a vivid painting of a goat in the desert
This week's portion (though hot this week's Torah column) details the laws around the scapegoat, seen here in "The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854

Parsing ‘Love your fellow as yourself’ via bumper sticker

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim
Shabbat Machar Hodesh/I Samuel 20:18-20:42
Leviticus 16:1-18:30; 19:1-20:27

Embedded in this week’s double Torah portion, Parashat Kedoshim contains one of the most famous and beloved lines in all of Torah: Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).

The volume of rabbinic commentary on this verse is, well, voluminous. How is a rabbi to choose from among the many ways to interpret this verse? Not such an easy task.

This week, I decided not to choose just one — I couldn’t. Rather, I offer what I like to call a veritable cornucopia of Torah bumper stickers. In other words, if you were driving down the street, looked up and saw a bumper sticker for this verse, how would it read? (Remember, the genius limitation of the bumper sticker is its pithiness and catchiness.) How do the following bumper stickers strike you?

DON’T LIKE IT? DON’T DO IT.

This bumper sticker comes to us courtesy of Hillel, who taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a). It is strong language, but it serves us well. We may not be sure what we do or don’t like, but we surely know what we find hateful.

LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOURSELF. PERIOD.

This particular bumper sticker has the backing of a good number of sages. Rashi brings a well-known quote from Rabbi Akiva, stating that this is a central principle in the Torah. Siftei Chachamim understands this to mean that the entire Torah is included or encapsulated in this mitzvah, as Hillel says: “If your friend wants to learn Torah, tell him that this is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary.”

LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOURSELF IN EVERYTHING

Ramban, the great medieval sage, says that the phrase is an exaggeration; no one can love another in the same way that they love themselves. So, he instead interprets the phrase to mean “you will love your neighbor in everything.”

LOVE THE STRANGER AS YOURSELF

Ramban also brings another reading where he replaces the Hebrew word “l’reicha,” meaning “your fellow,” with the word “lo,” meaning “him,” as you find in Leviticus 19:34, “you shall love him.” This verse refers to the stranger. Love your neighbor as you would a stranger. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Judge him in a favorable manner.

LOVE YOUR FELLOW: ONLY AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF

In another commentary (apparently he had trouble choosing, too), Rashi (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 84b) states that this command means: Only do that which you would desire for yourself.

LOVE THE ONE YOU HATE

The Babylonian Talmud (Taanit 4b) offers one of the toughest interpretations: If someone is hateful or arrogant, you do not have an obligation to love them.

LOVE YOUR FELLOW: NO MIND READING ALLOWED

The rabbinic commentary (Kanfei Nesharim) weighs in on this verse, in the form of a dialogue:

Two friends are having a conversation:

Friend 1: “Do you love me?”

Friend 2: “Of course I love you!”

Friend 1: “Do you know what I need?”

Friend 2: “How would I know that?”

Friend 1: “If you don’t know what I need, how can you tell me that you love me?”

That is the great thing about Torah: We don’t actually have to choose one way of viewing a text at all. In Jewish life, the act of study and interpretation is a form of worshipping God unto itself. The proliferation of language is love. The more commentaries we learn and create, it is as if we are exponentially increasing our love of God.

So choose your favorite bumper sticker. Don’t worry if you choose a different one next week and another after that, or even write your own. It is all Torah and the rest is commentary. Go and learn.

leider-rabbi-susan-WEB
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.