Parashat Kedoshim: The meaning of a friend

Our Torah teaches that we must love others like we love ourselves, even if – perhaps especially if – the other is different from ourselves in many ways.

haredi311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
“You shall love your friend like yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Three times this past year, the Reform Synagogue in Ra’anana, Kehillat Ra’anan, has been vandalized, apparently by overly zealous adolescents overtaken by an evil excess of religious fervor. The third act of desecration took place on the Wednesday night prior to Pessah; thankfully, by the evening of Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat before Pessah), a letter condemning the vandalism and signed by virtually all of the Orthodox rabbis in Ra’anana – including Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz – could be read out before the assembled congregation of Kehillat Ra’anan so it would be clear to all that at least the Orthodox establishment of Ra’anana decried the crime (the complications involved in the drafting and signing of the letter were eventually ironed out due to the mediation skills of Rabbi Seth Farber). Hopefully the perpetrators of the crime will be soon apprehended and properly brought to justice.
The manner in which a halachically observant Jew will relate to the vandalism in Ra’anana will depend upon the interpretation of a well-known verse in this week’s biblical reading of Kedoshim: “You shall love your friend like yourself.” Yes, Rabbi Akiva referred to this commandment as “the great rule of the Torah” (Torat Kohanim 19, 45); yes, when a would-be convert came to Hillel with the request that he be converted to Judaism on the condition that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, the sage responded by merely restating the words of our commandment: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend; that is the entire Torah, with the rest being commentary. Go and study” (B.T. Shabbat 31a); and yes, no observant Jew would want to enter his synagogue only to find that it had been vandalized. But what will ultimately determine an observant Jew’s attitude toward the crime in Ra’anana depends upon our interpretation of a single word in the text of the commandment: “friend,” or re’a in Hebrew.
The most narrow interpretation of the word would insist that the verse refers only to “your friend vis à vis the commandments,” which means an individual who is as ritually observant as you are; if it is someone who would be considered ritually lax in his observance, you may even hate him (see additions to Rashi and Rashbam ad loc). Maimonides would seem to limit the biblical commandment to another Israelite (Hilchot Deot, 6,3), although he would most probably extend the practice of human sensitivity to every individual who keeps the universal moral laws of Noah (see his last ruling in his laws of slaves).
It is the Ibn Ezra who interprets the text in accordance with every word in the verse and understands it unambiguously to refer to every human being who was created by God “in His image”; indeed, it is for this reason that the verse – which deals with interpersonal laws – concludes, “I am the Lord,” in order to explain that God created all of us “as one.” We humans were all created in His image, all share a portion of God from on high within ourselves, and hence are all siblings (Ibn Ezra, ad loc).
It is especially from this last perspective – one that I believe is shared by Rabbi Akiva himself, as he teaches, “Beloved is the human being, who is created in the Divine image” (Mishna Avot 3,18) – that one can legitimately call this commandment “the great rule of the Torah,” the rule that is inclusive of all of humanity. And it would most certainly include our Reform siblings and co-religionists.
I WOULD like to go one step further. I am a very proud Orthodox Jew, teacher and rabbi, who believes deeply that our Torah is the word of God and that it is the Halacha – the system of fealty to a Jewish legal system that has its roots in Sinai and that developed through the generations as is recorded in the Talmud, the Codes and the Responsa – which has guided our continued and creative existence into this period of “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.” Hence I cannot say a statutory prayer in a service conducted in a Reform temple, since it would not conform to the rules of congregational prayer that I hold to be sacrosanct.
However, the Reform movement is not my enemy; from a certain perspective, it is my partner, since there are many instances in which it has reached Jews whom neither I nor my Orthodox co-religionists were successful in reaching and has brought them closer to Jewish traditions. There is even a significant number of students who have come to our rabbinical school on a religious journey that began in a Reform congregation or a Reform camp setting. Yes, we do not agree, yet are there not many instances wherein partners generally disagree?
Moreover, we can even learn from heterodox groups. There were many aspects of Jewish synagogue life, especially in the Diaspora, where we learned from non- Orthodox movements to have more decorous services, to include a sermon in the vernacular, to explain the prayers to the uninitiated. And the challenge of the non- Orthodox movements made Orthodoxy more receptive, more open to human sensitivities; after all, in a situation of “competition,” every “establishment” must try a little harder. And, in a more extreme situation, did not Rabbi Meir continue to learn from Elisha ben Abuya even after he turned away from traditional Torah and became a heretic, and was this not justified by the other sages (BT Hagiga 15b)?
The bottom line: Our Torah teaches that we must love others like we love ourselves, even if – perhaps especially if – the other is different from ourselves in many ways. We must always be mindful of the fact that our common “image of God” makes that which unites us as siblings more significant than anything which divides us.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.