In his Sefer ha-Brit, Pinḥas Eilyahu Hurwitz (1765-1821) aimed to introduce Jews unable (or unwilling) to read European languages to the scientific advances of his day. The book, which became something of a best-seller, also included a second part devoted to kabbalistic piety; this may explain why it remains popular among 21st-century Ḥaredim, being recently republished by a ḥaredi press. The American historian David Ruderman has produced a scholarly study on it. In his review, Yitzhak Melamed explicates Hurwitz’s “counter-enlightenment” outlook and his universalism:
Ruderman’s study of Sefer ha-Brit is an excellent entry into the recent subgenre of microhistories of odd or influential books, and, for the most part, his discussion of Hurwitz’s views is nuanced and precise. . . . [Yet] Ruderman seems to be at a loss to understand Hurwitz’s repeated insistence that the biblical command to love one’s neighbor had as its object all human beings, not merely other Jews. . . .
[As Ruderman notes], chauvinistic and xenophobic views [can be found] in a variety of Jewish literary genres throughout the centuries. . . . Yet he fails to account for the persistence of a universalist—sometimes egalitarian—attitude toward Gentiles at the very core of rabbinic culture.
The command to love one’s Gentile neighbor was hardly Hurwitz’s invention. Consider Leviticus 19:34—“The stranger [ger] who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself”—or Deuteronomy 10:19—“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Rabbinic commentators on these two verses (as well as the 34 other verses referring to the ger) disagree on whether the word “ger” refers to an alien resident (ger toshav) or to a convert (ger tsedek). [The former interpretation] is not the majority view, but it is not a radical outlier in the tradition, either.
A cursory examination of traditional interpretations of the talmudic notion of “love of human creatures” will yield numerous sources—medieval and early modern—that apply it to all of humanity. Perhaps the best proof that Hurwitz’s preaching of universal love of humanity was not quite as radical as Ruderman suggests is the simple fact that, unlike other claims that Hurwitz makes, there is very little evidence that [the book] provoked any critical reaction from traditionalists, despite its status as a best-seller in their world. Indeed, it may well be that this very section contributed to the popularity of the book in traditional circles.
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