Love the Stranger as Yourself

The opening passages from the section in the Book of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code -- Parashat K'doshim, which we will read in our synagogues this Saturday in Israel -- begin with the words "You shall be holy" (Leviticus 19:2), and goes on to teach us in a very practical way what it means to be "holy." These are undoubtedly among the most famous and most relevant passages in the Torah, and indeed, in all of world religions.

The organization I represent, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, has partnered with the Scarboro Missions Interfaith Department in Toronto in publishing a poster which portrays the "Love your neighbor as yourself" statement as a major theme in no less than 12 of the world's major religions!

A key question that has always interested me is: what is the meaning of the word "neighbor" in the statement "Love your neighbor as yourself. According to some commentators, the Hebrew word for "neighbor," rei-acha, refers only to Jews. This view is supported by the context in which the phrase appears in the Torah, which can be translated as follows: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not take revenge or feel resentment against the children of your people, you shall love your companion as yourself" (Leviticus 19:17-18). Looking carefully at this, it seems clear that "your companion" falls into the same category as "your brother" and "the children of your people," all explicitly referring to one's fellow Jews.

According to this view, "Love your neighbor as yourself" does not refer to anyone outside the Jewish people. "Neighbor" is not an accurate translation for the word rei-acha. The Hebrew word for "neighbor" is shachen; the Hebrew word rei-ah means "a very close companion" and sometimes rei-ah is used to mean "spouse."

So who are our "neighbors" or "close companions" today? Are they only our fellow Jews? Can we extend the meaning to include all "human beings" in general as our neighbors in our country or in the global village? Or is this too much to ask?

The verses of Leviticus 19:33-34 shed some light on these questions and offers a corrective on the notion that we should love only members of our own tribe or our own collective family. These verses relate to others who live in our midst, "the stranger who resides with you," that is, the non-Jew. What do we do about him or her? How do we relate to someone who is not a member of our people? In these verses the Torah is very clear: you should love the stranger as yourself. Why? Because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt," that is, because of our history as a persecuted minority in someone else's land, we Jews should have a special sensitivity to the non-Jewish citizens in our midst.

We can understand these verses therefore differently with regard to living in the Diaspora or living in a Jewish state. In the Diaspora, Jews no longer live only among their own tribe, as they did in biblical times or in other periods in Jewish history. In today's multicultural societies, one's neighbor is just as likely to be Christian or Muslim or a member of another religion, culture, or people. In a modern democratic society, can we really relate differently to our Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors? The answer is no, we cannot. Therefore a universalistic interpretation of "Love your neighbor as yourself" would seem timelier and more relevant in today's world.

Yet, we have some natural tendencies that lead us to love people in our own family -- and in our own collective family -- more than we do people outside our family. This is probably the original meaning of "Love your neighbor as yourself"; there is certainly a familial or particularistic dimension to this commandment.

We can see the tension between the particular and the universal also in the State of Israel today. Israel was created as a Jewish state for the survival of the Jewish people, for our brothers and sisters, who had suffered so much throughout Jewish history as a minority group in various diasporas. Therefore the Law of Return is one of our basic laws, which allows all Jews (in principle, though not always in practice) to come home.

But is the State of Israel today only for Jews? Is there a place for minorities within its midst, for Israeli Arabs, be they Muslim or Christian? The Torah teaching in our portion is very clear: we must not wrong strangers; rather, we should regard them as fellow citizens and even love them as ourselves, which would translate into granting them equal rights. In other words, the State of Israel -- which seeks to be a Jewish as well as a democratic state -- should take both verses referred to above as essential. We must love our fellow Jews as brothers and sisters in a historic, unique collective family, and at the same time we must love the stranger as we love ourselves, to treat the non-Jew with the same dignity that we would wish and envision for ourselves. This would be the real meaning of what it means to be "holy" in the "Holy Land" today.