Loving Thy Neighbor: Judaism’s Unique Approach
Many people – Jew and Christian alike – are surprised to discover that the principle “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is found in the “Old” Testament, and even in Leviticus, probably the most maligned (and misunderstood) book in what we Jews call the Torah.
The Christian Gospels also say that loving thy neighbor is one of the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:29-31). However, long before Christianity, Jewish tradition taught: “Love thy neighbor is one of the great principles in the Torah” (Sifra 2:12). The famous Jewish sage Hillel, who flourished well before Christianity, said: “Don’t do unto others what you would not want do to you – that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a).
However, Judaism’s love principle not only came before Christianity but goes deeper and is more effective than most people, Jew and non-Jew, imagine.
It is not enough to only cite inspiring aphorisms. For instance, Christianity prides itself on the idea of “loving thy enemies” (Matthew 5:43-44). Judaism goes further, however, because it not only provides the aphorism but gives us examples how to love our enemies:
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall help him to lift it up. (Exodus 23:4-5)
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. (Proverbs 25:21)
The Torah does not merely cite an aphorism, but provides a case study how to live up to it. The Talmud goes even further and provides more examples and numerous details how to fulfill the love principle.
The Gospel writers blasted Judaism for being legalistic. Love is a spiritual thing, not a legal concept, they said. However, by doing so, they totally missed the point. Yes, love is a spiritual thing; it is all over the Torah. But so often the love principle is not easy to actually live up to.
How does one live up to the principle? Judaism’s renowned emphasis on education comes into play here. From the earliest years, Jewish children in home and school are taught a) practical applications of the love idea and b) that it is a law, not just a nice idea.
Pounding that into generation after generation of children may not have guaranteed that everyone would fulfill it perfectly, but increased the odds of its practical implementation in everyday life in ways those merely echoing the platitudes could never approach.
Listen, I’m not here to knock Christianity. I think it can be, has been and still is for many people a positive force. But it is also, historically, the bloodiest religion in history. Could the fact that they taught the aphorism but failed to make it practical like Judaism did have to do with it?
On that note, we can now understand why Hillel said, “Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you,” which is the inverse of love thy neighbor. Why not word it in the positive, as Christianity did: “Do unto others as you would want them to do to you”?
Because it is not so easy to love an enemy; someone that has done wrong to you. Therefore, at the minimum, “don’t do unto them as you wouldn’t want done to you.” Included in Hillel’s aphorism is Judaism’s practical approach to all the lofty ideals that attract people to the Bible. It’s not enough to espouse them. In the Torah’s eyes, we have to really work on ourselves to live up to them.
The Bible (not to mention the Talmud and the Jewish Oral Tradition) include all angles of the love principle. These include, but are not limited to the following verses:
• Leviticus 19:18. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.
• Exodus 23:4-5. If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up.
• Proverbs 25:21. If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
• Lamentations 3:30. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him.
• Exodus 34:6. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “Oh God, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”
• Numbers 14:18. God is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…
• Deuteronomy 6:5. Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
• Deuteronomy 30:6. God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
• 1 Chronicles 16:34. Give thanks to God, for He is good; His love endures forever.
• Psalm 6:4. Turn, O God, and deliver me; save me because of Your unfailing love.
• Psalm 25:6. Remember, O God, Your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.
• Psalm 25:7. Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to Your love remember me, for You are good, O God.
• Psalm 33:22. May Your unfailing love rest upon us, O God, even as we put our hope in You.
• Psalm 36:5. Your love, O God, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
• Psalm 40:11. Do not withhold Your mercy from me, O God; may Your love and Your truth always protect me.
• Psalm 42:8. By day God directs his love; at night His song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.
• Psalm 69:13. But I pray to you, O God, in the time of Your favor; in Your great love, O God, answer me with Your sure salvation.
• Psalm 69:16. Answer me, O God, out of the goodness of Your love; in Your great mercy turn to me.
• Psalm 85:7. Show us your unfailing love, O God, and grant us Your salvation.
• Psalm 86:5. You are forgiving and good, O God, abounding in love to all who call to you.
• Psalm 94:18. When I said, “My foot is slipping,” Your love, O God, supported me.
• Psalms 103:10-12. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
• Psalm 107:31. Let them give thanks to God for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for men.
• Psalm 119:64. The earth is filled with your love, O God; teach me Your decrees.
• Psalm 130:7. O Israel, put your hope in God, for with God is unfailing love and with Him is full redemption.
• Psalm 138:8. God will fulfill His purpose for me; Your love, O God, endures forever — do not abandon the works of Your hands.
• Proverbs 3:12. …because God disciplines those He loves, as a father the son he delights in.
• Isaiah 54:10. “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed,” says God, who has compassion on you.
• Jeremiah 31:3. God appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
• Lamentations 3:22. Because of God’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.
• Hosea 3:1, God said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as God loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods…”
• Joel 2:13. Return to God your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity.
• Jonah 4:2. You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
• Zephaniah 3:17. God your God is with you; He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.
• Proverbs 10:12. Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
• Proverbs 13:24. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.
• Proverbs 17:9. Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.
• Proverbs 17:17. A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.