Torah Portion of the Week: Don’t Bottle It Up

Parashat Kedoshim: What do the words, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' essentially mean?

'The Red Vineyard' by Vincent van Gogh.
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The most frequently quoted words in Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) are “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva termed this commandment “an important principle in the Torah.” Over the generations, classical rabbinical authorities similarly viewed these words not as a standard commandment but as a fundamental principle, on which many – according to some thinkers, all – commandments are based.

But what do the words, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” essentially mean? How can we express such love and what is its basis? Can we love our neighbor to the same degree that we love ourselves? How can we impose a law governing feelings? In his book “The Holiness Legislation: Studies in the Priestly Code” (in Hebrew), my teacher Baruch Schwartz proposes viewing this commandment in its context, and answers these questions based on a literal reading of the text.

The commandments in Parashat Kedoshim encompass two categories – ritualistic (commandments governing relations between mortals and God) and ethical (those governing relations between mortals) – with no distinction made between the two, both being presented as divine instructions. Some of the commandments, including “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” end with “I am the Lord.”

Included among the commandments is the following passage: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17-18).

Schwartz suggests two methods for viewing this passage’s structure. The first connects its beginning and end, thereby viewing the entire passage as expressing the principle “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart … but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The means for applying this principle appear within the passage – “thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor” and “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people.”

The other method discerns two different, but parallel, commandments, each having a prohibitive element and a prescriptive one: We must not hide our hatred for others, but must rebuke them; additionally, we must not seek revenge or hold grudges but must instead love our neighbor.

All the passage’s components are linked, the meaning of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” depending on our understanding of the text.

The commandment “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart” prohibits us not from hating others per se, but from concealing our hatred. If I hate you, I must rebuke you and explain how we reached that grave situation. This commandment is somewhat optimistic: It assumes such hatred stems from valid reasons, whose exposure can lead to amelioration of the situation.

In rebuking, we observe another commandment that is mentioned here: We will “not bear sin because of him.” The “bearing” of sin is metaphoric: Sin is like a burden the sinner must shoulder. If we do not rebuke people and instead continue hating others in our heart, we will ultimately harm them, thereby sinning ourselves, because of their evil deeds.

Granted, this is not an easy commandment to obey: Rabbi Akiva confessed that his contemporaries knew not how to rebuke. However, notes Schwartz, the commandment, when literally interpreted, is not a blanket instruction to rebuke whenever we witness sinful conduct. The obligation to rebuke applies only when someone we know performs an action that inspires hatred in our heart; the commandment’s purpose is to teach us how to contend with that kind of hatred – not with every evil act we witness.

Avoidance of hatred is also the subject of the second verse in the passage: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people.” Revenge is an active reaction, by which evil answers evil. Ostensibly, it solves the problem of concealing hatred because it externalizes it, expressing the hatred through action. However, such action perpetuates hatred instead of dissipating it.

The preceding verse warns us to avoid that result: “and [thou shalt] not bear sin because of him.” Perhaps we should read “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart” as “Thou shalt not hate thy brother even in thy heart.” Hatred is forbidden even when not outwardly expressed, and the restriction is even more severe when hatred becomes action.

Holding a grudge is like revenge, but it is also like concealing hatred in your heart. Like revenge, holding a grudge is a response to having been hurt; like concealment of hatred in our heart, it is a feeling that has not taken the form of an action. Holding a grudge involves the retention of hurt feelings; in such a situation, we hide our feelings – and that behavior is also forbidden.

In the first verse in the above passage, the commandment “thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor” constitutes the solution: Rebuke is the proper way of dealing with this problematic situation and is the opposite of the prohibited conduct rejected at the beginning of that verse. Similarly, in the second verse, the alternative to revenge or grudge holding is love: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The structure in both verses is identical: Instead of holding hatred in your heart, you must rebuke the person you hate, and, instead of revenge and holding a grudge, you must love that person.

When we read the words “Love thy neighbor as thyself” in their context, we realize the commandment is not a blanket obligation, a categorical instruction, to love people. Love here does not mean total devotion or deep empathy because it is difficult to command someone to have either feeling. The commandment is more basic. It does not exceed the boundaries of an ordinary commandment and is actually less demanding: It is part of the prohibition on revenge or grudge holding.

In Parashat Kedoshim, love means avoiding those two things; it means forgiveness. Granted, the word “forgiveness” does not appear here because, in the Bible, forgiveness is the metaphysical nullification of a sin and only God can perform such an act. However, avoidance of a negative response – even if concealed in our heart – is something human beings can do and thus we are commanded to avoid such a response.

But why does the commandment include “as thyself”? God does not instruct us to love others to the same extent we love ourselves; the term “love” refers not to that emotion in its broadest sense but to love in a specific sense – we must treat others the way we treat ourselves.

Here another optimistic assumption is revealed. Biblical law did not “know” Freud or endless soul-searching; it assumed that we do not take revenge on ourselves or hold grudges against ourselves because of our own actions, and that we overcome our guilt feelings and continue living. Just as we forgive ourselves, we must also forgive others and make compromises to accommodate them.

The limited, concrete interpretation of the commandment as making compromises and avoiding revenge – not the major principle championed by Rabbi Akiva and his successors – is apparently the original meaning of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Granted, this too is no easy commandment.