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Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

April 30, 2015

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

In parashat Kedoshim we come across what some of our rabbinic sages (Hazal) tell us is the most important principle of the Torah — ve’ohavta le’reiakha ko-mokha — “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In particular, it is Rabbi Akiva of the second century C.E. who selects this phrase in a debate with Ben Azzai over what should be considered the most fundamental teaching of the Torah. (see Gen. Rabbah 24:7)

We also find Hillel in an earlier century expressing the same idea. In a famous Talmudic story a potential convert comes to this sage seeking to learn the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Unlike Shammai, who rejected him outright, Hillel tells him “that which is hateful to you don’t do unto others; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go learn it.” (Shabbat 31a) No doubt Hillel had in mind the above-quoted Biblical verse that he simply rephrased in more practical terms.

The rabbis of the Talmud were not the only ones to adopt “love your neighbor as yourself” as a cardinal principle and then interpret it to make it more practical. We find in Christian Scriptures (Luke 6:31, Matthew 7:12) attributed to Jesus what came to be later known as the Golden Rule — “do unto others as you wold have them do unto you.” It is clear that the source for this Rule is our verse in Leviticus (see also Matthew 22:37-40). The Christian formulation is a positive one, namely, do unto others …,while the Jewish one is a negative interpretation , don’t do unto others … At first glance it would appear that the former is more in sync with the positive nature of the Hebrew command to love your neighbor as yourself. Moreover, when you love someone, you don’t just refrain from odious behavior towards the other but you engage in positive, loving activity. The question then arises why does our tradition adopt the negative interpretation as the legitimate rewording of the Biblical dictum and forego the more lofty and ennobling positive one.

One might suggest that Hillel, who interpreted the verse in a negative manner, did so because he was dealing with a potential convert and didn’t want to alienate him from Judaism by making it appear too difficult. By rendering “love your neighbor as yourself” in the way Hillel did, the gentile, who likely came from a pagan background with little emphasis on universal ethical values, would find it easier to cleave to the Jewish religion. Hillel’s interest in promoting conversion is clearly evident from some of the other stories that appear on the same Talmudic page as the one-legged seeker story. (Shabbat 31a) But this hypothesis is negated by a verse in the apocryphal Book of Tobit (4:15-16) wherein we have again the negative formulation of “love your neighbor as yourself” standing in for the Biblical verse. Hillel’s reformulation is thus not unique to him but is rather an adoption of what appears to be an older Jewish interpretive tradition — and has nothing to do with outreach to a potential convert. We are back to the question of why the negative when the positive seems more correct and more exalting.

In truth, a careful reading of the context in which our verse appears shows clearly that Hillel’s (and Tobit’s) interpretation is more correct than the positive formulation of the Golden Rule. “Love your neighbor as yourself”appears at the end of a long list of actions that are prohibited. Starting from verse 11 of chapter 19  with “Thou shalt not steal” we have eighteen lo ta’aseh‘s (Thou shalt not …), most of which form the core of Jewish work ethics and inter-personal relations, such as not to withhold or delay a worker’s wages, not to curse the deaf, not to place a stumbling block before the blind, etc. The list concludes in verse 18 with the last two prohibitions — not to take revenge nor to bear a grudge — and then ends with “love your neighbor as yourself, I am the L-rd your G-d.” Clearly the end of verse 18 is meant to be a general rule that summarizes the foregoing. And what are the foregoing dicta – negative commands. Our tradition thus interpreted the Biblical principle in the context in which it appears. The p’shuto shel Mikra (plain sense of the verse) fits the negative interpretation as quoted by Hillel.

Does it mean that Judaism requires only refraining from negative behavior towards one’s fellow man while Christianity goes beyond that to insist on loving, positive actions? Not at all. The Torah is replete with commandments of a positive, caring and loving nature towards other human beings. But such lofty behavior should be preceded by the abandonment of hateful and detestable actions that stand in the way of promoting true lovingkindness and devotion to those who like ourselves are created in the image of G-d. As the Psalmist proclaims sur mei-ra va-aseh tov (“turn away from evil and do good” – Ps. 34:15). We start with forswearing the forbidden acts, the “evil,” and then can we truly fulfill “love your neighbor as yourself” in its positive and loftiest sense. 

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.