In last week’s Torah reading of Re’eh, the punishment for someone who encourages another Israelite to worship idols is introduced thus (Deuteronomy 13:6): “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, who is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers . . . ” This vivid description of a friend stands out in the context of the Pentateuch, which, unlike other parts of the Hebrew Bible, rarely mentions friendship. Kate Rozansky takes this passage as an opportunity to compare the biblical, talmudic, and Aristotelian views of friendship:
The first and only Hebrew [in the Pentateuch] who is said to have a friend is Judah. But when Judah makes a friend we also start to notice that Judah’s life goes in a new and disturbing direction. . . . Given this rather murky beginning, isn’t it fascinating that the Oral Torah, and the rabbinic Judaism that follows from it, depends on friendship? The Oral Torah was transmitted to us through [companions studying together].
Rabbinic Judaism strongly disagrees with Aristotle’s assertion that a friendship of ideas—sharing in excellent speeches and thoughts—is the essence of what it means for human beings to live in community, as opposed to living like cattle. Jewish life makes those herd-animal activities—eating together, just simply being near each other—holy.
Sometimes I fear that the Greeks teach us that it is only what makes us excellent that makes us human (or to put it another way, that excellence of mind is the source of human dignity), while for the Torah, humanity itself is a source of dignity, even when it is messy, or deeply flawed. The Torah teaches us that our whole selves are a reflection of the Divine, and thus, merely by being present, we are able to participate in something transcendent.
This is why, when someone texts in the [synagogue’s] WhatsApp, “We need a few good men for the minyan!” [referring to the quorum of ten necessary for public prayer], the rabbi can add, “They don’t even have to be so good.” Because your presence is enough.