V’ahavta l’reiacha Kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a basic tenet of Judaism. Nearly every Jewish child is sure to have heard the story of Hillel teaching a gentile the entire Torah as he stood on one foot.
On Nov. 20, Beth El Congregation invited an interdenominational panel of rabbis to come together for a symposium about what it means to love one’s neighbor.
“It is really beautiful, even if you learn absolutely nothing from this morning, that such an event took place and that we got together in an attempt to learn about loving one another,” began Rabbi Shmuel Silber of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim. “Even if we leave not loving one another at all. That is not the goal. At the end of the day, it is amazing to see that we really do agree on many things, especially those things that are fundamental to our Judaism and our identity.”
The central text for the discussion was Leviticus 19:18: “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your own people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Silber first addressed the passage in terms of how two famous teachers, Shammai and Hillel, taught the passage to disciples, citing that many disciples came to Shammai with ridiculous requests, including one from a gentile who asked Shammai to teach him the Torah while the prospective convert stood on one foot. Shammai chased this man away, but Hillel, who accepted the request, told the man the simple ideal which we all know of today, to treat others the way you wish to be treated.
“Part of the beauty of our religion is that we are all a work in progress, there is no expectation of perfection because perfection is unattainable,” said Silber. “Real Judaism is all about perpetual growth and that’s all that God wants from us. If you can’t love people, you can’t love God for the simple reason that people are tangible. If I can’t relate to that what is in front of me, how can I love and relate to something so amorphous and esoteric and unknown as God?”
“This command is not asking you to feel good,” said Rabbi Robert Tobin of Conservative synagogue B’nai Shalom in West Orange, N.J. “It is not asking about your convenience or personal motivation; it is more in the category for the command for tzedakah. I don’t care how you feel about the person — the person needs help, it’s the right thing to do, you’re going to give to them. That’s why it is tzedakah, not charity. It has nothing to do with pity, it is about justice.”
Tobin went on to explain that from a legal lens, the Torah is very concerned about actions: Somebody has to do something to somebody else. There are commands to love in Leviticus and the Shema and then a command to love strangers as yourself. In order for that to occur, Tobin asserted that one must have an honest relationship of trust, rebuke, love and growth with God. He cited the passage, “For you were strangers in the realm of Egypt, you shall love the stranger because you were the stranger,” as reason enough to follow this commandment.
Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom looked at the passage in terms of those in the community who are mentally ill or are physically ailing.
“In 2016, you rarely encounter mentally ill people in a hospital,” she said. “They are in the world, either in prison or out in the world. However, those of us in the Jewish world encounter mentally ill people all of the time. But do we apply loving your neighbor as yourself to those in our community who are struggling with depression, addiction, psychosis, speaking disorders? Do we greet them with love and acceptance?”
She introduced the audience to a prayer that is meant to be recited when one sees someone who appears to be different and asked the audience what they thought about the concept of saying that prayer.
“To me, that is our challenge, making it something positive. The other challenge is saying it. Watching a mother pull her children away from someone who is a dwarf or an amputee or is speaking to themselves, what if she taught her children the bracha instead?” Ruskin asked. “What if our approach was to celebrate the diversity of human creation and the different kinds of people? It should be something that we rejoice and celebrate rather than saying ‘that poor thing’ and having pity.”
“Don’t be dismissive of any person just because they don’t look like you or practice like you or believe like you,” said Silber. “It doesn’t mean that they don’t have their place or their image of God. Myself and my fellow panelists, we have some serious disagreements. But that’s OK, because the goal is not to convince or proselytize, the goal is to love. Until the day that comes that we all love each other, the goal is to respect, to agree to disagree with dignity and recognize that my views are not superior or inferior to yours, to try and somehow find out that which we have in common than focusing on that which divides.”
Rabbi Geoff Basik of Reconstructionist synagogue Kol Halev wrapped up the symposium admirably, concluding, “The way to God is through each other.”
He chose to lead the attendees in a kavanah introduced by kabbalists on Safed, which translates, “I stand here, ready in body and mind, to take upon myself the mitzvah, ‘You shall love your fellow human being as yourself,’ and by this merit may I open up my mouth.” According to commentary on the kavanah, “only by accepting ourselves are we allowed to enter the human community of prayer.”