This morning I want to give a different kind of sermon: to speak to you, to teach you, about Jewish ethics by way of what is perhaps the most famous verse of this week’s Torah reading, if not the entire Torah. Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” v’ahavta l’rei·ekha kamokha. Other traditions, religions, and philosophies, religious and secular, provide a variety of mottos 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 in your heart, you shall surely reprove your kinsman, incur no guilt on their account. Do not take vengeance, do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself – I am the Lord your God.”
In the Bible, as in most things, location matters, and this verse, this mitzvah, sits at the very center of the middle book of the five books of Moses – the lynchpin, arguably, not only of our ethical tradition, but our tradition as a whole. No wonder that the twelfth-century French commentator Rashi notes on this verse that it is the fundamental principle of the Torah.
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, in a proto-Darwinian fashion, 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 themself. 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.” I am fine, more than fine, going to sleep at night with dishes in the sink, the closet door open, and the hallway light left on. For the woman with whom I have lived for nearly twenty-five years, not fine. 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, kinsmen, members of our people, and neighbors. No commentator suggests this verse to refer to an actual neighbor, as in the guy 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 was a particularist, 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 is like you.” Hundreds of years later, Moses Mendelsohn reads the verse in a universalist fashion: “Love your neighbor, because he is you” – as equally human as you. The mystical humanist Martin Buber goes even further, stating: “Love your neighbor – he 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.
Speaking of preachers, no study of “loving one’s neighbor” would be complete without engaging in some comparative religion. For those familiar with the gospels, you know that in the book of Mark, Jesus states that this law, together with the Sh’ma, is the most important commandment, a priority affirmed by Matthew, Luke, Romans, and Galatians. What is interesting is that in the hands of the Jewish people’s most famous sage, Hillel, who was more or less a contemporary of Jesus, this verse takes on a totally different meaning. The Talmud relates how Hillel was approached by a would-be-convert to Judaism and asked to summarize the entirety of the tradition while standing on one foot. Famously, Hillel converts the person and replies, “That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary.” There are many interesting things about that exchange, but two points are relevant to our conversation. First, Hillel flips the verse from the positive to the negative: not what we should do, but what we should avoid doing – a transformation that many understand to signal a key difference between Jewish and Christian ethics, the former more about justice and the latter more about love. The second point is that Hillel modifies the biblical language from that of love to deed, from emotion to action – what you should or not do, not what you should feel. Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not command us about our feelings, rather about whether we act on those feelings – a key difference between our religious traditions.
I will leave you with my favorite explanation of this verse, one that comes from a most unexpected place: northeast Italy. The founding father of the Jewish ethical tradition, what is called Mussar, was a man by the name of Moses Chayim Luzzato. He was born in eighteenth-century Padua, about as far from Venice as White Plains is from Manhattan. In his ethical treatise, Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Righteous, Luzzatto runs through many of the explanations we have covered, but ultimately lands on with what I believe to be a deeply original and compelling interpretation. Luzzatto’s focus is not on whether love can or cannot be commanded or on what defines a neighbor. Luzzatto asks what kamokha – “as yourself” – really means. And here he calls on us to look at the full context of the verse:
“Do not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely reprove your kinsman, incur no guilt on their account. Do not take vengeance, do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
As flesh and blood, the urge to take vengeance on others, to hold grudges, even to hate people in our hearts – these are powerful urges. All of us hold hurts and slights and disappointments bottled up inside. The Torah understands this and therefore commands us to not hold those things in or, even worse, gossip about them with others, or – in this day and age – post on social media. Seeking vengeance, talebearing, and harboring grudges – all do damage not only to the person with whom we are angry, but to ourselves. Resentment festers producing a toxic effect that turns us into people unrecognizable to ourselves. Rather, we must communicate our hurts to others privately, humbly, and constructively, sharing our pain while staying open to hearing the other side. Because when we let that hurt go, writes Luzzatto, we can finally become ourselves. That is what the verse means. Love your neighbor as yourself: without grudges, resentment, or subterfuge. – kamokha mamash, truly yourself.
Each one of us, in our own way, carries hurts and injuries inside – some inflicted knowingly by others with malice, but often, caused unknowingly and without ill intent. Those hurts that we carry – they are painful, and they can disfigure us. Like a crumpled-up piece of paper, we become unrecognizable and alienated from our very selves. The key to our liberation is the act – at once both small and momentous – of communicating what has been bottled up inside. To share our hurt – fully ourselves – so that we can become our true selves. Then and only then we mend those relationships in need of repair and, by extension, our very souls.
V’ahavta l’rei·ekha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. Kamokha mamash – truly yourself – and may each of us, and all of us together, be holy.