May 7, 2020
An abridged version of this article appears in this week's Jewish Press. This is the second of two articles I published for this year's Omer Learning Program for Torah-based Family Values
One of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism is the mitzvah to love your fellow like yourself. Rabbi Akiva referred to it as a "great rule" in the Torah. When Hillel was asked to distill the entire Torah to a single "sound bite", he cited this mitzvah, and said everything else is commentary.
It is therefore especially tragic that we have allowed this mitzvah to be hijacked, twisted, abused, and corrupted to the point where it has lost all meaning in our time. We have allowed those who are most far removed from the Torah, who in fact wage war against the Torah, to pervert this mitzvah into an empty slogan with which to bludgeon its true practitioners.
For years we have allowed the Torah to be desecrated in our streets with pride! with nary a peep of protest. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that it is pointless to object, even counterproductive, whereby we cleverly turn our unwillingness to stand up for the Torah into a mitzvah for having chosen the prudent course of inaction. Really, we are heroic for doing nothing and saying nothing while everything that is dear to us is desecrated. If we protested for the sake of what is most dear to us we might only legitimize our enemies, or provoke them even further, or make fools of ourselves, so best to look the other way. We believe this because it is convenient, not because it is correct.
We live in a society in which terrorists who make the ultimate sacrifice are referred to as cowards, while those who refrain from fighting back lest they further upset their enemies are called brave, and no one laughs out loud. Declarations of war are now referred to as peace treaties, and casualties of war are referred to as painful sacrifices for the sake of peace. This is the best option, the only option, we are relentlessly told until people believe it or wear down. We allow ourselves to tolerate all manner of hypocrisies and absurdities, for tolerance is the new religion, and everything must be tolerated except what God demands of us. That is what God wants most, we are lectured, to tolerate everyone and everything except for God Himself.
In light of this, it is no wonder that we have allowed the mitzvah to love one's fellow like yourself to become just another painful sacrifice on the altar of tolerance and obfuscation. In the grand scheme of things, this sacrifice doesn't seem to have been all that painful, either. What does it matter anymore? Let it be their mantra.
So now we are lectured relentlessly that those who would make the citizens of Sodom blush and Noach's townsfolk cringe must be loved, as much as we love ourselves. The Torah demands it! It is God's will! If we even harbor a negative thought toward them we are hypocrites, and if we utter it we are criminals, extremists, terrorists who should be locked up before we can strike. Love your fellow like yourself! If you trampled on the Torah, desecrated its very essence, and waged war on God, wouldn't YOU want people to love you and accept you? Of course you would. So you must love others who do the same.
We have even been admonished that this mitzvah extends to actual terrorists, to children of Yishmael who have murdered our people. Those who call for these people to be summarily executed and for the blood of our brothers and sisters to be avenged are silenced with calls to love our fellow like yourself. These murderers were created in the image of God, we are told, just like us, and we must love them, just like ourselves, even if they've been a bit naughty. The Torah demands it. It is God's will. It is a mitzvah.
So preach those who couldn't tell you where this mitzvah appears in the Torah, who couldn't tell you what this mitzvah actually means according to the Sages who transmitted it to us from the day it was given, and who believe all the mitzvos are merely suggestions that can be reinterpreted or done away with according to the needs and desires of the time. This mitzvah, however, is binding on us, it supersedes all others, and it must be taken literally to the most absurd, even suicidal extremes. We must be willing to sacrifice for the Torah, after all, preach those who sacrifice nothing but the Torah.
It is with this lengthy introduction in mind that we must reclaim this mitzvah as our own. We must reaffirm its true meaning and context, both its broad applications and its inviolable boundaries boundaries which exist for every mitzvah. Those who wage war on the very notion of boundaries shall no longer be permitted to deny the existence of boundaries for this mitzvah too, and in so doing hijack it for their nefarious purposes.
The mitzvah to love one's fellow like yourself appears in the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim (19:18), which not coincidentally is preceded by the prohibitions on sexual immorality. The same Torah that commands us to love our fellow also commands us that we are not permitted to express our love or act out our desires however we please. One cannot claim one mitzvah is binding, authentic, or otherwise relevant without accepting all the others. The Torah is a package deal.
One who wishes to convert to Judaism and accept upon himself everything except for a single letter of the Torah is denied. A Jew who accepts the divine origin of the entire Torah except for a single letter is a blasphemer. If you want "love your fellow", you must accept every "thou shalt not" as well. If you deny a single "thou shalt not", you have no claim to "love your fellow". If you claim that God wasn't really serious about a single "thou shalt not", then you have no right to impose your strict interpretation of "love your fellow" on anyone else.
If you claim the rabbis made up the laws, it is these same rabbis who emphasized "love your fellow". One cannot cite a rabbinic teaching as support for his lifestyle if he denies the divine authority of these same rabbis and all their other teachings.
Indeed, the next words after "love your fellow like yourself" are "I am Hashem", to teach that we are only commanded to love those who conduct themselves with righteousness and bring honor to Hashem, not those who do the reverse (Torah Temima, Avos D'Rabbi Nasan Chapter 26). Rashbam explains that this mitzvah is limited by the word "your fellow"; we are not commanded to love our enemies or the wicked, only our fellows in goodness and Godliness.
Those who claim that certain mitzvos do not apply to them nay, that only this mitzvah does apply to them must be informed that we are only commanded to love our fellows in Torah and fear of Heaven. To the extent that they believe "thou shalt nots" do not apply to them, the mitzvah to love them does not apply to us. Quite the contrary. And we must keep this mitzvah not to love them even though it is extremely difficult for us, and we were born with the gene to love all people no matter what...
Considering the importance our rabbis attached to the mitzvah to love one's fellow, it's interesting how little attention is devoted to it in the Gemara and Midrash. We would expect a huge tractate filled with rabbinic teachings on "love your fellow", yet citations of this mitzvah are sparse and appear in the most unlikely of places. This only underscores how the mitzvah is indeed fundamental and the rest of the Torah is commentary, yet it is also just one mitzvah of 613, and it must be compatible with the other 612.
In Sanhedrin we are taught that certain methods of execution in Jewish courts were favored over others that would be even slightly more painful or disgraceful than necessary, due to the mitzvah to "love your fellow like yourself".
An "enlightened" skeptic would scoff that truly loving one's fellow would be not to execute him altogether, no matter what the crime, for we wouldn't want to be executed no matter what we did. This is nonsense, of course. Loving one's fellow does not mean allowing an entire breakdown of law and justice, especially since that would have devastating consequences for all our other, innocent fellows. It means meting out justice with compassion and empathy even for the lowest of criminals but meting out justice all the same. Indeed, no system of law in the world demonstrates the degree of compassion and empathy for criminals and sinners to the extent that our Torah does, all while protecting the need for civilization to remain civilized.
The truth is that the commandment to love another person just as one loves himself, taken literally, is absurd. Not only is it absurd, it goes against the Torah. If one is traveling in the desert with a fellow Jew, and he has only enough food and water for one person to survive, he must keep it for himself. It is also prohibited for a person to give away too much of his own money to charity lest he become destitute in his own right. Self-sacrifice has its limits, and a literal interpretation of "love your fellow like yourself" is incompatible with the Torah's actual position. But of course.
That said, we also know that the most basic meaning of a pasuk, the peshat, cannot be disregarded. The Ramban explains that the mitzvah to love one's fellow equally to himself refers to the obligation to desire only the very best for one's fellow Jew in all matters, just as one wishes for himself. This mitzvah single-handedly drives away petty competition, ayin hara, jealousy, the begrudging reactions people often have when others find success, especially in areas where one is lacking. Why him and not me? The mitzvah to love one's fellow like himself urges us to wish only good things for our fellow Jews and to be genuinely happy for them when they find success. To truly love someone is to view their success with satisfaction, as if it were your own.
Needless to say, nowhere in Torah literature will one find in this mitzvah a license to condone evildoing or pardon willful, unrepentant sinners. To do so demonstrates neither love for the other person, nor for yourself, nor for society, nor for the Torah, nor for God. If one is struggling with a particular commandment and truly wishes to perform God's will, he will receive boundless love and support from His people. Even if he stumbles along the way, he remains "our fellow" so long as he accepts the commandment as binding and wishes to fulfill it. Such a person is truly "our fellow", for he is all of us, and we shall love such a person just as we love ourselves.
If, however, someone claims that a commandment is not binding, or not relevant, or fabricated by corrupt Talmudic personalities, or simply doesn't apply to him, then he has excused himself from the fellowship, and is no longer entitled to the privileges of membership. The very preceding pasuk to "love your fellow" is the commandment to rebuke a fellow Jew which, like every other mitzvah, must be done within proper parameters, but which is a mitzvah just the same.
Even before we are commanded to love a fellow Jew, and immediately after we are commanded not to hate a fellow Jew, we are commanded to rebuke a sinner. This is part and parcel of the loving relationship we are supposed to share with one another. A relationship in which "love" means a blank check to do whatever one desires and receive only approval in return is neither a loving relationship nor a healthy relationship. It is certainly not mandated by the Torah.
The first pasuk of Shema, the most basic of Jewish prayers, commands us to love Hashem with all our hearts, all our souls, and all that we possess. Let us love Hashem, let us love those who serve Him, and let us love those who wish to serve Him even if they are still on the beginning of the road. But they must be on that road, not seeking to blow it up. They must be our fellows.
None of what I have written here is novel. Unfortunately, due to the onslaught of "love your fellow" by those who make a farce of this and all other mitzvos, we need to review that which we already know and strengthen our commitment to it. Let us reclaim this mitzvah as the exclusive inheritance of those who accept the Torah the entire Torah and let us proclaim its true meaning with pride.
True Jewish pride.