Who’s a neighbor?

Taken as a whole Kedoshim insists that all people must be ‘loved’ – treated with fundamental respect and dignity

Diversity521 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Kedoshim contains one of the bestknown, but most misunderstood, verses in the entire Bible: ve’ahavta lere’akha kamokha – “Love your fellow as yourself” (according to the New Jewish Publication Society translation: re’akha is more popularly rendered ‘neighbor’).
The verse is even memorialized in a song taken from Siphra, a somewhat obscure rabbinic midrash. “Rabbi Akiva said, ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’ This is a great principle (klal gadol) of the Torah.”
But what is the meaning of a klal gadol, and what qualifies this verse snippet as such? In its entirety, the verse reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself, I am the Lord.” Along with the preceding verses, this verse mandates proper behavior between Israelites – they refer to “your kinsfolk” (ahikha), “your kinsman” (amitekha), and “your countrymen” (amekha) as well as “your fellow”.
All these statutes refer to conduct between Israelites, and not toward non-Israelites; these verses are particularistic, not universal. The same is true of “your fellow” in our verse. In fact, the phrase “as yourself” in “love your fellow as yourself” probably modifies “fellow” rather than “love,” and is an injunction to “love” the person who is like you – namely, your “fellow” Israelite.
There is a similar misunderstanding over the word “love.” English has a very rich vocabulary denoting the attraction of one person to another, ranging from “like” to “idolize.” Biblical Hebrew is mostly limited to using the root aleph, heh, bet, and only through context may we judge the intensity or nuance of ahav.
Thus, according to Exodus 21:5, an Israelite slave might say, “I loved (ahavti) my master” – certainly this is not love but, at the most, “like” – the master is providing the slave with tolerable enough conditions that he wants to stay with him, rather than risking an independent living. In 2 Samuel 13:1, Amnon ahav his half-sister Tamar, whom he goes on to trick, rape, and despise – here the translation correctly renders “became infatuated with.” Even in the Song of Songs, it is difficult to know when to render this verb as “love” and when as “desire” or “lust after.”
Moreover, the verb ahav often does not imply an emotional attitude, but action connected to such an attitude. For example, when Deuteronomy 6:5 insists, “You shall love the Lord your God,” this is not commanding an attitude (how can love be commanded?), but, as the following verses suggest, says that you must treat God as someone you love – with respect and obedience.
Thus, a proper rendition of ve’ahavta lere’akha kamokha is probably something like “like your neighbor who is like you” and means that you should treat your Israelite neighbor with respect.
So what did Rabbi Akiva mean by calling ve’ahavta lere’akha kamokha a klal gadol? It is likely that Akiva’s dictum is related to Matthew 22; there are many places where the New Testament and rabbinic literature reflect a common tradition. In that passage, Jesus is asked: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
While this translation from the Greek hides some ambiguities, this New Testament passage likely clarifies what klal means – a principle in the sense of a generality that subsumes many other laws – other injunctions “hang” within it.
In the rabbinic passage that quotes Akiva, his student and contemporary Ben-Azzai corrects him, noting “‘This is the record of Adam’s line. [When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God]’ (Genesis 5:1) – this is a greater principle yet.” This verse is a corrective since it refers to the period before Abraham, and insists that all people, irrespective of religion or ethnicity, are in the image of God, and thus must be treated properly.
Is this a case where the rabbis “correct” a biblical idea, expanding the idea that only your fellow Israelite must be treated properly to the more universal idea that all people must be treated well? Probably not.
After all, a careful reading of the rest of the chapter in Leviticus brings us to v. 34: “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: I the Lord am your God.” That verse’s phrase, “you shall love him as yourself,” exactly parallels and supplements v. 18’s “Love your fellow as yourself.”
Thus, a complete reading of the chapter comes up with the identical contention of Ben-Azzai. Taken as a whole, Leviticus insists that all people must be “loved,” treated with fundamental respect and dignity.
Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of “How to Read the Jewish Bible.” He is co-founder of Torah and Biblical Studies, which will launch its website (thetorah.com) in time for Shavuot.