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Neighbor, Fellow or Friend?

One of the best-known verses in the Bible occurs in this week’s Torah reading of Kedoshim. It is also one of the most controversial.

The verse in question is Leviticus 19:18, the Hebrew of which contains the phrase “Ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha.” The King James Version of the Bible translates this as, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The 1985 Jewish Publication Bible gives us, “Love your fellow as yourself.” On the other hand, the second-century C.E. Aramaic version of Onkelos, to this day the most rabbinically authoritative Jewish Bible translation, has “U’terah.ameh le-h.avrakh k’vatakh,” “And you shall love your friend as yourself.”

Which is it — neighbor, fellow or friend? And why does it matter?

Let’s start with the second question. A good place to begin might be Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, in which the first and greatest of the Christian apostles wrote:

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Although Paul was writing in Greek and used the word plesios, which indeed means “neighbor,” he was referring to a remark of Jesus’ in which — undoubtedly quoting the biblical verse in its original Hebrew — the latter declared to his disciples:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, ve-ahavta le-re’akha and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you…. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans [i.e., the tax collectors] so?”

Now nowhere, of course, does the Bible or rabbinic tradition explicitly command one to hate one’s enemies, even if there are enemies described there as worthy of being hated. Yet Jesus, who clearly had in mind the rabbinic interpretation given by Onkelos of re’akha as “your friend,” was in effect saying:

“The rabbis think that ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha means that you should love your friends as you love your own selves — but if this is all the Bible intended to tell us, why bother? Even the most ruthless tax collector, who will do anything to squeeze money out of poor people he doesn’t know, loves his friends too. Re’akha in the Bible doesn’t mean just ‘your friend,’ it means ‘your fellow man,’ and the point of the verse is that we should love everyone, our enemies as well.”

Who, then, was right — Onkelos or Jesus?

The answer is that both were. The word re’a in biblical Hebrew (the form re’akha has added to it the second-person singular possessive ending — kha) can mean “friend,” “neighbor” or “fellow man.” Consider the following examples:

II Samuel 13:3: “And Amnon had a re’a (friend) named Yehonadav.”

Psalms 88:19: “Lover and re’a (friend) has Thou put far from me.”

Deuteronomy 19:14: “Thou shalt not encroach on the land of thy re’a (neighbor).”

Exodus 21:18; “And if men strive together and one smite his re’a (the other one) with a stone or with his fist….”

Joshua 20:5: “And if the avenger of blood pursue him, then they shall not deliver the slayer up into his hand, because he smote his re’a (fellow man) unwittingly….”

Although neither Christian nor Jewish tradition has been monolithic in choosing from these alternatives (Jerome’s Latin Bible gives us “Diliges amicum tuum sicut te ipsum,” “Love thy friend as thyself,” while there are Jewish translations, as we have seen, that render re’a as “fellow man”), Judaism and Christianity on the whole parted ways in interpreting this verse: Whereas Christianity romantically followed Jesus and Paul in insisting that “Ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha” means we should love everyone, such love being a surer guide to conduct than a dutiful cleaving to legal precepts, Judaism pragmatically retorted that it was hard enough to love one’s friends and that sticking to the moral commandments was all that could be reasonably demanded in regard to the rest of the world. As medieval Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator Nachmanides put it while alluding to the Christian point of view:

“The language of ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha is the language of exaggeration, since the human heart does not permit us to love even our friends the way we love our own selves, so that even Rabbi Akiva [who stated that this verse is ‘the single greatest rule in the Torah’] taught that [when both your life and your friend’s are in danger] your own life comes first.”

This disagreement between the two religions was part of a more general one having to do with the distinction between “faith” and “works,” feeling and behavior. While Judaism never denied the importance of the inner life, Christianity never rejected outward obedience to moral law. Each put the stress somewhere else. Their different understandings of “Ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha” — one neither more nor less linguistically legitimate than the other — reflect this.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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