THE MAJOR PRINCIPLE OF THE TORAH
The central commandment
1. Even though the Torah ascribes no special significance to the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jewish sources have long understood this commandment as having special—and in some ways preeminent—significance. Rabbi Akiva (second century) declared that the injunction to love your neighbor “is the major principle of the Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4).
2. More than a century before Akiva, Hillel presented a negative formulation of this law, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” He also declared this to be Judaism’s central teaching: “This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a).* Occasionally, I have heard people describe Hillel’s formulation of the Golden Rule as representing a lower, more pragmatic ethic than the positive but vaguely phrased “Love your neighbor.” But, in fact, Hillel was concerned with offering people practical guidance on how to make this law part of their daily behavior, and he understood that it is first necessary to teach people what not to do.
In defining Judaism initially by what one shouldn’t do, Hillel may have been emulating God’s articulation of the Ten Commandments. Thus, my friend Dr. Isaac Herschkopf notes that “God did not command us to be honest, truthful, and faithful. Rather, He commanded us, ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t bear false witness,’ ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ It might be less positive, but it is undeniably more effective.”
*For more on the significance of moral behavior within Judaism, see A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy, pages 10–25.
A 1980s experiment conducted with American sixth-graders addressed young people’s differing responses to positive and negative formulations of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”). Educator Ron Rembert asked the students to compose two lists, one consisting of actions they would want others to do for them, the others of actions they would not want done. Their list of “Do’s” was short, focusing primarily on “love,” “respect,” and “help.” Their list of “Don’ts” was longer, and included “Don’t hit . . . steal . . . laugh at . . . snub . . . cheat.” Rembert pointed out that “the list of ‘Don’ts’ . . . included specific behaviors which are relatively easy to identify [while] the list of ‘Do’s’ . . . focused upon general attitudes and behaviors which are more difficult to define.” Professor Jeffrey Wattles cited this study in his book The Golden Rule, and noted that “The students concluded that the negative version of the Golden Rule would be easier to follow than the positive version.”1
3. The centrality of love in Jewish teachings also characterizes many post-talmudic texts. To cite but one example: The medieval Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu attributes to God one crucial request from the Jewish people: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: ‘My children, what do I want from you? I want no more than that you love one another and treat one another with dignity.’”
4. In the Torah, the commandment to love is immediately preceded by prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge. At some point, we all hurt other people—intentionally or not—and then hope fervently that our victims not take revenge or bear us a grudge. To love our neighbor as ourself means, therefore, to act toward others as we would like them to act toward us. If we want those we have provoked to let go of vengeful feelings, then we must act the same way when others hurt us.
Holding on to grudges is self-destructive as well as destructive. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., a psychiatrist who has devoted most of his professional career to working with people with addictions, notes that recovering alcoholics often relapse because of their inability to suppress anger and grudges against people who have hurt them. One man—who understood how vital it was for his own well-being not to bear grudges—told Twerski: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.”
This insight applies to everyone, not just recovering alcoholics, for many of us spend hours, days, even months, preoccupied with thoughts of the person or people we most dislike. Rabbi Twerski asks wisely: “Why would anyone allow that?”2
5. The commandment to love is followed by the words “I am God.” What is the connection between these two statements? Jewish tradition understands the commandment to love our neighbor as rooted in the belief that all human beings are created by God and thus are part of one extended family. As the prophet Malachi asks: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” (Malachi 2:10). From this perspective, the command to love other people is similar to the expectation that we love our siblings; we and they share a parent or parents in common. In addition, the failure to show love and kindness to others reveals not only an emotionally stingy nature, but also a denial of the biblical teaching that the people we encounter are, like us, created by God in His image and should be treated as such.
On purely logical grounds, if there is no God commanding us to love our neighbor, then there is no rational reason why we should feel obligated to do so. John Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690): “Should that most unshaken rule of morality and foundation of all social virtues, ‘that one should do [unto others] as he would be done unto,’ be proposed to one who had never heard of it before . . . might he not without any absurdity ask a reason why?” Since Locke posed this question over three centuries ago, no one has offered a logically compelling reason why we should love our neighbor as ourself (on the relationship between God and ethics, see A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy, pages 480–486).
6. While the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is explicitly stated, a moment’s reflection reveals that this verse suggests an implicit command as well: to love ourselves. A person who has low regard for himself is unlikely to consistently carry out the injunction “as yourself” in a loving way. Indeed, one wonders whether there has ever been an abusive parent with a decent self-image. This is why even if self-love does not come naturally or easily, we are obligated—for the sake of others as well as ourselves—to cultivate a sense of self-esteem and liking.
Think about your own behavior. Are you more likely to be patient, forgiving, and generous to others when you are feeling good about yourself or when you are feeling low and self-critical? A sense of personal well-being and accomplishment tend to translate into a more joyful and accepting attitude toward others, including family members. However, when we are feeling unsure of ourselves and self-critical, we often become more disapproving and less forgiving of others.
A healthier attitude toward ourselves is one I saw cited in a newspaper article and attributed to an anonymous third-grade boy: “I can’t make people like me, but if I wasn’t me, I would like me.”
What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?
7. The wording of the Torah’s commandment—with its emphasis on “neighbor,”* implying a person whom we see often—suggests that this mitzvah relates to tangible behavior and not simply to abstract love, as would be the case had the Torah instructed us to “Love humanity.”† That is why Jewish legal texts generally focus on the actions this commandment entails. Thus, Maimonides emphasizes loving behavior far more than the emotion of love:
OIn “Laws of Mourning,” he describes as outgrowths of this command a series of additional Jewish laws, including the commandments to visit the sick (see chapters 5–7), to make sure that the dead are properly attended to and buried (see chapter 8), to comfort mourners (see chap-ter 9), and to act hospitably (see chapter 3). Maimonides also notes our
*The precise meaning of the Hebrew word re-acha is “your fellow,” which, like neighbor, suggests someone with whom we routinely have contact (of course, we are also obligated to act in a loving and helpful way even toward those with whom we have more casual interactions or perhaps none, such as victims of a natural catastrophe). I have followed the translation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” since it is so widely known.
†The character Linus, in Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts, was famed for his comment “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand.” A scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov expresses this more fully. Zosma describes to a visitor to his monk’s cell a conversation he had years earlier with a doctor: “He spoke just as frankly as you have done, but with humor, bitter humor. ‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I’m surprised at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love men in particular, that is, separately as individuals.’” The longer the doctor spoke, the sadder and more tragic his confession became: “‘In my thoughts,’ he said to me, ‘I’ve often had a passionate desire to serve humanity, and would perhaps have actually gone to the cross for mankind if I had ever been required to do so, and yet at the same time, as I well know from my personal experience, I’m incapable of enduring two days in the same room with any other person. . . . Within one day, I can end up hating the very best of men, some because they’ve taken too long over their dinner, others because they’ve caught a cold and keep blowing their noses. I become a misanthrope,’ he said, ‘the minute I come into contact with people.’”
obligation to provide for the needs of a bride, and to bring the bride and groom joy at their wedding (see pages 27–28). Maimonides understands the law of love of neighbor as meaning that whatever you want others to do for you, you should do for them (“Laws of Mourning” 14:1).
OIn “Laws of Character Development” (De’ot), he offers additional examples of how to practice this commandment. For example: “One should speak in praise of another, and be careful about another’s money [and possessions] just as he is careful about his own money, and wants his own dignity preserved” (6:3).3 These examples express two important components of loving behavior: emotional support for others (praising them), and material support (helping safeguard their money).4
OIn “Laws of Gifts to the Poor,” Maimonides notes that among the commandments violated by someone who does not actively involve himself in redeeming captives is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (8:10).
OIn Maimonides’ enumeration of the 613 commandments, he describes how this law should be translated into action: “Whatever I wish for myself, I should wish the same for that person. And whatever I do not wish for myself or for my friends, I should not wish for that person. That is the meaning of the verse, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Book of the Commandments, positive commandment # 206).
A contemporary Jewish writer comments on what it means in concrete terms to fulfill Maimonides’ words, “Whatever I do not wish for myself or for my friends, I should not wish for that person”: “As I would not want to suffer hunger, homelessness, joblessness, ill health, and disease, and personal tragedies of every kind, so too I would not wish that on others. And I would have to act to prevent these misfortunes happening to them.” Regarding Maimonides’ words, “Whatever I wish for myself, I should wish the same for that person,” he continues: “If I wish to have peace of mind, security, a decent living, friends, family, good health for myself, I am to wish that for others also, and to act in such a way as to allow others to have those blessings” (Danny Siegel).5
Nachmanides (thirteenth century) questioned the literal meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” reasoning that the Torah would not issue such a command because “man cannot be expected to love his neighbor as his own soul.” Rather, the Torah meant that “we should wish our neighbor to enjoy the same well-being as we enjoy ourselves,” and to have this wish with “no reservations” (that is, without the desire to feel superior to our neighbor).
Building on this insight, Naftali Hertz Wessely (eighteenth century), author of a commentary on Leviticus (part of Moses Mendelssohn’s Biur commentary on the Torah) offers an example that illustrates why feeling the same level of love for all others as for ourselves is impossible: “To fulfill such a command to the letter, man would have to grieve for his fellow’s sorrows just as he grieves for his own. This would be intolerable since scarcely a moment passes without hearing of someone’s misfortunes.”6 If people consistently react to the sufferings of others with the same intensity with which they react to their own (for example, grieving over the death of someone else’s child as they would grieve if their own child died), we would soon find ourselves, and all humanity, in a permanent state of depression.*
Another reason why it is important to define the commandment to love in terms of behavior rather than emotions: Emotions are vague and can be difficult, sometimes even impossible, to delineate. Even people who are emotionally or physically brutal to others—for example, some spouses to each other, some parents to children—often insist that they love those whom they mistreat. And they mean it, or at least think they do. Thus, I have often heard it said of a parent known to be abusive that, at some level, he actually loves his children. If, indeed, that is true, then it underscores why defining love in terms of emotions, instead of deeds, is pointless since the word “love” could then be used to encompass behavior ranging from the greatest kindness and consideration to outright cruelty. It is only when love is defined in terms of behavior that people can be offered practical guidance in how to treat others.
8. Deuteronomy 10:18–19 provides yet another indication that love in the Torah is defined primarily through actions. Verse 19 commands the Israelites “to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” while verse 18 teaches that God “loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” The Torah’s instruction to the Israelites to follow in God’s ways (Deuteronomy 28:9), means that their love for the stranger should be
*This would be bad not only for the person experiencing the depression, but also for the recipient of the depressed person’s love. The late rabbi Louis Jacobs made the point that he would not want his doctor to take his case too personally because, overcome with emotion, he would not be able to think or operate rationally.
expressed, as is God’s, by providing them with food and clothing and taking care of their other needs.
Also, the rationale for loving the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” makes no sense if it refers to emotions. Why should the fact that the Israelites were “strangers” in Egypt, in and of itself, cause them to feel love for other strangers? But it makes perfect sense if what is being commanded is loving behavior, so that Jews are instructed to treat the stranger “in the way Jews would have liked to have been treated when they were strangers in Egypt” (Professor Steven Harvey).7
Professor Harvey points out that while it is impossible to expect masses of people to feel the same “sincere and unbounded desire and concern for the well-being of others [as they have for themselves], what can be commanded is the performance of acts of love, treating others as one would if one truly cared about their well-being.”8
Excerpted from A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2 by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.