Sunday, April 29, 2012

Loving Our Neighbors (Portion Kedoshim)

One finds this humorous take on this week’s Torah portion in David Bader’s very funny little book Zen Judaism: For You, A Little Enlightenment:

Torah teaches: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Buddha teaches: “There is no self.”
Hey—maybe I’m off the hook!

Behind the humor here lies a very real challenge.  In portion  Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:18, God famously does command us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But what does this mean—and how is it possible?  Can we actually love a person who is neither friend nor family in the same way that we love ourselves and our dear ones?  And even if we could, would this be desirable—shouldn’t we love our flesh and blood more intensely than acquaintances and even strangers?  On top of these questions, we wonder: how can love be commanded, anyway?  Do we really choose when and where to feel love?

The great twentieth century commentator and teacher of Torah, Nechama Leibowitz, addresses all of these concerns about this critical verse.  She notes: “If the text means that one must love his/her fellow as oneself, it is hardly conceivable that the Almighty should command something which is beyond human capacity.  Moreover feelings such as hate and love are hardly objects of commands, since they are not under human control. . . Hillel therefore correctly interpreted this passage in a negative manner: ‘At least do nothing to your neighbor which you would not like to be done to yourself.’”

In other words, Ms. Leibowitz teaches, the commandment addresses actions rather than feelings.  God’s injunction is to act lovingly toward our neighbors, whether we actually feel love or not.  The best guide to such a course of action is to assume that we should refrain from doing unto others that which is hateful to us.

In truth, it is relatively easy to act loving when we feel loving.  The real challenge is to “fake it till we make it”—to treat others with compassion and kindness even when our emotions and instincts would have us do otherwise, when we are feeling less than generous.  The ability to act loving when we don’t feel love is not hypocrisy.  Just the opposite—it is, instead, the essence and goal of our humanity. 

So, with apologies to the Buddha—we’re not off the hook.

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