As it happens, this week’s Torah portion (Kedoshim) includes the ever-relevant verse: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This charge to universalize our experience, to see ourselves in the other, inspired both Hillel the Elder’s “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others” and Jesus’ Golden Rule. But some interpreters of Jewish tradition, like Maimonides, have read the verse narrowly: love Jewish neighbors as yourself. This parochial urge was quite understandable in the ancient (and recent) world — less than seventy years from the end of the Holocaust, and after hundreds and thousands of years of Jewish marginalization at best and violent persecution at worst.
What’s more, Jews have survived and thrived largely because of our sense of collective responsibility. While we’ve always been concerned about the outside community’s welfare, particularly its impoverished and disadvantaged, we have largely taken care of our own. But even in the thirteenth century the venerable rabbi and thinker Nachmanides posited an interconnectedness of souls, transcending nationality or faith tradition, transcending all human distinction. After all, the Torah indicates we are each created in God’s likeness and image! Otherness for Nachmanides is not unimportant, it’s just not all-important.
The truth is, we don’t have to look beyond the same chapter of Leviticus to understand this impulse. Verse 34 makes explicit that you are to love the stranger kamocha, “as yourself” (same exact word). Tolerance isn’t sufficient and seeing oneself in the other isn’t aspirational, it’s expected. Why? “…For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Having been strangers means we Jews are sensitive to the estranged, the insider-outsider. We are reminded time and again that tribalism, while valuable, is no excuse for xenophobia. Indeed, it’s a call to explore the Godliness that radiates between and among all of humanity.
I live in a neighborhood which was once the Old Jewish Neighborhood. But today we aspire to a New Jewish Neighborhood. “Love your neighbor” takes on a different level of meaning when you place your circle of identity in a broader context. For me, for my family and our Beth Am community, it’s about going deeper — not to the negation of the self but, through a better understanding of the self (our history and values), to a new appreciation for the other.
I love my neighbors.