Jesus preached a version. Hillel said it before Jesus. But Hillel was picking up on the Torah. Still, after 2,000 years and more, many people don’t have a clue.
Americans of all faiths are familiar with the injunction of Leviticus 19:18—”Love your neighbor [sometimes translated fellow] as yourself.” This seemingly simple verse poses complex challenges, starting with defining our neighbors: Are they people closest to us genetically and/or religiously? Those with whom we share physical proximity?
Abraham Cohen (1887–1957), British rabbi and editor of the Soncino Books of the Bible, wrote that the Talmud defines neighbor as an Israelite to the exclusion of Gentiles. This stems from the Sages’ understanding that the Torah speaks to Jews about Jews. Today’s Jews of all streams might see this as too restrictive.
Yet a few verses later, Leviticus emphasizes: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt . . .” (Lev. 19:33-34).
Cohen points out that the Sages nonetheless took a more global view of Jews’ responsibilities to others. “It cannot be logically or justly deduced . . . that the Rabbis advocated the practice of ethical principles in connection with none but co-religionists.”
Extending the concept of neighbor beyond our circle of family, friends and co-religionists represents no easy task. Many Americans have circled the wagons, drawing near only to people like themselves. If we choose to live in an America in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and yes, atheists, love only each other, present tensions and violence will rise in number and severity.
What to do?
Start by listening to each other. The Talmud takes pains to include minority opinions and cite Sages who present them. That said, loving one’s neighbor does not compel groups and individuals to accept other religious—or social or political—beliefs and practices. Likewise, we should not interpret differing positions as antagonism and threat. In this light, let’s examine the commandment’s four key words.
Love: Actions—treating all human beings equitably—prove the real measure of our intentions. We must not just talk the talk but walk the walk.
Your: We each must take personal responsibility. However we define “neighbors,” they are ours, not someone else’s.
Neighbor (Fellow): Here, things get tricky. We must expand our definition to people we do not know. Granted, we can’t take care of everyone in a world of eight billion people. Even where we live, physical and emotional barriers may separate us from most of our neighbors, though we often come together in common venues. We can, however, acknowledge and respect everyone as a child of the single Creator or, for nonbelievers, a child of the cosmos who shares our humanity.
Yourself: We cannot treat others harshly unless we wish to be treated harshly. Hillel taught, “That which is hateful to you do not do to others.” (Also, “Now go and study.”)
A narrow definition of neighbor now pits Americans against each other. Long-standing hostilities will not suddenly disappear. But we can bridge the gaps if we have the will. Cutting each other some slack and expanding our outlook can draw “Love your neighbor as yourself” closer to reality.
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