Love Your Neighbor: Utopia or a Realistic Goal?
Rabbi Akiba, a great second century sage, privileged the mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself, I am G-d” (Leviticus 19:18), which appears in our parahsha, as one of the cornerstones of Jewish theology. Maimonides followed suit in his halachic code, and added that this is the way each Jew should treat a fellow Jew.
Rabbi Haim Vital, a towering Kabbalistic sage, enhanced Maiminides’s take, and applied it to our interactions with all of humanity. Nachmanides, a Spanish sage, claimed that it is impossible to take this mitzvah at face values. Loving strangers in the same measure we love ourselves, our relatives and our closest friends goes against human nature, and is thus a an impossible demand. Sigmund Freud, in his last book, “Civilization and its Discontents”, also claimed that “Love Your Neighbor as you love yourself, I am G-d” is a utopian ideal, which only leads to frustration. What Freud did not know however, is that in Judaism we find a more realistic and pragmatic interpretation of this verse.
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Hillel being challenged to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel stood on one foot, and said the following: “Do not do unto another person that which is hateful unto you”. In other words, this mitzvah is really about not harming others, it is about empathy and consideration, about not hurting others.
This seems like a more realistic goal for us to try and approximate. It is virtually impossible for a mere flesh and blood to love a stranger the same way he loves his immediate family, but it is indeed realistic to challenge us to work hard on not treating others in ways that we would not want to be treated ourselves. This is a more pragmatic demand which the Torah places upon us, and we should push ourselves to try and live up to it BH.