Leviticus 19: Loving your neighbour as yourself: the key injunction of the Torah

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Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on what love of neighbour means in the Torah.

We have just finished reading the Sedra of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20). The Sedra starts when G-d instructs Moses to tell the people 'You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am holy.' Whatever 'holy' actually means, and there has been much discussion on this, the main point is that Moses is to tell the people that they should all strive to emulate the actions of G-d. In Judaism there is no hierarchy of being or action; everyone strives to follow G-d's words and actions as best as they can.

So, when, from verses 16-18, it states:

'You shall not go about spreading gossip among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow's blood is shed – I am the Lord; you shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall [instead] reprove you neighbour and not bear a sin because of him; you shall not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbour as yourself – I am the Lord', we have some context for the famous phrase, also cited by Jesus: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'

The commentator Rashi (France, 1040-1105), who witnessed the horrendous massacre of the Rhineland Jews by the Christian crusaders, compares the Hebrew for 'spreading gossip' to 'moving on foot', and said that spreading gossip is therefore akin to 'espionage'.

Similarly, if your neighbour is being attacked, you must intervene to save him. It is no excuse, as in English law, to simply pass by on the other side. You should reprove your neighbour for a slight or worse, but not in such a way that might embarrass him. And you shouldn't play 'tit for tat' in relationships, much as children do in the playground. For, 'you shall love your neighbour as yourself – I am the Lord.'

In other words, this Sedra deals with daily types of behaviour between people, and yet G-d reminds us that actually he had already told us from the outset to remember that each individual, not just priests, prelates and leaders, should remember that just like G-d, we should strive to 'be holy' and also to 'love your neighbour as yourself.'

In more modern translations, the Hebrew word 'fellow human being' has been translated as 'neighbour'. But there is a difference between 'neighbour' and 'fellow'. A neighbour lives next door and while we would like to get on with our next-door neighbour, there are plenty of places in the Talmud which concede that this might not be realistic. For instance the Talmud discusses the precise way to go about safeguarding the boundary between yourself and your neighbour and how Jewish law might deal with difficulties and disputes between literal neighbours.

The phrase 'fellow human being' is admittedly rather long-winded, but this is because more is meant than one's actual next-door neighbour. However, and this is important to stress, neither can 'fellow human being' refer to every single person in the world, as many have interpreted the Hebrew phrase. For we also have advice on how to treat the 'stranger' (whether resident alien or prospective convert to Judaism), as well as the 'enemy'. And I hope to deal with all these categories in future articles, as well as go further into exactly what we might mean by 'neighbour'.

Here we will look into what 'love', and 'as yourself' might mean in real life.

In his book, Judaism is about Love, Rabbi Shai Held states that this injunction to love our neighbour as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) is the best known phrase in the Hebrew Bible and certainly the 'apex' or 'epicenter' of the entire book of Leviticus, itself the middle book of the Torah. However, he also makes the point that it is typically Jewish to agree on the importance of the injunction, but to disagree on what it requires.

Is loving an emotion, action or both? Can emotions such as 'love' be commanded? Are we in control of this emotion? What kind of 'love' is actually meant. A clue may be present in the fact that it says: 'Love to/for your neighbour as yourself.' So maybe it means 'Show love for your neighbour as for yourself.' Is it actually good to 'love yourself'? Couldn't loving yourself make you selfish and indifferent to others?

Should this love that you 'show for your neighbour' be of the practical kind, regardless of feelings? For instance, making food for someone who is ill; or picking up an old person who slips in the road due to potholes? So, in these cases, the duty of love becomes the duty to act beneficently, to act kindly regardless of feelings. However, beneficence is not love. Beneficence can be reluctant. Love has both an interior and exterior dimensions. And, yes, we do have agency over feelings. Just look at the stiff upper lip mentality ground into the aristocracy and upper middle classes in England due to their severe schooling away from parents from age 7 or even younger – the hallmark of a so-called 'first-class education' up until very recently. This is an extreme example which has often ended in tears, because cruelty is certainly not the same as training in self-control. But from infancy onwards, we do actually regulate and manage our emotions, learning to 'let go' of anger, for example.

Shai quotes Aristotle as stating that 'we indirectly contribute, through previous actions and habits, to our emotional dispositions.'

And I was very excited to see him quote, in addition, my friend and neighbour, the late Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa (1927-2016) who stated:

'You can't be certain that a feeling of love for your fellow will be formed within you in the short term, but you must do everything in your power in order for such a feeling to emerge. In other words, you must create in your heart and your mind, as well as in your deeds, all of the conditions that make for devotion and love, and thus will you merit to fulfill the commandment of love.'

And in fact, Rabbi Shear Yashuv was trained in love from a very early age, not simply through parental example, but at given times of the day that were called 'chesed times.'

The idea is that through training ourselves to love, love is then cultivated within us until it becomes what we call 'second nature.'

So for instance, Deuteronomy 15:10 exhorts the people to 'give generously to him [the poor person] and without a grudging heart for because of this [i.e. the lack of a grudging heart] the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.' It is not the fact of giving, which is actually taken for granted in Judaism, but how you give that counts. And this is the most important thing. The act itself, although meritorious, is not enough; it is the way a thing is done that is the key element of giving.

To return to love based purely on emotion, spontaneity can be overrated, as it is extraordinarily fickle. Commitment is far more important in Judaism than spontaneity. Commitment provides stability and reliability, and this is what many feel is sadly lacking in our contemporary society. There are, in any case, times when we simply don't possess the requisite emotional feelings attached to those we love; however, training in small matters of love from an early age leads to a type of reliability and consistency which proves to be a more enduring type of love in the long run.

But what does love actually mean? What shouldn't we do to express love? There is a famous story in the Talmud about two people travelling on a journey far from civilization. One of them has a pitcher of water. If they share the water, they will both die. What should they do? If only of them drinks, he will survive. The great Rabbi Akiva states that the life of the person with the pitcher takes precedence. In other words, you should save your own life before you save the life of someone else. This very famous story which I myself learned as a child, can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 62a, based on an interpretation of Leviticus 25:36.

So what does 'as yourself' actually mean then? Some have argued that the phrase should be interpreted negatively; i.e. just as you yourself wouldn't want to be harmed, so you yourself should not harm your neighbour. There is an even more famous story of Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, being asked by a gentile (some say it was a Roman soldier) to teach him the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responds: 'That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour. All the rest is commentary: go and learn.' In other words 'loving your neighbour' means 'just as you wouldn't harm yourself, don't harm your neighbour.'

However, this type of love is taken to refer to action rather than emotion and becomes a mere prohibition rather than a positive obligation. Can a negative prohibition really be 'the great principle of the Torah.'

The great Rambam (Maimonides 1135/38-1204) therefore emphasizes those positive acts of loving our neighbour that we are capable of carrying out. Some of these are visiting the sick, burying the dead, and preparing a bride for her wedding. In other words, all the things you would want others to do for you, do for your fellow. As is his wont, Rambam does not mention emotions at all, simply commitment to doing concrete good for others.

Basically, we would like our neighbour to be a 'faithful friend'. He or she should treat us with respect; always seek our well-being; share in our sorrows; welcome us warmly when we visit; judge us favourably; gladly go to a little trouble for our sake; help us with a little money when we need a loan; and not act haughtily towards us. It does not entail giving our neighbour all our wealth, but we should love our neighbour in the same way as we ourselves would want and expect to be loved by our neighbour. So 'as yourself' does not mean 'as much as we love ourselves', but 'in the same concrete way' that we ourselves would want and expect to be loved.

But is reciprocal positive action really love? It is surely better to ask what our neighbour wants from us rather than what we would want and expect from our neighbour.

So, a third approach does include both emotions and actions. The Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) (who was, by the way, a very astute judge of human nature, having been forced against his will to take part in a number of disputations in Barclona with the Dominicans of his city, which he 'won' in 1263) said the following: 'Love your neighbour as yourself' must be hyperbolic, because 'the human heart is not capable of accepting' such a demand. And this is proved by Rabbi Akiba's insistence that if you are in a desert you yourself should drink your water and not share or give it to the other person, as doing so would mean that you would die.

Most instances of loving one's neighbour therefore have a caveat attached. We may want our neighbour to be rich, but not quite as rich as us; the same goes for happiness, status and reputation. But, like Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, cited above, Ramban thinks that we should try as hard as we can to let go of this type of thinking and feeling. We should in fact learn how to wish for others what we have for ourselves. 'The Torah is not [therefore] demanding the impossible – only the overwhelmingly difficult.' This view is also held by Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), who preceded Ramban and who influenced him in ways that have not yet been fully acknowledged. If something is difficult, but not totally impossible, then it can be commanded. The Torah was never meant to be easy. We can grow into what it expects of us, even if we do so in small doses.

And Rambam sums it up beautifully:

'We are commanded to love one another even as we love ourselves; my love and compassion for my brother should be like my love and compassion for myself, in regard to my money, my person, and whatever I possess or desire. Whatever I wish for myself, I should wish the same for him; and what I do not wish for myself or for those close to me, I should not wish it for him.'

So, even for Rambam, who tried as far as possible to eschew emotions, the love of fellow is fulfilled in the heart after all.

So, to sum up, love as a disposition includes both emotion and action, and the emotion to feel love must be part of a child's training. We then translate this disposition into actions. Love must be translated into concrete deeds. What is needed is a 'good eye', a phrase mentioned in Pirke Avot 2:9 (Sayings of the Ancestors) which we read now between Pesach and Shavuot. This phrase has been variously interpreted as 'contentment' and 'being happy with one's lot.' In other words, we should not begrudge another person's success in whatever sphere, and should also be eager to give to others.

A 'good eye' is therefore the opposite of envy, which is described as possessing a 'bad eye' or a 'narrow eye.' Envy is a major obstacle to fulfilling the mitzvah of loving our neighbour. Proverbs 14:30 states: 'a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.' Envy disconnects us from others and leads us to resent them, thus fracturing real human connection and 'driving us out of the world.'

This trait was very obvious in the lead-up to the very recent Eurovision Song Contest and during the performance itself. The Israeli singer, aptly named Eden, aged 20, transcended all the hatred aimed at her from the people of host country, Sweden and much of the Western world, and simply threw herself into loving her audience.

Amazingly, other singers dropped out on the night and Eden garnered the majority of votes from 14 western countries, including (miraculously maybe) Sweden itself, the UK, Ireland, Australia and major European countries, as well as overwhelmingly from 'the rest of the world'. The power of love can be infectious and people can often recognize envy when it stares them in the face.

Envy implies a lack of self-esteem and self-worth. We forget that we are created in the image of G-d and that we don't need to compete with others for His affection. Sadly much of the Western world does not recognize G-d and tries to destroy people who do. Envy creates a hole inside us. On the other hand, regarding other people favourably brings out the best in us, and often also in them. This does not mean, however, that we should overlook wickedness. Simply that in run-of-the mill occurrences, we should try to put ourselves in the place of others.

This positive and visionary approach to life (which Rav Kook called 'expanding the vistas') also informs our attitude to forgiveness. We should forgive a person if they apologize to us, but we should also regard rebuke as a mitzvah. 'You should not bear a grudge in your heart.' One of the main reasons for forgiveness is that the person is no longer 'alien' to us. Seeing them in their frailty can awaken compassion and empathy and get us to regard them as our 'neighbour'. To forgive is therefore to expand our vision.

We now come to the duty of care we have for others. Sometimes it is too difficult to care 'for' someone else, but it may be possible to 'care about' the other person. In this way people will for instance fund their favourite charity, often without knowing where the money goes, maybe simply to line the pockets of the already very rich, including the people who run the charity. And this is what 'universal love' is all about. It tends to distance. Caring 'for' is a different kettle of fish and in future articles I hope to be discussing this trait and other aspects of loving one's neighbour.

However, I hope that this article has introduced the reader to the importance of the Levitical concept of loving your neighbour as yourself and the esteem in which this injunction is held as the core teaching of the Hebrew Bible.