David Sedley
David Sedley

Parshat Kedoshim — Good neighbors

Duke Leopold von Braunschweig falls from the capsizing boat on his rescue trip. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons).
Duke Leopold von Braunschweig falls from the capsizing boat on his rescue trip. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons).

Maximilian Julius Leopold of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel was a Prussian major general who became famous for the concern and care he showed his subordinate soldiers.

Leopold was born in 1752, the 13th (and youngest) son of Duke Charles I and Philippine Charlotte of Prussia. His uncle was King Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great. What made Frederick so great? Well, today he is considered one of the most enlightened monarchs of his age, who viewed his role as leader to be primarily a servant of the state. Frederick wrote an essay about enlightened absolutism – basically arguing that unelected, authoritarian leaders should use their political power for their subjects’ well-being.

Leopold von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel; Painter unknown. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Frederick even invited the great French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire to come and live in his palace, gave him the role of chamberlain appointed him to the Order of Merit, and paid him a handsome salary.

Unlike in other parts of Europe, and unlike Voltaire’s views, the Enlightenment in Prussia was not opposed to religion. Many of Germany’s leading writers tried to combine reason with religion.

This was the environment in which Leopold was raised. He was educated by some of the most enlightened thinkers but also firmly within Lutheran orthodoxy.

A biographer described Leopold when he was 18 years old as, “A knowledgeable, amiable, humble youth with a soft heart, always working on himself and quickly and energetically fulfilling the demands of Christian neighborly love.”

Leopold was considered not particularly suitable for a military leadership role because he considered Christians to be more important than generals. But his care extended not only to those who shared his faith. He would also help Jews who turned to him, despite the fact that they did not have equal legal rights of other citizens.

A leader caring for his subjects may not sound so radical nowadays, but remember, this was still a few years before both the American and French Revolution

In 1776, aged 26, Leopold moved to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder; and in 1782, he became major general of the military regiment stationed there. Under his command, the soldiers worked to protect the city when it was threated by floods. Leopold also built a school at his own expense, where soldiers’ children were educated in a novel, child-friendly method, based on the pedagogical reforms of Friedrich Eberhard von Rochow.

In 1785, the river Oder burst its banks and Leopold drowned trying to save those trapped on the other side.

Duke Leopold before his journey into ruin. Copper engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki; 1785. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

According to legend which developed almost immediately after his death, the Duke saw a number of bodies floating in the turbulent waters, and understood that there were more peasants whose lives were at risk from the rising flood. He pleaded with those under him to go and save as many lives as they could. But the raging river was too dangerous and nobody would venture out to save them. So, Leopold himself set out in a small boat, risking his life to save those who were dying. However, the boat was only halfway across the river when it overturned, and the prince died, aged only 32.

In actual fact, he was not trying to save peasants, but his own soldiers, as he told the sailors who accompanied him. However, the story of the Duke forfeiting his life for the poor folk of Frankfurt spread rapidly, inspiring art, statues, sermons and poems.

Apotheosis of Prince Leopold of Braunschweig; Ink drawing by Johann Heinrich Ramberg 1787 or 1788. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote perhaps the most famous poem of the tragic death of the heroic duke, entitled, “Leopold, Duke of Brunswick“:

Thou wert forcibly seized by the hoary lord of the river, —
Holding thee, ever he shares with thee his streaming domain,
Calmly sleepest thou near his urn as it silently trickles,
Till thou to action art roused, waked by the swift-rolling flood.
Kindly be to the people, as when thou still wert a mortal,
Perfecting that as a god, which thou didst fail in, as man.

The legend was so well known, that it was used as an example by Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz* in his 1797 book, “Sefer Haberit” (“Book of the Covenant”) as the embodiment of the mitzvah to love others.

In chapter 4 of the section “Ahavat Re’im” the Rabbi asks whether loving others is part of human nature or not, and answers that if a person looks deeply within his soul, he will find that his natural desire and inclination is to do the right thing and do good to others. He brings a proof that even princes and powerful people have risked their lives to save others. And he retells the legend of Leopold’s drowning as an example of this.

“Sefer Haberit” continues to discuss a mitzvah found in the second of this week’s Torah portions — Kedoshim. In Leviticus 19:18, the verse states:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

This sentiment is what Leopold’s biographer described as, “Christian neighborly love” but it was a Jewish concept before it became a Christian one.

This commandment is so fundamental to Judaism, that according to the Midrash, (Sifra Kedoshim chapter 4 and Bereishit Rabba 24:7), Rabbi Akiva considered it the most fundamental principle of Torah.

Loving people who we like is easy, and hardly needs to be listed as a commandment. The question, though, is who should be included in the definition of “neighbor.” Obviously, it is not limited to only the people living in the next-door houses. But rather, it may refer to “people like us.”

For example, Rambam writes in Hilkhot De’ot 6:3:

It is commandment for every person to love each and every Israelite as himself, as the verse states, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The view that the commandment only extends to other Jews is echoed in Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 243) and several contemporary texts.

Elsewhere (Hilkhot Avel 14:1) Rambam limits who one is commanded to love:

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the things that you want others to do for you, you should do for your brothers in Torah and mitzvot.

In other words, not all Jews are included in “your neighbor.” Only those who observe the laws of the Torah. The medieval work “Avot of Rabbi Natan,” in chapter 16, also says that the commandment is only to love those who love God, but that there is a commandment to hate the heretics, the seducers, the waylayers and the traitors. Similarly, the Hagahot Maimoniyot commentary on Rambam cites the Talmud (Pesachim 113b) saying that it is actually a commandment to hate those who are not your “neighbors” in Torah and mitzvot.

However, Sefer Haberit takes a different approach. He writes (Ahavat Re’im chapter 5):

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ This does not mean specifically Jews. For if that was the intent, the verse would have stated, ‘Love your brother as yourself’… or ‘Love your people as yourself’… Rather, the intent of “neighbor” is a person, like you, who is involved in building the world, like you.

All nations are included in the word “neighbor” (re’eh) as we see in the verse, “The shepherds (ro’ei) of Gerar with the shepherds of Isaac,” (Genesis 26:20).

The Rabbis of the Talmud did not exclude non-Jews from the meaning of the verse…

I am not making up this concept that we must help non-Jews. Rather, it is found explicitly in the words of the Holy Rabbi Chaim Vital in his book ‘Sha’arei Kedusha’ (section 1; chapter 5). He writes there, ‘Love all people, even non-Jews.’

This is also explicit in Tanna Devei Eliyahu (chapter 15).

Rabbi Horowitz goes on to say that the only groups excluded from “neighbor” are the seven Canaanite nations who lived in Israel in the time of Joshua, and who were exceedingly cruel and hated all other people.

To love those who are like us is easy. Social media is built on allowing us to create communities of people who think the same as us, believe the same as us, act the same way we do. Loving them as ourselves is not difficult.

The hard thing is to expand the concept of “neighbor” to those who are different than we are, in their values, beliefs or religion. Only once we see the others as our “neighbors” can we come to love them. For me, that is the meaning of this commandment.

This idea was highlighted for me this week, when on April 18th people on social media shared that it was the anniversary of the BBC’s “No News Day.”

On Good Friday, April 18th, 1930, British listeners tuned in to listen to the 8:45 evening news bulletin. Instead of the regular news, they were greeted by an announcer saying in received pronunciation, “Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.” Then, for the next 15 minutes, the BBC aired piano music before sending listeners to a performance of the Wagner opera “Parsifal,” broadcast from the Queen’s Hall.

Actually, this was part of an effort by John Reith, first Director-General of the BBC to transform the broadcaster into a respected national institution.

In reality, there was plenty of news to broadcast. On that day, Indian rebels, led by Surya Sen, attacked the armory in Chittagong, India (though since the rebels had cut the telegram wires, perhaps they had not heard the news in London). According to a contemporary newspaper, the BBC had failed to report on a notable death, a fire and an automobile accident. The previous day’s paper had raised some serious allegations about the British government, which the government wanted to respond to.

Two days earlier, almost three years before Adolph Hitler became Chancellor, Wilhelm Frick, became the first Nazi to hold a ministerial position anywhere in Germany. Given how events unfolded, perhaps the BBC could have spent some of their quarter-hour discussing the implications of rising nationalism in Germany.

The No News Day was really about the BBC’s white male elitism, not about the lack of news.

In the words of Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, “On a day where nothing happened to world leaders and elites, the affairs of the hoi polloi weren’t newsworthy.”

For the BBC, and by extension, the listening public in the UK, the concept of “neighbor” did not extend very far.

Today with internet, 24-hour news and social media we have the opportunity to enlarge our neighborhoods. We can connect with people from around the world, with different cultures, worldviews, histories and beliefs. If we use technology in the right way, we can truly fulfill the mitzvah of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

*Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz was a kabbalist who lived from 1765-1821, not to be confused with Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, (known as “Ba’al Hafla’ah” after his most famous book). “Sefer Haberit” is an interesting book. The second section is an explanation of Rabbi Chaim Vital’s kabbalistic work “Sha’arei Kedusha” and discusses faith, Jewish law and ethics. However, the first, and much longer part of the book, is a kind of scientific encyclopedia, dealing with philosophy, astronomy, geography, biology, medicine and technology. It was first published anonymously, but quickly became very popular and later editions included the author’s name. It has since been republished more than 30 times. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in chapter 2 of “Love and Exile” that:

There were a number of holy books in my father’s bookcase in which I sought the answers to my questions. One was the “Book of the Covenant,” which I believe was already at that time a hundred years old and full of scientific facts. It described the theories of Copernicus and Newton, and, it seems, the experiments of Benjamin Franklin as well. There were accounts of savage tribes, strange animals, and explanations of what made a train run and a balloon fly.

A student in the Chofetz Chaim’s Radin Yeshiva wrote an essay in which he said that he used to read it in the bathroom because he was afraid he would be caught and accused of being a “maskil.”

Thanks to Dr. Jeremy Brown and his excellent blog Talmudology for the inspiration for this blog.

I’m giving an online series of classes at WebYeshiva about the lives and teachings of the rabbis of the Mishna. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes by registering on the website. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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