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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


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