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Kedoshim: Love Your Neighbour – Particularistic or Universalistic?

Rabbi Akiva called it klal gadol ba-Torah,‘the great principle of the Torah’: Ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha – ani haShem.  “Love your neighbour as yourself – I am G-D.” (Lev. 19:18).

Who is the ‘neighbour’ whom we are to love.  Does it refer only to one’s fellow-Jew? Or does the word re’akha rather indicate ‘your fellow’ and embrace all humankind?

Or commentators appear divided.  Some, notably Ibn Ezra (“… we were all created by one G-D”) and, centuries later, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (“this is… something which is expected from us towards all our fellowmen in the Name of G-d Who has given all humanity the nature and calling of re’im”) apply it universally.  But many others like Rabbi David ben Zimra, the Radbaz (1479-1573) and Sefer haChinukh (13th century) emphasise its halachic application as being limited to one’s fellow-Jew, extrapolating that just as the first part of the verse specifies b’nei ameikha (“you shall take no revenge or bear no grudge against the children of your people”) so the latter part of the same verse – “love your neighbour as yourself” – applies specifically to fellow-members of the Jewish nation.

If that were the end of the story, our detractors might be justified in terming Judaism ‘insular’ and accusing Jews of being concerned only with their own.  However, in a remarkable response to Rabbi Akiva’s comment cited at the beginning of this essay (the source is the Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4) Ben Azai declares: yes, “love your neighbour as yourself” is a great principle, but there is an even greater one: Zeh sefer toledot adam b’yom b’ro Elokim adam bi-demut Elokim asa oto.  “This is the account of the descendants of  Adam – on the day that G-D created man He created him in the likeness of G-D!”(Genesis 5:1).

By stating clearly that all humankind descends from Adam this verse highlights the concept of the kinship of all humanity. The author of  the commentary Torah Temima, Rav Barukh haLevi Epstein (1860-1940) expands further.  This verse, he says, stresses that man was created ‘in the likeness of G-D’ so that no person should ever fail to honour and cherish his fellow properly.

Ben Azai’s universalistic interpretation of Genesis 5:1 is unchallenged.  All are agreed that based upon this verse our regard for our fellow must embrace all humanity.  Moreover it is predicated on the basis that our fellow-human is created “in the likeness of G-D”.  Given that there is a clear mitsva to love G-D (Deuteronomy 6:5) it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that we should likewise love those made in His image.  And just as we love G-D even though we cannot see or know Him, we must love our fellow-humans even though they may be remote from us geographically and unknown to us.

Clearly when we speak of ‘love’ in a Torah context we are not speaking of a touchy-feely situation, nor are we talking in some vague sixties-hippyish sense.  As we have had cause to remark before, the Hebrew word for love, ahava, stems from a root hav meaning “to give”.  In Judaism, love is not measured by how we feel but rather how we behave!

One can think of no finer example of Ben Azai’s principle in action than the inspirational figure of Holocaust survivor Professor Liviu Librescu, killed as he saved the lives of his students during a bloody massacre on a university campus in Virginia, USA.  What better definition of the Jewish concept of love could there possibly be!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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