Our Universe of Moral Obligation

Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

As a Jew with a deep commitment to social justice, I seek out elements of the Jewish tradition that speak to me loud and clear. Texts like this one, about loving the stranger, animate my view of Judaism as a guide for ethical living. It’s globally-minded and looks outward as well as inward. It points to the universal moral possibilities in Judaism.

It’s no surprise that this phrase is often quoted to justify and inspire social justice work. When asked, “why should we care about poverty, hunger and social inequality?” we have a clear answer: Because the Torah says, “love the stranger,” “love your neighbor as yourself.”1

This is a powerful mandate, to be sure. But I have to admit that sometimes, it is an oversimplification. Read in their traditional context, these passages don’t necessarily apply to all the causes we deploy them for today.

Let’s start with Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the members of your nation, rather you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai.” In our pluralistic society, many Jews understand “neighbor” to include non-Jews. But it’s clear from the full context of the verse that neighbor refers to “members of your nation.” In Biblical terms, we’re talking about other Jews, not members of our global society.

But this isn’t the end of the story. A few verses later, the Torah extends this commandment to include the non-Jews who live among us. Leviticus 19:34 says, “the stranger [ger] who resides [hagar] with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.”

Although the English word “stranger” refers to anyone we don’t know, the Hebrew term, ger, might be best translated as “migrant”—someone who comes from elsewhere and now lives in our midst.2

Through these parallel verses, the Torah incrementally expands the realm of our moral concern—first to our neighbors and then to outsiders among us. But there is a limit to whom the Torah imagines we might care for. These laws don’t address people in the next town over, or even halfway across the world.

In historical context of the Torah, that makes sense. During Biblical times, people rarely had contact with those living far away. There were no cellphones, no internet, no globalized economy. Today, however, our radius of concern has widened, due to advances in technology and trade. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, “Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience.”3

In our globalized modern world, my purchases and politics can impact people across the globe. On the news or in my Facebook feed, I can see the tears of a refugee child or the oppression of an invading army, often in real time. In this new global village, we should ask of our tradition: How has my responsibility changed? How do we apply old teachings to new circumstances?

Just as the Torah expanded our obligations from the Jewish “neighbor” to the migrant “stranger,” we can continue to widen the circle to include others outside of our group, our identity, our city, even our country. Since our choices and actions today have a global impact, I believe we have a moral imperative to expand our obligations of care accordingly.

At AJWS, we approach this question using an exercise called “Universe of Obligation,” which uses a set of concentric circles to help us define our commitments of care and empathy.4 Each circle represents a community we feel morally obligated to. When we ask people to name the circles, moving from the center outward, they tend to move from self to family and friends, to their local community, and then to other people, causes and issues in the wider world. But because there isn’t room (on the circles or in our lives) to care for everyone, each of us uses our own criteria: degree of need, interest or personal connection—to assess what makes it into our universe of moral concern. For example, those with chronic illness in their lives or families might prioritize the fight for healthcare access, LGBT activists might feel they must speak out about trans* rights in El Salvador, or environmentalists the impacts of climate change in Kenya. We may choose the issues we know over those that are unfamiliar.

When I teach this activity, I see the Torah’s intuition about the scope of our moral concern continuing to resonate. Closeness, kin, or geography are still where most people start building their moral universe. From there, they move out to form other notions of “closeness”—whether based on biography, passion or relationship. When we extend our moral universe and embrace the responsibility we have as global citizens, we stay true to the logic of these texts even as we expand the notions of “neighbor” and “stranger” to include those far beyond the Biblical imagination.

While we cannot simply quote Leviticus or Deuteronomy to fully justify our global concerns, we can still use the Torah’s intuitions about closeness, care, and responsibility to understand our own universe of obligation—and then act on it to build a better world.

Click here to download AJWS’s “Universe of Obligation” activity. We encourage you to explore it yourself or use it to engage others to think about their circles of responsibility—within their own communities and toward the wider world.

1 Leviticus 19:34
2 The rabbis of the Talmud transform the category of ger to mean convert, someone who does becomes part of the group, but in the biblical account it definitely refer to a ger toshav, a non-Israelite dwelling amidst Israelite society.
3 Jonathan Sacks. 2007. The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. London: Continuum. P. 30
4 This term originates in the work of sociologist Helen Fein. See Accounting for Genocide, Helen Fein, Free Press, 1979, p. 4. It has become a core part of Holocaust and human rights education. See for example, https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/defining-community-universe-obligation.