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Loving Neighbors as Yourself

This week’s portion, Kedoshim, is a collection of injunctions, mainly ethical. In the JPS translation, Leviticus 19:18 reads: “Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

W. H. Auden, in an early poem, offers a sly critique of the problems posed by the attempt to put this commandment into practice: “You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart.”

There are many ways of elaborating the general idea, to be found in all religions, of treating your neighbor decently. Confucius, a mentsh if there ever was one, puts the Golden Rule this way in Book Five, Section 12, of the Analects: “Tzu-kung said, What I do not want others to do to me, I have no desire to do to others. The Master said, Oh Ssu! You haven’t quite got to that point yet.”

Loving your neighbor is not a disposition we are born with; it is, instead, a habit of mind and act that has to be learned, and is hard to learn, and which most people cannot expect to achieve.

The elaboration of Leviticus 19:18 in the Gospels is hyperbolic. Luke 6:27-29 (with a parallel in Matthew 5:43-48) has: “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other…”

In the Gospel narrative itself, Jesus does not turn the other cheek when slapped (John 18:22-23) but protests. And the protagonists in the parables certainly are not disposed to turn other cheeks. In Luke 19:12-27 the noble who “went into a far country to receive his kingdom, and to return” says, on his return, “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.”

On the topic of turning the other cheek, the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein remarked:

All my face-slappers have slapped both my cheeks.Cossacks have never given a Mishnah-JewA chance to turn the other cheek.

We are left with the endless complexities of how a normal person should behave in normal circumstances toward neighbors, and in the even more difficult case of extreme situations, when neighbors reveal themselves to be enemies, or when saving a neighbor would put another life at risk. In Jewish communities in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, as in previous centuries, these problems were referred to the community’s rabbis, who had plenty of precedent in talmudic case-law from which to reason.

I have only space for one example; I’ve chosen an extreme situation. In Kovno in September 1941, the Eltestenrat, the Council of Jewish Elders, was ordered by the Nazis to distribute 5,000 cards permitting laborers to remain in the ghetto with their families. “Right then and there,” says Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, in his book “Responsa from the Holocaust” (Judaica Press, 1983), “in the midst of that confusion, I was asked a life-determining question. Was the Eltestenrat permitted to obey [the] order and accept cards and distribute them or not? Every card that they distributed to a laborer automatically spelled a death sentence for another laborer. Did this mean that they were [to hand] him over to the German murderers to be done with as they saw fit?”

Rabbi Oshry’s response was this: “There are a number of views [in the Talmud and associated literature]… some of which [would] allow the Eltestenrat to hand out the white cards, and others which [would] forbid it.… I ruled… that it was the duty of the communal leaders to save as many people as possible. And since it was possible to save a number of people by issuing the white cards, the Eltestenrat had to take courage and distribute those cards.” They had to make the terrible choices of which neighbor would live and which would die.

The dictum “love your neighbor as yourself” received its appropriate elaboration in structures of law and legal institutions, and the minds and hearts of their learned interpreters — in secular law for secular problems, and in the Halacha for Jewish religious practice, a category that was comprehensive in many periods of our history.

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.

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