Very Two as Very One: A Response to Understanding Jewish Friendship

Meir Sendor

Dr. Goshen-Gottstein struggles candidly and eloquently with the challenges of interreligious friendship from a Jewish perspective, speaking from broad and deep personal experience and masterful scholarship. In response, I would like offer an additional model by developing a line of inquiry that he suggests:

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. 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.[1]

By fleshing out the implications of the interplay of self and other through a rigorous phenomenological approach, it may possible to turn some of the obstacles to interreligious friendship discussed by Goshen-Gottstein to some advantage.

The classic Western philosophic analyses of friendship generally assume that what draws individuals together is commonality – shared language, shared interests, shared attitudes, shared ideals. In this light, interreligious friendship would seem to be hopelessly disadvantaged. It’s not just that in such a relationship the respective communities, cultures, and faiths are not shared, but that they can be in opposition. A friendship across religions is often required to transcend not only the neutral indifference of strangers, but collective hostilities. Yet within the philosophic tradition itself is woven a contrasting thread of discourse that acknowledges a counter-principle at the heart of friendship. This principle may not merely enable the inclusion of interreligious relationships within a broadly defined range of friendship, but even raise the possibility that a close relationship between members of different religious traditions, each of whom is committed to their own faith, may facilitate the discovery of the authentic character of friendship itself.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, already acknowledged conflicting views on the nature of friendship: “some define it as a kind of likeness and say like people are friends… others on the contrary say ‘two of a trade never agree.’”[2] The fact that a high degree of similarity may lead to competition rather than friendship indicates that likeness in itself is no guarantee of amicability. Aristotle goes on to examine the role of similarity and dissimilarity in friendship, privileging similarity as essential and relegating differences to relations involving disparity of social status, or disputes that arise in inferior friendships based on utility.[3] The primacy of similarity is also emphasized in the quote attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius and paraphrased by Maimonides, cited above, that Aristotle “was once asked what a friend is, and his answer was, ‘one soul abiding in two bodies.’”[4] Here, similarity is raised rhetorically to the level of identity. Cicero follows in this line of thought, that friendship is based on sameness, even a narcissistic identity of self and other: “for the man who keeps his eye on a true friend, keeps it, so to speak, on a model of himself.” [5] Cicero’s view had long-lasting influence on Christian and European conceptions of friendship well into the modern period.[6]

It may be, however, that the structure of friendship requires certain similarities and certain dissimilarities functioning together to be meaningful and fruitful. The Talmud speaks of the two great scholars Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish, close friends who argued incessantly over fine points of the Law. Their numerous disputes recorded throughout the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud stimulate some of the most incisive legal analysis in the Talmudic tradition. They were of very different backgrounds. Rabbi Yochanan was a member of the intellectual elite, Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish was originally a highwayman and occasional gladiator who was initiated late into Torah study, by Rabbi Yochanan himself. According to a Talmudic story, when the two scholars had a serious falling-out due to an ill-considered personal remark by Rabbi Yochanan, and Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish died from a resulting depression, Rabbi Yochanan himself became profoundly depressed. The Rabbis thought to comfort him by sending one of their best scholars to engage him in the legal study that was the passion of his life:

Rabbi Eleazar ben Padat, whose learning was sharp, went and sat before him. For every statement that Rabbi Yochanan made, he said to him “there is an authoritative teaching that supports you.” [Rabbi Yochanan] said “you’re trying to be like bar Lakish? With bar Lakish, whenever I would make a statement, he would challenge me with twenty four objections and I would reply with twenty four answers and from this the learning was expanded. And you say ‘there is an authoritative teaching that supports you?!’ Don’t I know that I am saying well?” He went and ripped his garment and cried and said “where are you, bar Lakish, where are you, bar Lakish,” and cried out until he lost his mind.[7]

The tragic outcome reveals the depth of this friendship that thrived on a shared passion for the activity of study coupled with the intellectual and emotional delight each took in each other’s differing opinions, their otherness. Talmudic stories are not always, and not merely, intended as literal history, but they are always intended as exempla. This friendship nurtured an intimate sense of unity that did not need to be confirmed through thematic agreement and was in fact intensified by vigorous disagreement. The possibility of such a relationship may be rooted in the full nature of the friendship itself.

Emerson, in his essay “Friendship,” emphasizes this point, in an analysis that could almost serve for a phenomenological reading of the Talmudic text. He observes:

Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness that piques each with the presence of power and of consent in the other party. Let me be alone to the end of the world, rather than that my friend should overstep, by word or by a look, his real sympathy. I am equally balked by antagonism and by compliance. Let him not cease an instant to be himself. The only joy I have in his being mine, is that the not mine is mine. I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it. That high office requires great and sublime parts. There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which, beneath these disparities, unites them.[8]

While Emerson speaks prescriptively, his preference is rooted in a phenomenological description of the dynamics inherent in friendship. His formula “that the not mine is mine,” italics his, is precise: it is the irreducible otherness of the friend, who yet freely enters into the trust of abiding relationship, that grants friendship its supreme meaningfulness, its “joy.” Agreements of opinion, thematic agreements, are not a necessary guarantee of friendship, and when they are insincere or sycophantic, vitiate it. The honesty Emerson expects from a true friend is an indicator that each party can be fully themselves while being full friends. His second formula, “there must be very two, before there can be very one,” is also precise. Authentic friendship honors the self-aware individuation of the parties, and rests upon mature differentiation – a technical psychological term describing an ideal of healthy relationship in which each person is secure in their independence and thereby able to relate freely to the other as other.[9] It is this condition to which Emerson refers when he says high friendship must be able to “do without it,” that is, without the friendship itself. The bond between high friends cannot be motivated by neediness and dependence. Finally, Emerson observes that the more mutually differentiated the parties are, the greater the opportunity to discover their most significant identity, which runs deeper than any thematic agreements. He speaks of “identity” in the singular, signaling not merely a set of thematic commonalities, but what must be an existential unity.

Emerson’s formulation prefigures some of the recent phenomenological analyses of the nature of friendship. Maurice Blanchot, in a eulogy for his friend Georges Bataille, invokes insights on alterity based on the thought of his other friend, Emmanuel Levinas, expressing a moving philosophic farewell:

We must give up trying to know those to whom we are linked by something essential; by this I mean we must greet them in the relation with the unknown in which they greet us as well, in our estrangement. Friendship, this relation without dependence, without episode, yet into which all of the simplicity of life enters, passes by way of the recognition of the common strangeness that does not allow us to speak of our friends but only to speak to them, not to make of them a topic of conversations (or essays), but the movement of understanding in which, speaking to us, they reserve, even on the most familiar terms, an infinite distance, the fundamental separation on the basis of which what separates becomes relation. Here discretion lies in… the pure interval that, from me to this other who is a friend, measures all that is between us, the interruption of being that never authorizes me to use him, or my knowledge of him… and that, far from preventing all communication, brings us together in the difference and sometimes the silence of speech.[10]

Blanchot, addressing his friend across the divide of death, presses for the most fundamental feature of friendship, beyond all thematization and conceptual knowing, that reaches for the other through pure address, through embracing the irreducible ontological distance of their otherness, embracing radical difference. His formulation echoes Levinas’ phenomenological analysis of the moment of greeting another human being, a moment that can be overlooked as brief and banal, and yet by virtue of its simple brevity slips in before any reductive thematization, any attempts to know or categorize the other, can occur, to reveal a moment of pure encounter with otherness.[11] Blanchot applies this feature of the brief moment of greeting to the abiding relationship with a friend, in which the same irreducible otherness is revealed, but as precipitated out over time. This is true of many long-term relationships. A long-married couple may have started their romance with a sense of what seemed to be their multiple points of similarity, but over time they come to realize that even those similarities are experienced differently by each of them, and they come to treasure their quirky differences and appreciate each other’s refreshing otherness.

Following Levinas, Blanchot endorses an essential dissymmetry in friendship, prior to reciprocity. Ricoeur had challenged Levinas on just this point: whether friendship must ultimately be based on some degree of mutual, intersubjective recognition.[12] This mutuality, however, only appears from an objectifying vantage point, standing outside the relationship of both parties. When Levinas and Blanchot hold out for the primacy of dissymmetry they are holding to the rigorous viewpoint of consciousness. Even if the friend, at some level, looks for confirmation from his or her friend, the return of a glance, this confirmation of relationship does not dispel the fundamental dissymmetry: that each much reach and take responsibility for the other with a whole commitment before there can be reciprocity.

Derrida wrestles with the implications of this position of Blanchot: how strange an other can the friend be and still be friend? [13] What is the ultimate cognitive distance of the other, so to speak, beyond reductive categorization as neighbor or as brother, but just this side of a strangeness that becomes totally foreign? If such a friend is possible, such a friendship allows for, even welcomes, great difference. Such a friendship would obtain between two mature, fully differentiated individuals, and discovers a commonality that can barely be named. Even to call it common humanity is too reductive. What is shared remains mysterious, hardly nameable, but all the more real for that.

On the question of the place of dissimilarity in the eidetic structure of friendship, Derrida develops a complex and nuanced approach in The Politics of Friendship. In his customary fashion, he chooses a provocative dictum to anchor his exploration, and through a theme-and-variations development exhaustively examines multiple sides of the question. In this case, the dictum is another attributed to Aristotle, by Diogenes Laertius and others: “O my friends, there is no friend.”[14] Acknowledging other possible readings and translations, Derrida’s main line of attack takes this perplexing saying as an apparent self-contradiction and unpacks it to reveal the inner dynamic of friendship that maintains a creative and necessary tension between similarity and dissimilarity, friend and no-friend.[15]

The discovery of an inevitable, necessary, even precious dissimilarity at the heart of all friendship confirms and provides theoretical grounding for the Talmudic exemplum of welcoming otherness and difference within friendship, very two as very one. This, in turn, raises the question of the possibility of extending this model to interreligious friendships. Goshen-Gottstein notes the subtle complexity of the approach of the Jewish legal system towards relations with the religious other. For instance, a series of decrees concerning restrictions on certain food items processed by those who are not Jewish is traditionally understood as designed in part to discourage fraternization and prevent intermarriage between Jews and members of other religions. These restrictions make sharing a meal with someone who is not Jewish sometimes awkward, but not impossible. The Rabbinic tradition can be quite direct about categorically prohibiting behavior deemed inappropriate, yet when it comes to interreligious friendship, the disincentives and deterrents are largely indirect.[16] He observes, though, that few if any genuine cross-religious relationships are recorded or memorialized in Jewish spiritual or legal literature. He also resists the temptation to create a model relationship by over-interpreting or airbrushing the few recorded relationships between Jews and those of other religions that were merely instrumental to some practical political purpose.

There is one unusual and admittedly exceptional interreligious friendship described in the Talmud and midrashic literature, however, that is worth mentioning, even if its motivational purity and literal historical veracity are problematic. Several Jewish sources speak of a close friendship between the great scholar and political leader of second century Judea, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi and a Roman Emperor named Antoninus. Who, exactly, this Antoninus was, and whether he was in fact an Emperor or a local governor, has been a subject of scholarly debate. The power imbalance between the leader of the Jewish vassal state, no matter how distinguished he might be, and the Emperor of Rome or even a regional governor, and the obvious utilitarian quality of this relationship, prevent us from using this relationship as a practical model of genuine friendship between a Jew and a religious other.[17] Yet without making too much of it, we can still appreciate the presence of the multiple descriptions of this relationship found in the Talmud and Midrash, cited approvingly, even with pride, a sign that it is meant to convey a positive value. Some accounts stress the affection and respect each has for the other.[18] Both leaders consult with each other for advice on sensitive matters, communal and personal.[19] Other accounts note their full freedom of expression and intellectual honesty. The Emperor poses challenging questions, some of which have bearing on matters of Jewish religious law, and the Rabbi is not afraid to state his own positions or those of Jewish law that disagree with the Emperor’s assumptions. On several occasions, regarding significant points of religious law, the Rabbi defers to the Emperor’s positions and admits that he has learned important principles from him, principles that were implicit in Torah tradition that the Rabbi himself had not previously appreciated: “this was taught to me by Antoninus, and Scripture supports him.”[20] In other words, in this interreligious friendship there is a robust and healthy give-and-take on a range of personal, communal and intellectual issues, and the Rabbi proudly admits that he gains insight into his own tradition from his discussions with his friend from another religious tradition. It should be noted, though, that this is a friendship among elites, an exceptional friendship. On the one hand, this means it cannot serve as a normative model for everyone. On the other hand, it leaves open the possibility that certain unique individuals, secure enough in their religious identity, of strong mind and open heart, could embrace such a friendship, in all its complexity, with the assent of the tradition.[21]

That authentic friendship welcomes difference and distance, thereby enabling the discovery of the other as other and all the more so as friend, the “joy… that the “not mine is mine”, lays the ground for the possibility of real interreligious friendship. The very dissimilarities of theology and culture that could have been seen as insurmountable stumbling blocks become the very means to strip away the more superficial thematic agreements that some forms of friendship use as props, to reveal the most fundamental relationship, to discover the truly other as true friend. Such a friendship between two people, each of whom is committed to their differing faiths, and committed to each other, is not for everyone – not yet, in any case – but for those more pioneering souls of strong emotional, intellectual and spiritual constitution, it is a great gift that reveals what is possible for humanity.


[1] A. Goshen-Gottstein, “Understanding Jewish Friendship, Extending Friendship beyond Judaism,” 17, and cf. 5-6.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. R. McKeon (New York, 1970) 1155a-b, 1059.

[3] Ibid., 1156b-1159b (1061-67); 1162b-1164b (1073-76).

[4] Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, vol I, (Cambridge, 1959) Aristotle, ch. 9. Maimondes, Perush ha-Mishnayot, Avot 1:6.

[5] Cicero, Lealius de Amicitia, trans. F.O. Copley, On Friendship, (Ann Arbor, 1971) 56.

[6] See M. Volf and R. McAnnally-Linz, “A Christian Perspective on Interfaith Friendship,” in the present volume, 5-8. R. Pahl, On Friendship (Cambridge, 2000) 24-7, 53-8.

[7] Talmud Bava Mezi’a’ 84a.

[8] R. W. Emerson, The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1 (New York, 1929), 189-90.

[9] M. Kerr and M. Bowen, Family Evaluation (New York, 1988) 109. Compare Emerson, loc. cit., 191: “We must be our own before we can be another’s… There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect, until in their dialogue each stands for the whole world.” I thank Professor Awet Andemichael for suggesting the inclusion of this quotation.

[10] M. Blanchot, Friendship, trans. E. Rottenberg, (Stanford, 1997) 291.

[11] E. Levinas, “Is Ontology Fundamental,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. A. T. Peperzak, S. Critchley, R. Bernasconi, (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996) 7: “A human being is the sole being which I am unable to encounter without expressing this very encounter to him. It is precisely in this that the encounter distinguishes itself from knowledge. In every attitude in regard to the human there is a greeting – if only in the refusal of greeting… Before any participation in a common content by comprehension, it consists in the intuition of a sociality by a relation that is consequently irreducible to comprehension. “

[12] E. Levinas and P. Ricoeur, Entretien Levinas-Ricoeur, in Emmanuel Levinas, Philosophe et Pedagogue (Paris, 1998) 9-28.

[13] J. Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. G. Collins, (London and Brooklyn, 2005) 297-99.

[14] The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, vol. V (Cambridge, 1959) 21.

[15] J. Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, 171-93, 271-308.

[16] A. Goshen Gottstein, p. 23-26.

[17] R. A. Freund, “Alexander Macedon and Antoninus: Two Greco-Roman Heroes of the Rabbis,” in Crisis and Reaction: the Heroes of Jewish History, ed. M. Mor (Omaha, 1995) 19-72. See the remarks of A. Goshen-Gottstein, p. 18.

[18] Talmud Avodah Zarah 10b. Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:11, 3:2; Shevi’it 6:1. Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 11:4.

[19] Talmud Avodah Zarah 10b.

[20] Talmud Sanhedrin 91b

[21] Compare A. Goshen-Gottstein’s discussion of exceptional interfaith friendships, p. 3.