Love Your Neighbor As Yourself
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Yom Kippur, 5778
2000 years ago, a potential convert went up to one of the great sages of the day — one of the great sages in all of Jewish history — by the name of Shammai. This anonymous man demanded of Shammai, in a nearly always mistranslated quote, “Teach me all of the Torah in a single rule.” Shammai, apparently not without a sarcastic side, grabbed a nearby measuring stick — a ruler, if you will — and beat the man away. The man then tried again with Shammai’s counterpart, Hillel. “Teach me all of the Torah in a single rule.” To which Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to any other person. All the rest is commentary; now, go and learn it.”
Hillel’s quote has, of course, become one of the most famous in all Judaism. Perhaps, the most famous of all time. In various forms, it has become known as the Golden Rule — the most basic guideline for decent living. If you would hate having something done to you, don’t do it to anyone else. We hear the quote, or something like it, so often that is easy to not take it seriously. It sounds almost trite to our ears — something more deserving of being on a bumper sticker or an Internet meme than as a foundational text for a major religion. And so, it’s easy to miss how incredibly profound, and how incredibly challenging, Hillel’s maxim actually is.
What the Sage was trying to teach that man — what he was trying to teach all of us, really — is that, in Judaism, morality is primary. Morality comes first. Morality isn’t the entirety of our religion — there is more, and we are obligated to learn it, according to Hillel. But, the first thing we have to know if we’re going to be engaged in Judaism is that we are obligated to lead moral lives. That’s the source text around which all of the rest of Judaism is commentary.
It’s an idea which is an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah. The words which we read just a few minutes ago as part of the haftarah:
Is this the fast I desire?
A day to afflict body and soul?
Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast — a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?
Is this not the fast I desire —
to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;
to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and to take the homeless poor into your home,
and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?
What Isaiah, Hillel, and countless sages and teachers since were trying to teach us, and continue to try to teach us, until this day, is that there can be no meaningful Judaism, and that there can be no striving for holiness, no attempts to approach the divine, which are not firmly grounded in how we act towards one another. That making the world moral and just is a prerequisite for making it holy. How we treat others is everything. Or, at the very least, it is the beginning of everything. It is the wellspring from which all other good flows. Once, Rabbi Akiva was asked about the Song of Songs, a book from our bible in the form of an extended love poem. Akiva, one of the greatest rabbis, and one of the most dedicated lawmakers in Jewish history, said that if Song of Songs was the only sacred book which we had been given, it would have been enough. A book about love, he said, would be all that we would really need to understand how we were supposed to act in this world. That, on some level, a much later sage was right when he said, “Love is all you need.” “What is the loving, compassionate thing to do?” might not be the only question we need to answer. But, it isn’t a bad rule of thumb for sacred living, or a bad starting place. It may or may not be all that we need to lead meaningful Jewish lives, but a Jewish life without that guideline is empty.
Hillel’s “What is hateful to you do not do to any other person” was really a variation on the commandment from Leviticus, “V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha-- love your neighbor as yourself.” That commandment is part of what we refer to as “the holiness code,” which will be our Torah reading this afternoon. It begins with the directive, “You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy.” It is an instruction manual for how to lead a holy life. “Holiness” is actually a tough concept to define. But, the rabbis have always understood it to be primarily about the attempt to act like God. None of us can be exactly like God, of course. But, the more we act in ways which we understand God to act, the more we are living holy lives. And, by including “love your neighbor as yourself” as part of these instructions, our tradition is teaching us that we can’t be holy, we can’t claim to be imitating God, until we learn to love the other as ourselves. We are commanded to love the other as ourselves. But, can we be commanded to love someone? And, what does it even mean to love them “as yourself?”
It doesn’t make sense to command love. Love is an emotion, and we can’t control what we feel, at least, not directly. We’re told that God would never demand something of us that wasn’t in our power to do, so how do we explain this? Our tradition resolves this conundrum by teaching that the Torah isn’t actually commanding us about how to feel, but rather about how to act. I don’t have to love you, I just have to behave as if I do. Hillel’s formulation, which concerns our actions, not our feelings, reflects that understanding, as do countless teachings from the rabbis who follow him. Judaism overwhelmingly takes the view that it is our actions, not our emotions, which define us. How I feel about you is complicated. Regardless, I am commanded to behave towards you, towards everyone, as if I loved you as myself.
But, what about that “as myself?” Can I love anyone “as myself?” What does that even mean? At a minimum, it seems clear that we’re being commanded to do something rather radical. This is not a small commandment. Sforno, one of the great medieval rabbis, says that we are being given the obligation of actually imagining that our roles were reversed. We have to imagine that we were the one in that other person’s situation, and then ask ourselves what we would want someone to do were they to see us so. Not to begin with, “what is my obligation to you in this moment?” Rather, to begin by asking myself what I would hope you would do were you to see me in pain, or in need. Maybe, standing by the side of the road, with a sign in my hand, asking for money for food. How would I hope you would respond were you to notice that I was the one who was cold, or scared? What would I hope your reaction would be? That should be my reaction.
What that means is that we have to see people, we have to encounter people, as they really are. We have to try to see them from their own perspective, not from ours. We have to train ourselves to remember that we aren’t seeing case studies or “just another one of them’s.” We are seeing actual people, as they really are. God, it’s not easy. It’s hard intellectually — we can’t really know another person, or his or her situation, or how we would react, were we in their place. But, more challengingly, it’s incredibly hard emotionally. It’s so much easier to shut them out, even if we’re going to do the kind thing and help a little. Give them a dollar or lend a hand, and then turn away and move on, as fast as possible. To actually imagine that it’s us that’s cold, or hungry, or in need? That it’s our children, not theirs? What will that do to us? How will that make us feel, sitting in our comfortable places? What obligations will we acknowledge, if we allow ourselves to open our hearts that wide?
Can we learn to truly listen to the people around us? Can we train ourselves to hear their voices, and to hear their cries, in all the various ways that they cry out? Can we hear them as they want to be heard, as they need to be heard, not as we want or need to hear them? To really listen, not applying our own filters, and not listening with half an ear, in order to better ready our own counterarguments? Can we truly act towards them in the way that we would wish they would act towards us if, God forbid, we were they?
We have to train ourselves to approach other people — each and every one of them — as though they were just as important as we are. Because, they are. Of course they are. That’s what it means when we’re told that all people are created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Each one of us was created by God. Each one of us contains within us a spark, a fragment, of divinity. And, each and every one of us is equally important to, and equally loved by, God. It’s another phrase that gets thrown around so often and so easily that it loses its power. Betzelem Elohim — being created in the image of God — is not a slogan. It’s a radical challenge. It’s the foundation stone of all of Judaism.
Now we can start to understand that loving the other as ourselves is not simply one component of living in a holy way. It is a fundamental, integral piece of holiness. Remember, living a holy life is defined in Judaism as trying our best to act like God. And so, if God loves each of us equally, then treating everyone as if we love them, equally, is part of how we have to act if we want to act in holy ways. Not loving our neighbor as ourselves, or at least not trying to, is understood as denying that we are all equally from, and equally loved by, God. That’s why the Sage known as Gadol Echad teaches that not obeying “love your neighbor as yourself” is the same as refusing to obey “love Adonai your God.” Or, even more radically, why the Ba’al Shem Tov would teach that if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, then it is as if God is not really God, at all. How we treat each other is how we make God real in the world.
To put it slightly differently, Judaism teaches that morality is theological. Caring for others is theological. It is impossible to be holy, it is impossible to feel the presence of God, without first caring for those around us. For all of those around us. It is through other people that we can most readily meet God. Every time we see someone, especially someone in need, and we ignore them, we push God away. Every time we refuse to acknowledge that person, or to acknowledge their need, we push holiness out of this world. Every act of hate, every act of oppression, every act of uncaring. These are the anti-God, the anti-holiness, which keep our world broken.
Hillel was right — this really is the whole Torah. Loving other people brings God into the world. Treating other people as if we loved them, acting towards other people in the way that we would want to be treated, were we truly in their place, brings God into the world. Hating other people, oppressing other people, refusing to hear the cries of other people — these things push God away. They make our world less holy. Holiness begins with love, and with caring. For everyone.
The Ba’al Shem Tov had a practice. He had written a chant for the words, “Hareini Mikabeil Alai Et Mitzvat HaBorei—v’Ahavta l’re’echa kamocha—here I am, ready to accept upon myself the commandment of the creator: love your neighbor as yourself.” And he would repeat this chant, over and over, before he prayed. He would not let himself begin to actually pray until he could recite this chant with a whole heart. He understood that it was impossible, that it is contradictory, to attempt to reach God, to attempt to touch holiness, without first accepting our responsibility to love those around us. The world is made holy when we accept our obligation to act lovingly towards one another. When we accept our obligation to act lovingly towards everyone, each one of us created betzelem Elohim. All the rest is commentary. Let us go and learn it.