One of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism is loving your fellow like yourself. Rabbi Akiva referred to it as a “great rule.” When Hillel was asked to distill the entire Torah to a single “sound bite,” he cited this mitzvah, and said everything else is commentary.
It is therefore especially tragic that we have allowed this mitzvah to be hijacked, twisted, abused, and corrupted to the point that it has lost all meaning. We have allowed those who are the furthest removed from the Torah – who in fact wage war against the Torah – to pervert this mitzvah into an empty slogan with which to bludgeon its true practitioners.
For years we have permitted the Torah to be desecrated in our streets – with pride! – with nary a peep of protest. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that it is pointless to object – even counterproductive. We’ve cleverly turned our unwillingness to stand up for the Torah into a mitzvah for having chosen the prudent course of inaction.
Really, we are heroic for doing nothing and saying nothing while everything that is dear to us is desecrated. If we protested for the sake of what is most dear to us, we might only legitimize our enemies, or provoke them even further, or make fools of ourselves – so best to look the other way. We believe this because it is convenient, not because it is correct.
We live in a society in which terrorists who make the ultimate sacrifice are referred to as cowards, while those who refrain from fighting back lest they further upset their enemies are called brave – and no one laughs out loud. This is the best option, the only option, we are relentlessly told, until people believe it or are too worn down to object.
We allow ourselves to tolerate all manner of hypocrisies and absurdities, for tolerance is the new religion, and everything must be tolerated except what G-d demands of us. That is what G-d wants most, we are told – to tolerate everyone and everything.
Love your fellow like yourself! If you trampled on the Torah, desecrated its very essence, and waged war on G-d, wouldn’t you want people to love you and accept you? Of course you would. So you must love others who do the same.
We have even been admonished that this mitzvah extends to terrorists who have murdered our people. So preach those who couldn’t tell you where this mitzvah appears in the Torah, who couldn’t tell you what this mitzvah actually means according to the Sages who transmitted it to us from the day it was given, and who believe all the mitzvos are merely suggestions that can be reinterpreted or done away with according to the needs and desires of the time.
This mitzvah, however, is binding on us, it supersedes all others, and it must be taken literally to the most absurd, even suicidal extremes. We must be willing to sacrifice for the Torah, preach those who sacrifice nothing but the Torah.
* * * * *
The mitzvah to love your fellow like yourself appears in the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim, which not coincidentally is preceded by prohibitions on sexual immorality. The same Torah that commands us to love our fellow also tells us we are not permitted to express our love – or act out our desires – however we please. One cannot claim one mitzvah is binding, authentic, or otherwise relevant without accepting all the others. The Torah is a package deal.
A person who wishes to convert to Judaism and accept upon himself everything except for a single letter of the Torah is turned down. A Jew who accepts the divine origin of the entire Torah except for a single letter is a blasphemer. If you want “love your neighbor,” you must accept every “thou shalt not” as well.
If you deny a single “thou shalt not,” you have no claim to “love your neighbor.” If you claim that G-d wasn’t really serious about a single “thou shalt not,” you have no right to impose your strict interpretation of “love your neighbor” on anyone else.
In fact, the next words after “love your fellow like yourself” are “I am Hashem,” which teach us that we are only commanded to love those who conduct themselves with righteousness and bring honor to Hashem, not those who do the reverse (Torah Temimah, Avos D’Rabbi Nasan ch. 26). The Rashbam explains that this mitzvah is limited by the word “your fellow”, we are not commanded to love our enemies or the wicked, only our fellows in goodness and G-dliness.
* * * * *
In Maseches Sanhedrin, we are taught that certain methods of execution in Jewish courts were favored over others that were slightly more painful or disgraceful than necessary due to the mitzvah to “love your fellow like yourself.”
An “enlightened” skeptic would scoff, arguing that truly loving one’s fellow necessitates not executing him altogether, no matter the crime. This is nonsense, of course. Loving one’s fellow doesn’t mean allowing an entire breakdown of law and justice, especially since that would have devastating consequences for all our other, innocent fellows.
It means meting out justice with compassion and empathy even for the lowest of criminals – but meting out justice all the same.
* * * * *
Needless to say, nowhere in Torah literature will one find in this mitzvah a license to condone evildoing or pardon willful, unrepentant sinners. To do so demonstrates neither love for the other person, nor for yourself, nor for society, nor for the Torah, nor for G-d.
If a person is struggling with a particular commandment and truly wishes to perform G-d’s will, he will receive boundless love and support from His people. Even if he stumbles along the way, he remains “our fellow” so long as he accepts the commandment as binding and wishes to fulfill it. We shall love such a person just as we love ourselves.
If, however, someone claims that a commandment is not binding, or not relevant, or fabricated by corrupt Talmudic personalities, or simply doesn’t apply to him, then he has excused himself from the fellowship, and is no longer entitled to the privileges of membership. The very pasuk preceding the one commanding us to love our fellow contains the commandment to rebuke one’s fellow – which, like every other mitzvah, must be done within proper parameters, but which is a mitzvah just the same.
Even before we are commanded to love a fellow Jew (and immediately after we are commanded not to hate a fellow Jew), we are commanded to rebuke a sinner. This is part and parcel of the loving relationship we are supposed to share with one another. A relationship in which “love” means a blank check to do whatever one desires and receive only approval in return is neither a loving relationship nor a healthy relationship. It is certainly not mandated by the Torah.
The first pasuk of Shema commands us to love Hashem with all our hearts, all our souls, and all that we possess. Let us love Hashem, let us love those who serve Him, and let us love those who wish to serve Him even if they are still on the beginning of the road. But they must be on that road, not seeking to blow it up. They must be our fellows.