May 1, 2020
Once again, this week’s Torah reading, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) is a double portion. In the second part, Kedoshim, we learn of two very powerful commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai” goes the first. “When a stranger comes to live in your land, do not mistreat them,” goes the second, and continues, “Treat the stranger the way you treat your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am Adonai your God (19:33-34).
The first is often called the “golden rule” and held to be universal to all cultures. This is a mistake. The golden rule is different. In its positive formulation it states, “Act toward others as you would wish them to act toward you,” or in its negative formulation, given by Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” These rules are not about love; they are about justice. The Torah does not say, “Be nice or kind to your neighbor, because you would wish he/she to be nice or kind to you.” It says, “Love your neighbor.” That is something different and far stronger.
The second command is more radical still. Most people in most societies in most ages have feared, hated and often harmed the stranger. There is a word for this: xenophobia. How often have you heard the opposite word: xenophilia? My guess is, never. People don’t usually love strangers. That is why, almost always when the Torah states this command – which it does, according to the sages, 36 times – it adds an explanation: “because you were strangers in Egypt.” I know of no other nation that was born as a nation in slavery and exile. We know what it feels like to be a vulnerable minority. That is why love of the stranger is so central to Judaism and so marginal to most other systems of ethics. But here too, the Torah does not use the word “justice.” There is a command of justice toward strangers, but that is a different law: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” (Ex. 22:20). Here the Torah speaks not of justice but of love.
These two commands define Judaism as a religion of love – not just of God (“with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”), but of humanity also. That was and is a world-changing idea.
But what calls for deep reflection is where these commands appear. They do so in Parshat Kedoshim in what, to contemporary eyes, must seem one of the sacred passages in the Torah. The text brings side-by-side laws of seemingly quite different kinds. Some belong to the moral life: don’t gossip, don’t hate, don’t take revenge, don’t bear a grudge. Some are about social justice: leave parts of the harvest for the poor; don’t pervert justice; don’t withhold wages; don’t use false weights and measures. Others have a different feel altogether: don’t crossbreed livestock; don’t plant a field with mixed seeds; don’t wear a garment of mixed wool and linen; don’t eat fruit of the first three years; don’t eat blood; don’t practice divination; don’t lacerate yourself.
At first glance these laws have nothing to do with one another: some are about conscience, some about politics and economics, and others about purity and taboo. Clearly, though, the Torah is telling us otherwise. They do have something in common. They are all about order, limits, boundaries. They are telling us that reality has a certain underlying structure whose integrity must be honored. If you hate or take revenge you destroy relationships. If you commit injustice, you undermine the trust on which society depends. If you fail to respect the integrity of nature (different seeds, species, and so on), you take the first step down a path that ends in environmental disaster.
There is an order to the universe, part moral, part political, part ecological. When that order is violated, eventually there is chaos. When that order is observed and preserved, we become co-creators of the sacred harmony and integrated diversity that the Torah calls “holy.” Why then is it specifically in this chapter that the two great commands – love of the neighbor and the stranger – appear?
That is what the opening chapter of Kedoshim is about: clear rules that create and sustain a social order. That is where real love – not the sentimental, self-deceiving substitute – belongs. Without order, love merely adds to the chaos. Misplaced love can lead to parental neglect, producing spoiled children with a sense of entitlement who are destined for an unhappy, unsuccessful, unfulfilled adult life.
The words of this sacred text are a combination of moral, political, economic and environmental laws that have been placed before us for we are custodians of this covenant. Yet, this portion is not just about order. It is about humanizing that order through love – the love of neighbor and stranger. And when the Torah says, don’t hate, don’t take revenge and don’t bear a grudge, it is an uncanny anticipation of resentment, envy and the desire for vengeance and destruction that may be inevitable for some. Hence the life-changing idea that we have forgotten for far too long: Love is not enough. Relationships need rules in order for us to succeed.