Parshat Kedoshim: When “Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” Isn’t Enough

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt receives Charlemagne Prize in Aachen, Germany on May 9, 2024. The prize is awarded for fostering European unity. Credit: Karlspreis

In this week’s Parsha, Kedoshim, we find one of Judaism’s most important maxims – and one of its greatest contributions to civilization: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment, from Leviticus 19:9, was adopted by the authors of the Gospels, the Qur’an, and countless other more modern inspirational works.

It’s curious, then, that in the context of a discussion of this passage, the Talmud presents what seems to be its inverse principle as a main tenet of Judaism. In the well-known story (Shabbat 31:A), a potential convert approaches Hillel the Elder and asks to learn the Torah “while standing on one foot” – boiling Judaism down to its basic essentials.  Hillel replies “Whatever you don’t want done to you, don’t do to others” – a mirror image of the Torah passage about loving your neighbor. 

Commentators have expressed a wide range of opinions on this seeming dichotomy; wouldn’t it have been better for Hillel to have just quoted the pasuk itself?” But I think Hillel presented the principle the way he did in order to teach a lesson – one that is very relevant to our lives as Jews right now.

All over the world, groups are protesting loudly – sometimes violently – against Israel for its defensive actions in Gaza. While many in Arab countries protest out of sheer hatred of Jews and Israel, many in the West – especially among idealistic college students – are doing so in the name of “justice” and “freedom” for Palestinians. Even Jewish students are participating in these protests, – claiming that Israel is persecuting Palestinians, and violating the Jewish traditions of mercy, peace, and loving one’s neighbor. Indeed, these protestors and critics of Israel believe they themselves are living out the principle of “loving their (Palestinian) neighbor as themselves,” as they carry out this activism.

Of course, many of these protesting students are ignorant of the facts – leading them to accept at face value the lies being fed to them by far-left Israel-hating groups, and failing to recognize that too many Palestinian movements support terrorism and violence against Israeli and Jewish civilians. But the evolution of these protests makes clear why Hillel chose to couch his answer in that mirror image, using negative rather than positive language; without concern over avoiding hurting “the other,” there is no value to expressing your love for them.

The protests are ostensibly against Israel – but on many campuses we find swastikas, denunciation of and even death threats against Jews, violent beatings of those who try to cross protest lines, and wanton destruction of public property. Damage, threats, hatred, and violence – all in the name of “love” for Palestinians, justice and freedom. This is exactly what Hillel was warning against: Expressing your love of your fellow man is, as Rabbi Akiva put it, “an important principle of the Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4), but it cannot come at the expense of the lives, welfare, or property of others. If those “love” actions don’t avoid that damage, that isn’t love – and it isn’t Judaism.

Unfortunately, Jews are no strangers to this phenomenon; we’ve seen it over the millennia. Christians who sought to “save” us subjected us to inquisitions, disputations, and forced conversions. Governments that wanted to “civilize” us ripped children away from their families and enrolled them in the army. Revolutions that claimed to be essential for social justice ended up persecuting Jews, who were widely painted with the brush of “counterrevolutionaries,” just because they were Jews.

Even the Bible references to this problem. In the famous story relating the birth of the Prophet Samuel (Samuel 1:1), we find that Pnina, the wife of Elkana and mother of eight children, “persecuted” Chanah, her co-wife who was childless. Commentators say that Pnina acted as she did in order to encourage Chana to pray for a child – a strategy that apparently worked as Chanah eventually bore Samuel. But the Sages criticized Pnina for her actions, which relied on hurting someone in order to help them – again highlighting the importance of Hillel’s principle.

As the old song says, we shouldn’t – mustn’t – criticize someone until we “walk a mile in their shoes,” until we realize what the impact our actions, no matter how well-intended, will have on the people we ostensibly seek to help. It’s a principle we would do well to adopt in Israeli society today: How would we feel if it was our child who was being held hostage in Gaza? Is that not a reason to pursue a hostage deal at any cost? On the other hand, how does it feel to be homeless because of the incessant attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah? Is not defeating these enemies in a military campaign not the only way to prevent a recurrence of October 7th

We need to apply Hillel’s principle to all the issues that affect society, from demanding rights for the disabled to whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should be drafted to the army, to whether doctors, teachers, and other public servants deserve raises – and everything in between. When we protest and advocate for one or the other, we need to keep in mind what would happen if we got what we wanted – and make sure we aren’t doing something we wouldn’t want done to us.

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.