On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and arguably the holiest day in the Jewish year, the Holy Ark is opened and the Torah is taken out to be read. According to the traditional liturgy, the reader chants from the book of Leviticus, chapter 18, a litany of laws pertaining to the uncovering of nakedness, known as gilui arayot, which concludes with the statement: “And you will keep my charge: not to do any of the abominable customs that were done before you; and you will not become impure by them, I am YHWH, your God.” (Leviticus 18:30)
Reform rabbis, in their wisdom, chose to institute the reading of a different passage from Leviticus 19, often referred to as the Holiness Code. This reading also contains many laws governing human behavior, most notably laws against withholding the wages of a day laborer, cursing the deaf, holding grudges and exacting revenge. This holiness code also concludes with a summary statement: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am YHWH.” (Leviticus 19:18)
It is unusual to find Jews in complete agreement about anything– Jewish tradition is predicated upon argumentation and differing opinions. However, the ancient rabbis agreed that the principle of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, love your neighbor as yourself, is of paramount importance. Rabbi Akiva referred to this verse as a fundamental principle of Jewish law, kl’al gadol ba-Torah. He could not have predicted that thousands of years later his statement would be put to music and the catchy tune would be taught to children in Jewish day schools in North America. This law is adopted by Christianity and Islam, and it exists in some form in every religion that I know.
It is a problematic verse, however, because love is an emotion and emotions cannot be legislated. In fact, Rabbi Akiva called it a principle, rather than a law, perhaps acknowledging that he and his colleagues were limited to creating laws governing actions. As such, this rule or principle is often understood to encompass acts of hesed, loving kindness, which cannot be repaid, such as visiting the sick, burying the dead and comforting mourners. While there is general agreement that we must treat others with respect and kindness, it is not surprising that the rabbis do not agree about the particulars, namely, how to express that love and to whom it extends.
Here are some excerpts from the generations of biblical scholars, who wrote extensive commentaries on the Torah, and from the legal experts, who wrote codes of Jewish law based upon the mitzvot, commandments, enumerated in the Torah:
Maimonides (12th century) defines v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, loving your neighbor as yourself, as a specific action, that of taking care of your neighbor’s material objects in the appropriate manner: “When he protects the possessions of another person, he must think and feel as if he is guarding his own possessions.”
Sforno (15-16th century) defines v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha more as a state of mind, as putting yourself in your friend’s position, and praying for your neighbor in the appropriate manner. He gives the example that if your friend is ill you must think to yourself: “If I were ill myself, what would be the best blessing I could receive from God?” Then you must pray that your friend receives that blessing.
Nahmanides (14th century) offers a more realistic approach, recognizing that it is impossible for a person to love anyone as much as he loves himself. He cites Rabbi Akiva’s statement in Talmud that if a person is in a situation in which he has a choice to save his own life or the life of his companion, his own life takes priority. Therefore, v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha means that one should not only pray that his neighbor receives all the blessings he hopes to receive himself, but also not allow himself to envy another’s good fortune, because envy leads to hatred.
These explanations are certainly useful in guiding our behavior toward others close to us. But they do not offer guidelines about how we are supposed to treat hostile neighbors.
The rabbis who compiled Siddur (prayer book) followed Nahmanides’ approach, that it is impossible to love your neighbor as yourself, and took it a step further, acknowledging that some neighbors are total jerks. We can infer from the following meditation, which they included in the morning service to be recited every day, that they considered what prayers were appropriate for hostile neighbors and concluded that we are allowed to pray to be safe from these neighbors:
May it be your will, O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, to save me today and every day from arrogant people and from arrogance. Save me from evil people, evil companions and evil neighbors, from mishaps and destructive powers, from difficult judgments and opponents, whether they are members of the covenant or not.
It is important to note that the ancient rabbis, as well as many of the medieval biblical commentators, lived surrounded by hostile neighbors and had no legal autonomy or equal citizenship as we enjoy today. Understandably, they defined “neighbor” as referring exclusively to fellow Jews.
In fact, some modern Jews still hold to that definition, and would say that love begins and ends at home, that no one else will take care of the Jews, that we must stick together and take care of our own, and that tzedakah (charitable funds) should be donated only to Jewish organizations. I cannot disagree: It is critical for every Jew to feel a sense of identification with the Jewish community. The Jewish people are a small minority in the world, and we must take care of one another in order to remain both vibrant and viable.
At the same time, I am troubled by the legal limitations of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha as our sages have delineated them. It is widely known that the principle of pikuah nefesh, saving a life, is also considered central in Jewish law. The ancient rabbis taught in the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.), that “He who saves a life, save the world entire.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin) Furthermore, the next generation of rabbis taught that “saving a life takes precedence over Shabbat.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat) We read in the Hanukkah story that the Maccabees defended themselves on the Sabbath, and we know that doctors, nurses, EMTs and other medical care providers are permitted to work on Sabbath.
This principle, that saving a life supersedes the Sabbath, is so familiar to us that we don’t really question it. However, the rabbis who instituted this rule did not extend it to non Jews:
If a building collapsed on the Sabbath and [the debris] fell on a person, if there is doubt whether he is there [buried under debris] or not there, whether he is alive or dead, whether he is a non Jew or a Jew, they must remove the debris. If they find him alive, they must remove the debris for him, but if he is dead, they must leave him [until after the Sabbath]. The text does not need to say “whether he is a Jew who is alive or dead, rather, “whether he is a non Jew or a Jew.” (Talmud Bavli, Yoma)
The disturbing implication of this textual analysis by the later rabbis is that extraordinary measures are only taken to save the life of a Jew. If there is any possibility that a Jew is buried in the rubble, we keep digging with no concern about breaking the laws of the Sabbath. Not so for a non Jew. Given the historical context in which these laws were written, it is unsurprising. Still, here the Talmud offers textual evidence to support the claims of those who would only love their fellow Jews.
Later commentaries further constrict the boundaries of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha. Rashbam (12th century) taught that you must love your fellow Jew if your neighbor is good, but if your neighbor is evil; do not love him, as it written in Proverbs: “Those who revere God hate evil.” Radbaz (15th century) wrote: “It is not necessary to extend oneself to a person who has cut himself off from Jewish people. The Jewish community is compared to the body of a person. Just as one would not think of deliberately injuring or neglecting his own limb, so too every Jew must seek the well-being of the Jewish people.” Some of these later commentators add that the reason for v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha is that God created all people in the Divine Image. And yet they are clearly stating that our obligation extends only to Jews, or even to “good Jews.”
I don’t doubt that it is easier to extend compassion and loving kindness to those who are like us, who are members of our tribe, our mishpochah (family). And it can be challenging to extend beyond ourselves to our neighbors who are not like us, to the “others” who may not love us.
I appreciate how difficult v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha was for our ancestors, living among hostile neighbors, and I would hardly suggest that it is any easier for us to observe this law in our own times. But I would also contend that we live in a world without borders. Therefore we cannot withhold our love for our neighbors.
My next door neighbor is separated from me by an invisible property line, sometimes demarcated only by her greener lawn. She is my neighbor because we live side by side. But the woman in South Africa who logs onto my Facebook page to view my pottery is also my neighbor. We may be separated by the International Date Line (which is also invisible), but we are, it seems to me, living side by side on the Internet. The nations of the world are interdependent and inextricably bound to one another. We Jews cannot afford to love ONLY our Jewish neighbors, or those we deem worthy.
I have been looking for textual support for my interpretation of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha , and it has not been easy to find. I recall the headlines from the beginning of 2010, and I am again gratified by the Jewish community’s response to the earthquake in Haiti. What Jew would not be proud when Israel, the Jewish state, responds so immediately to a disaster, extending their love well beyond their neighborhood? I continue to listen carefully for news about the Jewish response to the flooding in Pakistan, which has put some 3 million children at risk for diseases that are carried by contaminated water and insects, not to mention dehydration and starvation. I wonder whether Pakistani children are our neighbors. Does our loving kindness extend beyond this political border?
Moreover, I follow the current headlines about the French deporting the Roma, about the Dutch fanning the flames of hatred against Muslim immigrants, about our own politicians and law enforcement agents promising to rid our country of Mexican immigrants. Not only are we not loving our neighbors, we are actively engaged in the segregation of neighborhoods to exclude anyone we deem unwelcome. We Jews know too well what it means to be defined as “other,” to be unwelcome in the neighborhood. I find myself desperate for a definition of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha that will restore sanity and hope in our troubled times.
Our Jewish tradition has a legal precedent for defining love of our neighbor with strict limitations. This attitude and these laws evolved over centuries of our being the oppressed, hated and homeless people of the world. But we are not ancient or even medieval Jews. We are post-modern Jews, living in 5771, and we have the opportunity to define v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha as broadly as Ibn Ezra interpreted this verse in the 12th century:
There should be no difference between what a man wishes for himself and the good that he wishes for his fellow man. The reason: “I am YHWH.” Because I created all of you.
Only when we recognize the Divine Image in ourselves and in EVERY OTHER PERSON can we aspire to the ideal of love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the central lesson of the Holiness Code; this is our duty on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and every day of our lives. May we have the strength and courage to love all others in the coming year.