Shabbat Greetings

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27), has the famous line -You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” v’ahavta l’rei·ekha kamokha.(19:18) Other traditions, religions, and philosophies, religious and secular, provide a variety of sayings by which one can aspire towards and measure a virtuous life – but it is this verse, called “The Golden Rule,” that embodies, in just three words – v’ahavta/love, l’rei·ekha/your neighbor, kamokha/as yourself – the biblical ideal of interpersonal ethics. Sometimes referred to as reciprocal altruism, the words are most often understood as a rule of thumb that we should treat other people as we ourselves would want to be treated. We like it when people are kind, thoughtful, generous, forgiving, and patient towards us, and thus we should act that way to others. For those unfamiliar, the full passage reads: 

“Do not hate your brother/sister in your heart, you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk, incur no guilt on their account. Do not take vengeance, do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself – I am Adonai your God.” 

Mark Twain once famously said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.” The more I studied this verse, the more I realized that what seemed so simple and understandable may not be simple and understandable at all. The thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides, for instance, takes issue with the literal meaning, as explained by his predecessor Maimonides, that a person should wish for their neighbor love, compassion, money – whatever, exactly what one wishes for oneself. Nachmanides explains that this verse cannot possibly mean that, because every person, by definition, is led by self-interest, and no person can be expected to extend the same love to another as they do for themselves. Rather, Nachmanides explains, building on an earlier Spanish commentator, Ibn Ezra, that a person should enjoy the good fortune of another as they would their own. It is not the natural thing to do: we need a commandment to remind us to rejoice in the good fortune of others whether we work on Wall Street, serve as rabbis, or are just siblings who fall into the trap of measuring ourselves against each other. Sometimes we begrudge. Sometimes we think life is zero-sum game, that the success of another somehow diminishes us. We need a commandment, writes Nachmanides, to wish for others what we would wish for ourselves, to strive, as the adage goes, to be satisfied with our portion. Not an easy task, but that is what it means to love others as we love ourselves.

But the complexities baked into this verse only deepen. What does it actually mean to love a person as one would love oneself? I once heard a person say that one can never love or be loved until one loves oneself – a nice thought, but not necessarily true nor what the words mean in their context. I do know that whenever I meet with young wedding couples and the conversation turns to the question of what makes for a healthy relationship, I tell couples that this verse, beautiful as it may be, is terrible marital advice. One should not, under any circumstances, love your partner as you would want to be loved. Why? As George Bernard Shaw explained: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different.” For a relationship to work, both partners need to look at the world not through their own eyes, but through the eyes of the other. Love a person not as you want to be loved, but as your partner wants and needs to be loved. Figuring that out is the challenge and opportunity of married life; figuring that out is the measure of any and all successful and sustainable relationships.

And then there is the question of the meaning of “neighbor.” The verse specifies a series of people: Siblings, relatives, members of our people, and neighbors. No commentator suggests this verse to refer to an actual neighbor, as in the person living next door. But does it mean someone with whom you dwell in proximity, with whom you share citizenship, with whom you share faith? Some commentators understand this verse as expansive language meant to include loving your neighbor whether that person is Israelite or non-Israelite. Others, just the opposite. When asked to name the most important verse of the tradition, a rabbi of the Talmud named Ben Peteira chose a verse affirming that every human being descends from the same initial creation, indicating that Ben Peteira was a universalist. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, named our verse, which is often understood to signal that Akiva believed in particularism, holding that one should love one’s own kin more than everyone else. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, reads the verse in a deeply particularistic and conditional fashion: “Love your neighbor, if he/she is like you.” Hundreds of years later, Moses Mendelsohn reads the verse in a universalist fashion: “Love your neighbor, because he/she is you” – as equally human as you. The mystical humanist Martin Buber goes even further, stating: “Love your neighbor – he/she is you.” Meaning, you don’t just share the divine image with that person, you share a destiny with that person. In the words of Martin Luther King: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” That is why we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

We are to strive to be holy for God is holy. Building a world filled with love, love of our neighbors, love of ourselves, is our ultimate dream of a messianic age.  It’s a challenge, it’s a risk, it’s a vision. It is all of us, together, being holy.