I don’t watch nearly enough TV to know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine there’s a better pair of friends on-screen right now than Broad City’s Ilana and Abbi. So with the new season starting tonight (9/13), and with the High Holidays just a week away, I figured it’s a good time to address the topic of friendships.
Given the importance of friendships (the Talmud says: “friendship or death”), it’s surprising how rarely we reflect on our relationships with friends – what qualities we look for in a friend, what we expect from a friendship, how we can deepen a friendship, how we can be a better friend, etc.
We spend a lot of time thinking about friends as “possessions” – the ones we have, the ones we no longer have, the ones we wish we had – and less time on what it means to be a friend. We often focus more on quantity of friends than quality of friendships.
Quantity isn’t really a Jewish value when it comes to friendship. As Ethics of our Fathers states: “Acquire a friend for yourself.” Just one is sufficient. But what about quality? Thanks in part to Facebook, the word “friend” has lost a lot of its meaning. Besides, there are different tiers of friends. (“Best friend is not a person, it’s a tier.” – Mindy Kaling.) So, what type of friend must we acquire?
Based on this idea from Ethics of our Fathers, Maimonides, arguably the most famous Jewish philosopher, explains that there are three types of friends:
1) a friend with benefits (yup, he actually uses that term)
2) a pleasant friend
3) a friend for the good
He explains that friends with benefits, or “useful friends,” are like business partners. They each do something for the other in this transactional relationship. As it says in Ecclesiastes (4:9-10): “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.” While we associate “friends with benefits” to a particular type of relationship today, sadly, this may describe more of our friendships than we’d like to admit.
Pleasant friends, the second tier according to Maimonides, “inspire full confidence, so that you do not need to be reserved with them in action or in speech. Rather, you will be able to reveal to them all your concerns, the good and the ugly, without fear that it will bring you harm before them or anyone else. For when one achieves this level of confidence in another person, s/he will discover great pleasantness in speaking with that person and the intimacy of that friendship.” This perfectly captures the friendship of Abbi and Ilana, and it describes the type of friendship we crave for in a society that obstructs intimacy.
But interestingly, there is a higher tier than this – “friends for the good” – and this is the type of friend that Maimonides believes we should acquire. He describes this type of friend as follows:
When both friends yearn for and are directed toward one goal, namely, the good. Each one will want to be helped by the other in achieving that good for both of them together… This kind of friendship is like the friendship that a teacher feels for a student and a student feels for a teacher.
As opposed to the second tier, which is defined by absolute acceptance, this higher-level friend pushes and challenges the other to grow. This type of friendship requires honest communication and receptivity to hard truths. It might not be as fun, or as “pleasant,” but it does move us toward greater self-actualization.
This top-tier of friendship is not easy to build or maintain. Many of us may not even want it; growth is painful, and maintaining a second-tier friendship is hard enough (especially when your friend, like Ilana, wants it to also be a “friends with benefits” relationship). But, as we head into the high holidays -traditionally a time for self-reflection – next week, it’s worth considering who pushes us to be our best selves. If you don’t have such a person, perhaps it’s time to acquire a top-tier friend for yourself.