What does it mean to be “holy”? And, what could this mean for us today in contemporary Israel? And  in the Diaspora?

We find the answers to these questions in the opening passages from the section in the Book of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code — Parashat K’doshim— which we will read in our synagogues this Shabbat morning  in Israel and around the world.This section of the Torah begins with the words “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and goes on to teach us in a very practical way what it means to be “holy”, wherever we live, and especially in Israel.

These are undoubtedly among the most famous and most relevant passages in the Torah, and indeed, in all of world religions. They can be found in various forms in many different religions as you can see from a poster which portrays the “Love your neighbor as yourself” statement as a major theme in no less than 12 of the world’s major religions! The organization that I founded and have directed for the past 23 years, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, has partnered with the Scarboro Missions Interfaith Department in Toronto in publishing this on the ICCI website  and on the Scarboro Missions’ website.

A key question that has always interested me is: what is the meaning of the word “neighbor” in the statement “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to some commentators, the Hebrew word for “neighbor,” rei-acha, refers only to Jews. This view is supported by the context in which the phrase appears in the Torah, which can be translated as follows: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not take revenge or feel resentment against the children of your people, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18). Looking carefully at this, it seems clear that “your neighbor” falls into the same category as “your brother” and “the children of your people,” all explicitly referring to one’s fellow Jews.

According to this view, “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not refer to anyone outside the Jewish people. “Neighbor” is not an accurate translation for the word rei-acha. The Hebrew word for “neighbor” is shachen; the Hebrew word rei-ah means “a very close companion” and sometimes rei-ah is used to mean “spouse.”

So who are our “neighbors” or “close companions” today? Are they only our fellow Jews? Can we extend the meaning to include all “human beings”, whether we live in the Diaspora or in Israel?

If we read the rest of this famous chapter in the book of Leviticus, we come to some additional verses (Lev. 19:33-34), which shed some light on these questions and offer a corrective to the notion that we should love only members of our own tribe or our own collective family. These verses relate to others who live in our midst, “the stranger who resides with you,” i.e.,  the non-Jew. How do we engage with  him or her? How do we relate to someone who is not a member of our people?

In these verses the Torah is very clear: you should love the stranger as yourself. Why? Because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” that is, because of our history as a persecuted minority in someone else’s land, we Jews should have a special sensitivity to the non-Jewish citizens in our midst.

We can understand these verses therefore differently with regard to living in the Diaspora or living in a Jewish state. In the Diaspora, Jews no longer live only among their own tribe, as they did in biblical times or in other periods in Jewish history. In today’s multicultural societies, one’s neighbor is just as likely to be Christian or Muslim or a member of another religion, culture, or people. In a modern democratic society, where members of many religions and nationalities are citizens of the same state, it is clear that a universalistic interpretation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” would be more timely and relevant than ever before.

Yet, we have some natural tendencies that lead us to love people in our own family — and in our own collective family — more than we do people outside our family. This is probably the original meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself”; there is certainly a familial or particularistic dimension to this commandment.

In the state of Israel today, we can see the tension between the particular and the universal in a clear way, in the light of this Torah teaching. On the one hand, Israel was created as a Jewish state for the survival of the Jewish people, for our brothers and sisters who had suffered so much throughout Jewish history as a minority group in various diasporas. Therefore the Law of Return is one of our basic laws, which allows all Jews (in principle, though not always in practice) to come home.

On the other hand, the state of Israel is not only for Jews! There ought to be a significant place for minorities within its midst, for Israeli Arabs, be they Muslim or Christian. The Torah teaching in our portion is forthrightly prescriptive for our contemporary reality– we must not wrong strangers; rather, we should regard them as fellow citizens and even love them as ourselves, which would translate into granting them equal rights.

In other words, the state of Israel — which seeks to be a Jewish as well as a democratic state — should take both verses referred to above as essential. We must love our fellow Jews as brothers and sisters in a historic, unique collective family, and at the same time we must love the stranger as we love ourselves, i.e., we must treat the non-Jew with the same human dignity that we would wish and envision for ourselves in all places in the world.

This would be the real meaning of what it means to be “holy” in the “Holy Land” today.