Loving Thy Neighbor: Judaism’s Unique Approach

love thy neighbor

Many people – Jew and Christian alike – are surprised to discover that the principle “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is found in the “Old” Testament, and even in Leviticus, probably the most maligned (and misunderstood) book in what we Jews call the Torah.

The Christian Gospels also say that loving thy neighbor is one of the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:29-31). However, long before Christianity, Jewish tradition taught: “Love thy neighbor is one of the great principles in the Torah” (Sifra 2:12). The famous Jewish sage Hillel, who flourished well before Christianity, said: “Don’t do unto others what you would not want do to you – that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a).

However, Judaism’s love principle not only came before Christianity but goes deeper and is more effective than most people, Jew and non-Jew, imagine.

It is not enough to only cite inspiring aphorisms. For instance, Christianity prides itself on the idea of “loving thy enemies” (Matthew 5:43-44). Judaism goes further, however, because it not only provides the aphorism but gives us examples how to love our enemies:

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall help him to lift it up. (Exodus 23:4-5)

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. (Proverbs 25:21)

The Torah does not merely cite an aphorism, but provides a case study how to live up to it. The Talmud goes even further and provides more examples and numerous details how to fulfill the love principle.

The Gospel writers blasted Judaism for being legalistic. Love is a spiritual thing, not a legal concept, they said. However, by doing so, they totally missed the point. Yes, love is a spiritual thing; it is all over the Torah. But so often the love principle is not easy to actually live up to.

How does one live up to the principle? Judaism’s renowned emphasis on education comes into play here. From the earliest years, Jewish children in home and school are taught a) practical applications of the love idea and b) that it is a law, not just a nice idea.

Pounding that into generation after generation of children may not have guaranteed that everyone would fulfill it perfectly, but increased the odds of its practical implementation in everyday life in ways those merely echoing the platitudes could never approach.

Listen, I’m not here to knock Christianity. I think it can be, has been and still is for many people a positive force. But it is also, historically, the bloodiest religion in history. Could the fact that they taught the aphorism but failed to make it practical like Judaism did have to do with it?

On that note, we can now understand why Hillel said, “Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you,” which is the inverse of love thy neighbor. Why not word it in the positive, as Christianity did: “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you”?

Because it is not so easy to love an enemy; someone that has done wrong to you. Therefore, at the minimum, “don’t do unto them as you wouldn’t want done to you.” Included in Hillel’s aphorism is Judaism’s practical approach to all the lofty ideals that attract people to the Bible. It’s not enough to espouse them. In the Torah’s eyes, we have to really work on ourselves to live up to them.

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Comments icon June 1, 2012


By Yaakov Astor on June 1, 2012 -- 4:36pm

Further Study
The Bible (not to mention the Talmud and the Jewish Oral Tradition) include all angles of the love principle. These include, but are not limited to the following verses:
• Leviticus 19:18. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.
• Exodus 23:4-5. If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up.
• Proverbs 25:21. If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
• Lamentations 3:30. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him.
• Exodus 34:6. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “Oh God, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”
• Numbers 14:18. God is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…
• Deuteronomy 6:5. Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
• Deuteronomy 30:6. God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
• 1 Chronicles 16:34. Give thanks to God, for He is good; His love endures forever.
• Psalm 6:4. Turn, O God, and deliver me; save me because of Your unfailing love.
• Psalm 25:6. Remember, O God, Your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.
• Psalm 25:7. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to Your love remember me, for You are good, O God.
• Psalm 33:22. May Your unfailing love rest upon us, O God, even as we put our hope in You.
• Psalm 36:5. Your love, O God, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
• Psalm 40:11. Do not withhold Your mercy from me, O God; may Your love and Your truth always protect me.
• Psalm 42:8. By day God directs his love; at night His song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.
• Psalm 69:13. But I pray to you, O God, in the time of Your favor; in Your great love, O God, answer me with Your sure salvation.
• Psalm 69:16. Answer me, O God, out of the goodness of Your love; in Your great mercy turn to me.
• Psalm 85:7. Show us your unfailing love, O God, and grant us Your salvation.
• Psalm 86:5. You are forgiving and good, O God, abounding in love to all who call to you.
• Psalm 94:18. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” Your love, O God, supported me.
• Psalms 103:10-12. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
• Psalm 107:31. Let them give thanks to God for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for men.
• Psalm 119:64. The earth is filled with your love, O God; teach me Your decrees.
• Psalm 130:7. O Israel, put your hope in God, for with God is unfailing love and with Him is full redemption.
• Psalm 138:8. God will fulfill His purpose for me; Your love, O God, endures forever — do not abandon the works of Your hands.
• Proverbs 3:12. ...because God disciplines those He loves, as a father the son he delights in.
• Isaiah 54:10. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed,” says God, who has compassion on you.
• Jeremiah 31:3. God appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
• Lamentations 3:22. Because of God’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.
• Hosea 3:1, God said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as God loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods…”
• Joel 2:13. Return to God your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity.
• Jonah 4:2. You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
• Zephaniah 3:17. God your God is with you; He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.
• Proverbs 10:12. Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
• Proverbs 13:24. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.
• Proverbs 17:9.  Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.
• Proverbs 17:17. A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

By Leon on June 1, 2012 -- 8:42pm

Interesting point about making it a law, as opposed to a broad principle - it actually coincides with cutting-edge psychological research and discipline. Roy Baumeister states in his latest book, ‘Willpower’, that the more specific a principle of behaviour is the more likely that it is going to be implemented.

By Phylos on June 13, 2012 -- 5:54pm

As a cultural (but not religious) Christian, at 54 I see our world in a state of massive transition of moralities and ethics; what is the stability in life when all is relative?  I am reading the Bible cover-to-cover to perhaps find some fundamental truth, a rock to stand on. 

In reading background information I learned of the Noachide Code.  Many years ago a popular comedian distilled the “10 Commandments” down to just 2 or 3 statements (I don’t recall the specifics, just the generality).  The Noachide Code is a first distillation (or perhaps more accurately, an origin) of Christian teaching, but the discussion in this post makes it clear to me that all of these writings, laws, codes all speak the same basic truth:  Do not take what is not yours.  This extends to material objects, beliefs, trusts, respect, life…and so on. 

I have struggled to understand how the slaughter by Jehu of the Ba’alites could have been divinely sanctioned.  In reading this post helps it dawned on me that this was no more a theft than a washing of a dirty wound; David reflects in the end of the 1 Chronicles that he has nothing to give God, since God provided everything to start with.  Everything is God’s.  There is no inherent right to existance outside of God’s possession, therefore there can be no theft.  The implication of the story in Kings is that humans can indeed remove themselves from God’s possession, a free will choice.

By TomB on June 14, 2012 -- 2:30pm

“The Gospel writers blasted Judaism for being legalistic. Love is a spiritual thing, not a legal concept, they said. However, by doing so, they totally missed the point. Yes, love is a spiritual thing; it is all over the Torah. But so often the love principle is not easy to actually live up to.”
Let’s get a few things straight:

1) The Gospel writers didn’t blast Judaism, Jesus blasted the religious leaders who added extra unneeded rules that added barriers between people loving others & G-d.  We still see this today in both Judaism & Christianity, don’t we?  The merely Gospel writers reported what Jesus said & did.

2) Jesus rarely if ever said anything new about love or following G-d, but either:
a) boiled down all the Law into a few sentences (eg the 2 Love commands)
b) separated what G-d expected from what man/religious leaders expected
c) “raised the bar” eg: the Jewish tradition at that time that said if someone asks three times you must forgive them vs that Jesus taught people had to forgive perfectly (“70 times 7”, Matthew+18:21-35)

3) Jesus never said loving perfectly would be easy for most people, but very hard.  He often said that was the “narrow path”, etc.

“Judaism goes further [in teaching to “love thy enemies”], however, because it not only provides the aphorism but gives us examples how to love our enemies:”
You missed that Jesus also taught how to love, in the same ways you mentioned plus perhaps more?:

1) forgive perfectly as above

2) help those in need you find (Luke 10:25-37) including on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17) (similar to how you mention)

3) when something is demanded of of you, double what is asked for (“If [an occupying Roman] soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile carry it two miles”)

4) love enemies, even when attacked (Matthew 5:43-48)

“Listen, I’m not here to knock Christianity.”
This contradicts what you are about to say…

“But it is also, historically, the bloodiest religion in history.”
Have the numbers to back that up please?  I think Atheism/Humanism is, if you want to tally up Nazi Europe, & all the Communist countries like USSR, China, etc.
Also you seem to have forgotten what Moses did in Egypt, the Israelites did on their way to the promised land & what they did once they got there?  Not to mention they were promised the land from “Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River”.  Perhaps G-d had planned that area to be just handed with out over if Israel simply asked?  That did not seem to be the trend though…

“Could the fact that they taught the aphorism but failed to make it practical like Judaism did have to do with it?”
Yes the sources you quoted gave great examples on how to love others.  I think I gave several examples on how Jesus reinforced what was said before, & even expanded expectations.  Let me know if you need more anaphoric & practical examples taught by Jesus & his followers!


By Levi on June 20, 2012 -- 3:35pm

The Gospel writers actually affirm the same principle.  It’s wildly inaccurate to say that they “blasted” the Torah on matters of loving one’s neighbours- the Sermon on the Mount is filled with practical ideas on how to love not just your neighbours but also your enemies- it takes the Jewish idea to harder standards. 

But the real issue is why Christianity has failed in some cases to live up to it- the simple answer is that loving one’s neighbour is far harder than one might believe.  One thing the Christians have right is that they will give charity to those of all faiths, races and situations- something gleaned from the Gospels. Something we could all learn from.  You’ve got to hand it to groups like the Salvation Army.  That’s a powerful charity and example of loving and helping one’s neighbour.  We should strive to emulate such service, that is, if we truly believe the Tanach.

By James on November 12, 2012 -- 5:51pm

I don’t understand the differences between christianity and judaism when it is the same Bible they use… What is the different?

By Irene McClure on February 17, 2013 -- 9:19pm


I really enjoyed this article.

Thank you for sharing it.

Many blessings be upon you.

By sheila silverman on September 10, 2013 -- 6:18am

Working on a curriculum for the afternoon school - focus on pedagogical content knowledge - was a student of Lee Shulman at Stanford

Really loved the last paragraph

By Meira on October 16, 2014 -- 12:53pm

With so much love taught, why are Jews so hated.

By James on March 2, 2015 -- 4:44pm

I like the information on your article but a few rather large mistakes.  We Christains but a few sects, fallow the Old testament as important as the new. Jesus said I did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, All Gods words are the most important.  But to say Christians are the bloodiest tells me you do not know history, if you call the Crusades the worst?  Muslims have killed missions.  They have almost always been at war, It was one period. in 2000 years of Christianity and on other period.  Lenin and Stalins family was Jewsih Hitlers family were jewish and he killed his own between the two over 70 million killed.

By Jon on March 9, 2015 -- 12:41am

It’s a little silly to find a point on which there is no disagreement between Judaism and Christianity and try to drive one in. That’s too bad.

As a full Jew, Jesus was not against the law, rather he was speaking prophetically to his generation of Israel about their failure to live up to the high calling of the law and G-d’s choice to temple with them.

Jesus was equally specific about the duty to love. (If a man asks for your coat, give him your tunic also, etc. etc.) His teaching on the Good Samaritan directly addresses the practical implications of love your neighbor in response to a lawyer’s question.

Christianity departs no one jot from Judaism on this point and any Christian theologian or pastor worth his salt teaches directly from the Torah on these questions.

By Miller on July 26, 2015 -- 4:16am

One of the greatest misconceptions of all time is what is a Christian. No one was ever forced to convert by a true Christian, ever. No one was ever killed by a true Christian, ever. Christianity is not a bloody religion. In fact true Christians were killed, burned, drowned, and beheaded more than any other people, including Jews. President of the council of Trent, Catholic Cardinal Hosius said, ” If you will have regard to the number, it is like that in multitude they (true Christians) would swarm above all other, if they were not grievously plagued, and cut off with the knife of persecution.(Richard Shacklock’s 1565 translation entitled “The Hatchet of Heresies)
Catholics are not Christians. Both Catholics and Protestants slaughtered true Christians.
These two organizations are described in the Apocalypse, chapter 17-18. And also in Dan7:19-21
and verses 25-26. “War against the saints” No one has shed more blood of true Christians and Jews than the Pope, no one. Verse 25, “and he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws” The Pope considers himself the manifestation of God on earth. Blasphemy par excellence!
In fact, the Sistine chapel in the Vatican is the exact dimensions of Solomon’s temple and the place where the Pope is, is the exact dimensions of the Kodesh Kodoshim, the Holy of Holies. The times and laws the Pope changed, the current calender is the Gregorian calendar named after Pope Gregory. The days of the week and months of the year are influenced by the Pope and his pagan priests. Apocalypse 17 describes the woman riding the beast as the “mother of harlots” The mother spawned her Protestant daughters and many of them are worse than the mother, ordaining sodomites etc. Apocalypse 18 has the coming judgement of the whore and her daughters and verse 4 has a clear call to the children of God. “come out of her my people, that ye partake not of her sins and that ye receive not of her plagues” Please correct this deception. Jesus said, “fear not little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”. At over a billion Catholics the Catholic church has never been a “little flock”. And neither are the Protestants. Jesus said, “why do you call me Lord Lord and do not the things that I say. He also said, “the time is coming when he that kills you thinks he does God service.” Martyrs Mirror, a 1660 publication has a long list of souls butchered by the RCC and the Protestants. It is still in print and also can be read online. Great history read.
Please correct this and set the record straight.

By Miller on July 26, 2015 -- 8:09pm

Please let me know why you won’t post my comments/
Was it offensive? How? why?

By Bob on August 7, 2015 -- 1:49pm

Even bloodier than Islam? Please….And it is intellectually disappointing to throw that in after such a good discussion. I read the OT and see the many wars, slaughters and violence done by Israel to their neighbors, and I mean horrific slaughters. How is that?

By Trevor on December 1, 2015 -- 11:26pm

You said of the Gospel writers “The Gospel writers blasted Judaism for being legalistic. Love is a spiritual thing, not a legal concept, they said.” Here’s the problem with that. They didn’t think in terms of concepts that Christians today do. They were Jews - as Jewish as Chabad-Lubavitch is today, with Jesus instead of Menachem Schneerson (and I think we can both admit, even if we disagree on bigger issues, that the New Testament Jesus fit the Messianic prophecies much better than Menachem). They didn’t see things in terms of “legalism”. They actually took the very concept of love that you’re using. Just as in Judaism today, spiritual concepts are reflected by outward actions, in early Christianity/Nazarene Judaism (minut), actions followed abstract spiritual concepts - and the very verses you showed from the Tanakh were verses they tried to use to teach gentile converts to their faith. It is the “Early Church Fathers” - the hateful men who took over that whole movement, and built the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church - who began to turn concepts like love into spiritual things that have no actions following them, so that someone could “love” someone and give them no help. If you want to judge Christians, that’s perfectly fine. If you want to judge the New Testament, do it based on the New Testament, not on the people who misread it through distorted lenses with biases from people who hated and spat on the original writers. The Early Church Fathers and their ilk **hated** the first Christians - who were extra strictly Torah observant Jews and gentiles. They saw that as heresy. If you think the Birkat HaMinim against those people was a rough curse, you should see some of the things the Church Fathers wrote against the exact same people.

By Joshua on July 23, 2016 -- 3:46pm

No offense, but the idea of loving thy enemies is more profound than giving your enemies bread and water.  Hillel’s approach isn’t uncommon at all, very similar to the Buddhist teachings.  Jesus message of proactively Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is the radical idea.  Go out and do good…. not just sit back and avoid the bad.

Also, the Christian heritage is Jewish, so we have the same writings in Exodus and Proverbs. 


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