakov Mekellenburg, who in his commentary Ketav Vekabala takes it for granted that the verse has broader application.

[60] Printed in Chumash Rav Peninim.

[61] It should be noted that the classical discussion of the “great principle” in Sifra contrasted Lev. 19,18’s love command with Genesis 5,1 where the image of God functions in that capacity: “When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” Many commentators consider the latter to be broader, inasmuch as it includes non-Jews. The present author collapses the two.

[62] Verses include Gen. 35,12; Judges 14,11 and more.

[63] Eliyahu Arye Friedman, Kunteres Veahavta Lereacha Kamocha, Brooklyn, no date, but clearly in second half of 20th century. Note how this author tones down the previous teaching by introducing the qualitative distinction according to which love to the non-Jew involves non harm, and is essentially passive, corresponding to the negative formulation of the golden rule (do not do unto others), found in the Talmud.

[64] Sha’arei Kedusha, Part 1, Gate 5, a.

[65] Such an understanding can lead to including the divine within the range of love practiced. See R. Hayim of Volozhin, Nefesh Hachayim 2,18. In this way, love of the friend and love of God are identified. Similarly, various hassidic authors interpret “the friend” of Lev. 19 as God. See Noam Elimelech, Likutey Shoshana.

[66] Me’or Einaim Chukat.