Who’s Your Neighbor?
This week’s parsha, Kedoshim, contains one of the most famous directives in the Torah. The “Golden Rule”, “Love your neighbor as yourself” has inspired millions, yet, it leaves room for hotly contested debate.
ספר ויקרא פרק יט
(יז) לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא
(יח) לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְדֹוָד
Leviticus Chapter 19:
17 You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow Israelite in order not to bear a sin on his account.
18 You shall neither take revenge from, nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
These are certainly some of the most ethical and socially conscious commands in the Torah. Yet, does “Love your neighbor as yourself” refer only to loving your fellow Jew or does it even extend to all neighbors and peoples? If it only refers to fellow Jews, then the Torah is indirectly promoting racism and nationalism for we should only extend ourselves for members of our clan. If, however, “neighbor”, “re’a” in Hebrew, means all neighbors or friends, then it means we need to extend our love and efforts to all peoples and races. It becomes a force to break down all walls and barriers.
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, wrote that it is precisely because the love of the immigrant/foreigner is specifically mentioned later in the chapter, that love of one’s “neighbor” must just mean a fellow Israelite.
Professor Richard Elliot Friedman sees his point, but disagrees most emphatically. He says that love of the immigrant needs to follow, for one might have thought that love of neighbor does not include loving others as well. With its inclusion, you now know that neighbor encompasses all people.
Traditional Jewish scholarship teaches us that if we really want to know what a term means, we need to compare it to other places in the Torah where the word occurs.
The first occurrence of rē‘a is in the story of the Tower of Babel (Babylon), the Bible’s origin of different nations and languages. This story involves the small populace of the planet a few generations after the infamous Flood. “Each person said to his rē‘ah, let’s build a huge building. . .” (Genesis 11:3). This example, though, provides no distinctions for us, for at this point in this story, all humans are in fact still members of a single group.
The next occurrence of the word is in the story of Judah and his daughter in law, Tamar, in Genesis. Judah has a rē‘a named Hirah the Adullamite. When Judah wants to send payment to the prostitute he recently visited (unbeknownst to him, Tamar), he asks his friend, Hirah to do the dirty work for him. Hirah is a Canaanite! He comes from the Canaanite city of Adullam. He is obviously not a member of Judah’s Israelite clan. Accordingly, we see from here that re’a can mean someone outside our group.
In the story of Moses’ early life in Egypt, when he intervenes between two Hebrews slaves who are fighting, we see the word once more. Moses says to the one at fault, “Why do you strike your rē‘a?” Hence re’a refers to a fellow Israelite.
However, later on in the Exodus story, re’a clearly refers to non-Jews when Moses instructs the Israelites to borrow silver and gold utensils from their Egyptian neighbors.
In short, the word rē‘a is used to refer to an Israelite, a Canaanite, an Egyptian, or to everyone on earth. Perhaps, we just need to stick to context to figure it out.
When we read the Golden Rule with its the preceding lines, the context becomes clear: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow Israelite in order not to bear a sin on his account. You shall neither take revenge from, nor bear a grudge against the members of your people. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Since the preceding commands deal clearly with Israelites, many have assumed that “love your neighbor as yourself” must also be limited to “the members of your people” as well.
But if that were so, why is the most repeated command in the Torah, “love of the immigrant/foreigner”? It’s mentioned fifty-two times in the Torah along with other wordings such as, “treat the alien the same.” Obviously, love of our neighbor doesn’t just mean “members of our people.”
Over the years, this verse has been interpreted inclusively and exclusively depending upon people’s agendas. I remember in some very Orthodox circles, the implementation being limited it to just religious members of our people. They’d promote supporting yeshivot but not secular organizations such as the UJA or the State of Israel.
I think the verse is openly ambiguous for times and needs change. For much of our history, we Jews lived amongst virile anti-Semitism, trapped in ghettos. I’m sure then “Love you neighbor” meant just your fellow Jew.
In contrast, now, that we live among a kind and protective country that respects all people’s rights, we should definitely extend the Golden rule to all our neighbors.
Indeed, if the Messianic vision is to ever occur, where all mankind is united, this will only happen when we love all our neighbors.
 Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Exodus (p. 209). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.