Loving Our Neighbor

Rabbi Shai Held

Parashat Kedoshim

No words in the Torah are better known than “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), and no words are generally seen as more significant. Indeed, no lesser a figure than R. Akiva goes so far as to declare that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the great principle of the Torah (k’lal gadol ba-torah; PT, Nedarim 9:4). And yet for all its manifest centrality in Jewish spirituality and ethics, the precise meaning of the verse is actually quite elusive.

What is the Torah asking for when it commands us to love? Can we really be commanded to love—or to feel anything at all, for that matter? Many people think that, since emotions cannot be controlled, they cannot be commanded. But both of these claims seem to me to be manifestly false. Understanding just how and why they are false can help us grasp the meaning of this all-important verse.

Many commentators have noticed something anomalous about our verse: The Hebrew does not say ve-ahavta et rei’akha, as we might expect, but rather ve-ahavta le-rei’akha. Ahav here surprisingly takes an indirect object rather than the usual accusative. We might capture this—crudely—in English as follows: The text seems to say not “love your neighbor” but “love to your neighbor.” This le (to) is strange, and biblical scholars have speculated about its meaning. Noting other instances where ahav le suggests rendering practical assistance to someone, Bible scholar Abraham Malamat argues that “love your neighbor as yourself” ought more accurately be rendered as “be useful to your neighbor as to yourself.” It would thus have a “concrete and pragmatic sense” rather than what Malamat labels an “abstract” one.1 Our verse, Malamat insists, doesn’t deal with emotions at all; it’s about a general posture of helpfulness towards others. In an extremely stark formulation, Malamat writes: “The Bible is not commanding us to feel something—love—but to do something—to be useful or beneficial to help your neighbor.”2 

But should we really be so insistent that the Torah can’t (or wouldn’t) command us to feel a certain way? And more, is it really so clear that we have no ability to choose what we feel?

Let’s look more closely at our text. The unit in which our verse appears reads, in full: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:17-18). Love is contrasted here with hate (sin’ah ba-lev)—and since hatred is clearly an emotion, it would make sense that love, as it used here, would be too. Moreover, if not hating can be commanded, then surely loving can as well. It seems clear, then, that the Torah does make demands on what we feel. Bible scholar Tamar Kamionkowski is thus on the mark in maintaining that these verses do indeed “command what one ought to feel” and that they “deal with intentions and emotions.”3

A few verses after instructing us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Leviticus makes another strong demand: “When a stranger (ger) resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).4 In these verses, Israel is called upon to love the stranger—or, hyper-literally, to “love to the stranger.” But does it really make sense to propose that what is demanded here is merely to make ourselves useful to the stranger? The text appeals to Israel’s memory of its own sufferings in Egypt in order to elicit compassion for the outsider living among us. Commenting on a parallel verse in Deuteronomy (10:19), Bible scholar Jacqueline Lapsley explains, “How does memory motivate present action? Not through intellectual recall alone. The Israelites’ experience of being strangers in Egypt is evoked in order to stir compassion for those who presently suffer the same experience.” In other words, Israel is asked here to identify empathically with the stranger. Lapsley’s analysis is precise and insightful: “Israel is to remember what being a stranger feels like and is then to ascribe those feelings imaginatively to the stranger. This act of emotional imagination will stir feelings of compassion. Out of this affective response will arise a love for the stranger, which takes form in practical action.”5 Concrete action surely matters here, but so, evidently, do feelings. In responding to the stranger, then, the Torah asks both for the feeling of love and for the concrete actions that flow from it. If love of the stranger appeals to emotions and not just to actions, then so, too, does love of the neighbor.  

In any case, it seems odd to insist that the Torah does not issue commands governing the emotions. In words familiar from the twice-daily recitation of the Shema, Deuteronomy says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Remarkably, academic biblical scholars have long tended to assert that what is asked for here is not anything affective or inward but rather loyalty and a willingness to obey God’s will.6 And yet context would suggest otherwise. Deuteronomy describes God’s deep affective love for Israel—“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord desired (hashak) you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of people; but it was because God loved (ahav) you…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)—and calls for Israel to love God in turn. And yet many interpreters contend that although God’s love is a compelling reason for Israel to love God, the nature of God’s love for Israel and of Israel’s for God are totally different. “According to the usual view,” Lapsley points out, “God’s love for Israel is a mysterious and irrational attachment, born of desire, but Israel’s love for God is a code word for obedience and bears no trace of desire, mystery, or irrationality.”7 Thus—so the argument goes—when the Torah reports that God loves us, love has one meaning, but when it mandates that we love God, it has an entirely different meaning. This dichotomy is unconvincing, to say the least.

It seems far more plausible to suggest that the Torah does indeed command emotion. Love for God in the Torah does involve a willingness to obey. But it is does not indicate a willingness to obey, and nothing more. As Lapsley rightly asks, “Is it not possible that love can mean loyalty and obedience to the law at the same time that it bears an affective connotation, asking and even commanding people to feel a particular way about God?”8 By extension, does it not seem possible that Leviticus asks us to do good for our neighbor and also to care about her?

In general, the Torah does not drive a wedge between action and emotion; on the contrary, its ideal is to integrate them—to feel passionately about God and to observe God’s commandments, to care about people and to act caringly towards them. The argument that the Torah obligates us to do but not to feel strikes me as alien to the Torah’s vision of ethics, which asks me both to do and to feel. When the Torah asks for love, it is calling for doing and feeling, not doing rather than feeling.  

But what about the psychological argument that emotions can’t be controlled? The answer, I think, is quite complex. To be sure, we cannot simply will ourselves to have a particular feeling at a particular time; we cannot just decide to love someone and then conjure feelings of love in the next moment. But we certainly can do things to help inculcate certain feelings within us. As Maimonides (1135-1204), for example, points out, if we want to learn to feel compassion, we can engage in compassionate action, and through that transform our character over time. We cannot will ourselves to care in any simple, straightforward way, but we can train ourselves through committed, disciplined action to begin to feel things we previously did not (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Dei’ot 1:7).9 Perhaps, then, the Torah asks us to learn to love, to act in such ways as to nurture and instill love within ourselves. When we act lovingly, we may learn to feel love, which in turn, will lead us to act more lovingly—and so on, in a virtuous cycle.10  

The Torah repeatedly demands that we integrate emotion and action. It calls upon us to cultivate an inner state and to manifest that state in concrete actions. Turning to Deuteronomy again, the text informs us that what God asks of us is “to fear the Lord your God, to walk only in His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 12:10). Note the pattern of the verbs: Fear, walk, love, and serve—emotion, action, emotion, action. The Torah’s goal is a seamless wholeness between feeling and deed. (Again: Love and fear are not merely emotions in the Torah—they also imply a commitment to obey, but they are surely also, fundamentally, emotions.) Returning to the mandate to “love your neighbor,” the first part of the verse provides another instructive illustration: We are commanded “not [to] take vengeance or bear a grudge.” Kamionkowski astutely observes that “taking vengeance means a deed, and bearing a grudge reflects thought... Deed and thought—act and intention—are interwoven.”11

God’s love of the stranger is manifest in God’s “providing him with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18); God’s love for Israel is manifest in God’s redeeming the people from Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8); and Israel’s love for God is manifested in obeying God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 11:1).12 Real love is always manifested in concrete actions. Similarly, our love for our neighbor must be manifested in our actions towards her—yet, crucially, it is not defined entirely by those actions towards her.

So, while emotions cannot be simply and directly controlled, they can be cultivated and inculcated—and because of that, they can be commanded. I am not sure precisely what kind of love the Torah wants me to have for my neighbor: Obviously I cannot love everyone I know in the same way as I love my spouse or my children—nor should I want to. But it does seem clear that the Torah wants me both to “be useful” to my neighbor and also to learn to care about him. Judaism is not just about duty; it is also, crucially, about love.

1 Abraham Malamat, “You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself: A Case of Misinterpretation?” in Erhard Blum, et al. eds., Hebräische Bibel und ihre zweifache Nachgeschichte: Festschrift für Rolf Rendtorff zum 65 (1990), pp. 111-115. Cf. 2 Chronicles 19:2, which Malamat renders as “should you help the wicked and provide assistance to (a-h-v le) those who hate the Lord?” But cf. JPS, NIV, NRSV, and others. Other scholars aver that ahav et and ahav le are interchangeable and mean exactly the same thing. Cf. H.P. Mathys, cited in John E. Hartley, Leviticus (1992), p. 318, and see 2 Chronicles 10:6 and 9, where lehashiv le and lehashiv et mean precisely the same thing (to respond to). Mathys maintains that attempts to make a strong distinction between ahav et and ahav le are driven “more by theology than by linguistic principles.” Hartley, p. 5. But cf. Hartley’s own comments there.

2 Abraham Malamat, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself: What It Really Means,” Biblical Archaeology Review, (July/August 1990), pp. 50-51.

3 S. Tamar Kamionkowski, comments to Leviticus 19:17-18, in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds., Torah: A Women’s Commenatary (2008), p. 706.

I have explored the meaning and implications of the mandate to love the stranger in “Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge,” CJLI Parashat Mishpatim 5774.

5 Jacqueline E. Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way: Love for God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 65 (2003), pp. 350-369. Passage cited is on p. 363.

The classic essay is William Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963), pp. 77-87.

Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way,” p. 360.

Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way,” p. 354.

Maimonides is talking about dispositions rather than emotions, but I think the point still stands.

10 I have explored the idea of virtuous cycles in Jewish ethics in “The Importance of Character, Or: Why Stubbornness is Worse than Idolatry,” CJLI Parashat Ki Tissa 5774.

11 Kamionkowski, comment to Leviticus 19:18, p. 707.

12 Cf. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (2004), p. 234. But Milgrom seems torn about whether love means actions or love includes actions.