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“I am Seeking my Brothers”: The Lost Jewish Virtue of Friendship

“I am Seeking my Brothers”: The Lost Jewish Virtue of Friendship

"And a man found him, when he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him, 'What are you seeking?' And he said, 'I am seeking my brothers'" (Genesis 37:15). This story about Joseph strikes me so deeply. As a child who moved to different cities every few years, I constantly felt like I was seeking “my brothers.” To some degree, we are all wandering in search of our “brothers.” Friendship is a challenging virtue to cultivate, even more challenging in our transient times. Yet, in an age that is increasingly interdependent our culture strangely is moving toward an illusion of independence. Cultivating spiritual friendship ensures we remain grounded in the types of human relationships that cultivate virtue.

As a campus rabbi at the UCLA Hillel, I recently realized that as clergy we often speak about outreach, community, and leadership, but rarely about friendship. What is our role in helping emerging adults to cultivate the virtue of friendship? 

 Barriers to True Friendship Today

Transience is not even the biggest barrier to the cultivation of friendship today. Our Web-based society has weakened the strength of our relationships, and the fast-paced, self-interested nature of these relationships has become more transactional. One can “friend” or “defriend” someone with the click of a finger on Facebook. There are many “friends” created through social networking, but the social bonds are very weak. Web-based friendships may be interesting, entertaining, and enhance social capital but they rarely create strong dependent bonds that foster more moral and spiritually inspired living. Friendship becomes more about the taking than the giving.

Today, we are witnessing increased individualism, decreased institutional affiliation, and more talk about social networks than about relationships. While this helps our emerging micro-communities, it diminishes our traditional communities. True friendship is on the decline. Cornell University sociologists found that adults have only two friends they can discuss “important matters” with—down from three in 1985. Half of those surveyed said they had only one, 4 percent had none. Friendship may still be social but it is less confidential and intimate.

Further, more Americans are living alone. In major U.S. cities, 40 percent of households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and Washington, D.C., nearly 50 percent of homes consist of one person. Singles are marrying later, divorce is on the rise, and more individuals prefer to live in privacy than within a community. Increasingly, we live alone in a lonely society.

Without deep friendships, we lack adequate self-knowledge and awareness of our blind spots. It can also lead to arrogance, as we become less able to recognize our need for others. To acquire most of our world knowledge, we must rely upon what others have shared with us in order to supplement our own experience. We look to experts for technical knowledge and to friends for subjective knowledge. When we fail to cultivate friendships, we fail to cultivate ourselves.

Friendship on Campus Today

During the day, most students study, work, and exercise leadership through student organizations. Friends are more often social buddies than life partners. They are for “time off” more than for “time on.” For many of these students, a friend is less of a rock to rely upon than a partner in finding a social voice and identity. Most students struggle to turn a social buddy into a lasting personal confidante. Of Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship – pleasure, utility, and virtue – students tend to understand friendships of virtue the least (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII). Spiritual leadership may help address this deficiency.

In a friend, we not only find comfort and companionship but also moral accountability. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who frequently references Aristotle and other classical philosophers, explains: “In achieving accountability we will have learned not only how to speak to, but also how to speak for the other. We will, in the home or in the workplace or in other shared activity, have become—in one sense of that word—friends.”

I find that friendship on campus is cultivated most deeply in safe spaces created for personal life reflection, intimate sharing, and boundary-breaking and trust-building activities. As a campus rabbi, I have chosen not to lead social activities but mission-driven activities, because deeper relationships are cultivated there. When I have taken student groups on volunteer missions to places like Thailand, Guatemala, Israel, and New Orleans, their hearts are wide open to one another in a way that does not happen at the movies, a basketball game, or a frat party. When we engage in a text study about relationship dilemmas, spiritual yearning, or global poverty, students connect with each other more authentically than they do over their dorm dinners.

There is something to be said for natural socialization, but we should not underestimate the role spiritual leaders can play to bring about friendships. Too often, we focus on building community to the exclusion of creating individual friendships.

This is not to blame teenagers, social media, and the loss of virtue. Rather, the opportunity is upon religious leaders to create meaningful spaces for conversation, sharing, volunteering, and creating mission-driven partnerships. As clergy, teachers, and mentors, perhaps the most important role we can play is to create micro-communities for students to discover friendship in the deepest sense, one that cultivates deeper moral and spiritual commitment and responsibility. Professors, social workers, and college counselors have their role to foster healthy relationships but campus clergy are in the best position to create meaningful spaces for reflection, conversation, and service where students can cultivate relationships committed to the virtues.

The Virtue of Friendship in Jewish Thought

The word for friendship in Aramaic (chavruta) means more than just a relationship; it is the primary model of Jewish learning. A chavruta, in its truest sense, is a challenger (bar plugta), not one who merely supports us, but also challenges us. The Talmud teaches that in religious learning and growth, a friend is even more important than a teacher: "I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers" (Ta'anit 7a). A friend of virtue can be more connected to our intimate life pursuits more than any teacher can be. Thus, the rabbis teach that “one is not even to part from one's friend without exchanging words of Torah” (Berakhot 31a). A friend, on the highest level, is primarily a learning partner, a partner in life.

It is through dialogical care that we engage in the deepest learning. When a relationship no longer merely has an instrumental value but is part of the creation of bonds of truths through mutual self-disclosure, we cultivate intimate relationships. In this shared holy effort, we cultivate solidarity and, in reciprocal transformation, we come to love one another; in the co-construction of values and discovering a shared conception of eudaimonia (how best to live), our identities become intertwined. 

While friendship has a crucial role in child development, it does not lose its significance in adulthood when virtuous living is most actualized. Maimonides explains that “man requires friends all his lifetime” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:49). It is the strong advice of the rabbis to "acquire for yourself a friend" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6). Like any other moral effort, it does not come naturally but requires deliberation and toil. 

My commitment to supporting the cultivation of virtue-based friendships is motivated by Jewish values. To be sure, one clear and important value of friendship is utilitarian; friends help each other in times of distress. As Ecclesiastes teaches: "Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up" (4:9-10). The Bible consistently reminds us to protect the stranger. In friendship, we can move the other, and ourselves, from alienation into a social network and friendship.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik valued both a “haver li-de’agah, a person in whom one can confide both in times of crisis, when distress strikes, and in times of glory, when one feels happy and content” and a “haver le’de’ah, a friend in whom he or she has absolute trust or faith, a person in whom he or she has absolute trust and faith” (Family Redeemed 27-28). A friend is an emotional partner in our high and low journeys. Sometimes friendship is manifest in lifelong commitment. Other times, we can offer moments of the gift of friendship. One is never lonely if they are willing to connect to whomever they encounter. Every moment can be seen as an opportunity for spiritual presence and friendship.

In addition to support, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains (based upon the book of Job) that there is a vital spiritual purpose to friendships. “Job certainly did not grasp the meaning of friendship. At this phase, even communal and social relations served the purpose of utility and safety. Real friendship is possible only when man rises to the height of an open existence, in which he is capable of prayer and communication. In such living, the personality fulfills itself” (Out of the Whirlwind, 154). It is not until Job realizes the importance of opening himself spiritually to others that he truly comes to understand the virtue of friendship: “And the Lord returned the fortunes of Job, when he prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).

Living a good happy life without deep friendships was unfathomable to the rabbis. According to one Talmudic story, Honi, the legendary miracle-worker, was depressed from social isolation. He prayed for death that he might be released from his despair. Rava, a great Talmudic sage of the 4th century, then utters tersely that one must choose “either friendship or death” (Ta’anit 23a). The lesson is that we cannot thrive in our life missions without companionship.

When friendship is just about having a good time on a hike or at a movie, it is not impactful or enduring. But when friendship is about the cultivation of virtue, the opportunity to pursue the good, the exploration of life, and the search for meaning it is transformative and enduring. As the rabbis teach “Any love that is dependent upon a specific cause, when the cause is gone, the love is gone; but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease” (Pirke Avot 5:16). Friendships of pleasure and utility are fun but end as our needs and wants evolve. Friendships of virtue are not whimsical as they are attached to our pursuit of the just, holy, and good.

A friend is more than another who shares our experiences, values, or narratives. To friends, we have special duties that arise from our relationships. To become virtuous citizens committed to moral and religious excellence, life partners are crucial. Religious mentors can play a crucial role in reinforcing these values for emerging adults on campus and strengthening social bonds in an age where they are increasingly threatened.

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for order on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America. 


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