Who Is Your Neighbor? Kedoshim 5779

D'var Torah | Leviticus

Most Jews take pride in knowing that much of what appears in the Hebrew Scriptures is later adapted or adopted by later religions and embraced as their own. It is a kind of tacit endorsement of the principles of Judaism and a tribute to the enduring, universalistic elements that spring from the Bible. Perhaps the greatest single example of this phenomenon is the Biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) that served as the source for Christianity’s “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12, which is none other than a positive formulation of Hillel’s rule in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a).


Yet a more careful analysis of this Biblical injunction yields a soberingly different understanding. Rabbi Umberto Cassuto (d. 1951), a noted Italian scholar and professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, points out in his commentary on the Book of Exodus, that in the context of the verse, the Hebrew word for neighbor must specifically refer to a fellow Jew. This is because the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” parallels the first half of the verse: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your people.” Since “sons of your people,” that is, Israelites, are the subject of the first part of the verse, Israelites must also be the subject of the second part. Hence, the rule is not universalistic at all. It applies only to Jews.


Certainly there are universalistic elements in the Bible and Cassuto is quick to point them out. For example, in the very same chapter of the Book of Leviticus, the Torah expressly states “the stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the homeborn among you and you shall love him as yourself” (verse 34). Since this law was operative in the land of Israel where there were only two classes of people (Israelites and non-Israelites) all human beings must be intended. Similarly, the “neighbor” to which Exodus 11:2 refers could only be an Egyptian. And it is this universalistic sentiment that is probably intended in the Decalogue.


However, it would be imprecise to conclude that Jews were obligated to love their non-Jewish neighbors from Leviticus 19:18. It is here that the Torah is particularistic. That Jews would have universalistic concern is noble and praiseworthy. But sometimes Jews need to look to their own first.



Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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