Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Aharei Mot-K'doshim
May 9, 1998 13 Iyar 5758
This comment is by Professor Judith Hauptman, the Rabbi Philip R. Alstat Associate Professor of Talmud at JTS.
This Shabbat we will read two Torah portions, Aharei Mot and K'doshim . The topics covered in these parashiyot range from the ritual requirement of sending a scapegoat out to the desert on Yom Kippur, to a list of forbidden sexual relationships, to fundamental social legislation, reminiscent somewhat of the Ten Commandments.
Included in K'doshim is perhaps the most famous line in the entire Torah, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). This verse achieved its fame not just because of its simple, powerful message but also because of the well–known anecdote in which Hillel, a Talmudic sage, tells a potential convert that this rule is the essence of the Torah, something a person can absorb while standing on one foot, and that the rest is merely commentary (Bavli, Shabbat 31a). This is an astounding statement, especially if we understand Hillel to be saying that how a person treats others outweighs in importance how a person deals with God.
Few people notice that several verses later in the same chapter another statement of prescribed "love" appears, this time mandating that one love the non–Israelite who lives among Israelites, a reference to someone who does not worship the God of Israel or assimilate into the people of Israel. The verse tells us, "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.... You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God" (vv. 33,34).
This rule is hard to understand in its biblical setting. The Torah is already very demanding when it tells a Jew to love all other Jews, but it verges on the absurd when it tells a Jew to actively love those individuals who live among Jews but who share ties neither of religion nor of kinship with them.
One way out of this quandary is to determine if "love" in these two verses means active, emotional involvement, as it does elsewhere in the Bible, in the Torah in particular. A person is obligated to love God with heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). These words strongly imply an emotional involvement, the same kind that we read about when the text says that Abraham loved his son Isaac or Jacob loved his wife Rachel.
However, if we return to K'doshim and read both of these "love" verses in context, we see an altogether different meaning emerge. The few verses preceding "love your neighbor as yourself" tell us: do not render unfair decisions by favoring either the poor or the rich but judge fairly (v. 15); do not deal basely with your countryman and do not profit from his blood (v. 16); do not hate him but rather reprove him (v. 17); do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against him (v. 18). These verses, which lead up to the concluding statement of this unit––"Love him"––define for the reader what "love" means when it is mandated for one's fellow–man: in negative terms it means to refrain from treating him unfairly or abusing or exploiting him, and in positive terms it means to seek his welfare actively, to make sure that no one mistreats him. If this is how one Jew loves another Jew, then "love" makes even more sense when directed towards a stranger living among Jews. The Torah says, do not wrong or oppress him; instead, we should "love" him, meaning, to seek his welfare, to protect an outsider from abuse by insiders (v. 34). The telltale phrase "because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt" means we Jews should refrain from oppressing others because we remember what it is like to be taken advantage of. This clinches the argument. We were not seeking to have the ancient Egyptians love us, just not to treat us any differently from the way they treated each other.
It therefore seems that when Hillel interpreted "love your neighbor as yourself" to mean "what is hateful to you, do not do unto others," he was providing us with the simple meaning of the verse. Not that Hillel, as some say, was compromising on the requirement of actively loving other Jews. Rather, he was explaining to us that in this context of loving Jew and non–Jew, the Bible seeks to eliminate the exploitation and abuse of others, the kind we read about in Genesis 19 when the men of Sodom sought to molest the two out–of–town messengers. That is, the two verses about love, when not shorn of their context, are making the extraordinary statement that caring for self and family is not enough, and neither is avoiding abusing others. Jews must actively seek to eliminate injustice against Jew and non–Jew, wherever they see it. This is as powerful a social message as we find in the Bible.
If we now catapult ourselves forward about 1,200 years to the period of the Rabbis of the Talmud, we find that they interpreted the verses about loving non–Jews in an altogether different way. The Hebrew word "ger," meaning stranger, was co–opted by the rabbis to mean proselyte, someone who abandons his or her religion and adopts Judaism freely. This meaning of "ger" is standard to this very day. But, even after reinterpreting the word "ger" to mean "convert", the rabbis went on to apply the verse about loving the stranger to converts! That is, even though "ger" now meant something entirely different from what it used to, the rabbis maintained the biblical teachings on the subject of "ger." A convert may not be oppressed; his welfare must be sought. The rabbis further say that the Torah warns against oppressing the convert in 36(!) different places, thus suggesting that this was an area in which people were deficient.
In fact, the concept of choosing Judaism freely is so appealing to the Rabbis of the Talmud that they describe the revelation at Sinai as a mass conversion ceremony for all those who had left Egypt. Upon conducting a close reading of the biblical text, the rabbis determine that immediately prior to hearing the mitzvot recited at Sinai and accepting them as standards of Jewish behavior, the men circumcised themselves and the men and women alike immersed themselves in a mikveh (Bavli, Yevamot 46b). This rather striking instance of rabbis reading their own later ideas into an earlier text makes a wonderful point: By regarding even those who were born as Israelites as converts to Judaism, the rabbis not only find biblical affirmation of the validity of conversion to Judaism, but also state their view of ideal Jewish attitudes to religious practice. It is important to note that the Bible itself never speaks of formal conversion to Judaism. It assumes that when a foreign woman marries a Jewish man she is subsumed into his religion. Conversion independent of marriage first appears in the post–biblical period.
We now return to the verses in K'doshim . Reading them through a rabbinic lens, we find that they preach an even broader message than when read on their own: the most basic principle of Judaism is that, on a human level, we do not distinguish between those who are Jewish and those who live among Jews but are not Jewish. Furthermore, on a religious level, we do not distinguish between those who were born as Jews and those who chose to become Jews out of conviction. Every person who is born a Jew, every convert to Judaism, and every non–Jew who lives among us merits our active monitoring of his or her welfare and protection from discrimination and exploitation. This is the grand message of these two "love" verses of K'doshim .
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,