The biblical injunction to love the neighbour occurs in the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus. Readers of the Bible in English are familiar with the rendering of the King James Version: ‘Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Leviticus 19: 18). The latter part of the verse has often been detached from the beginning as well as the ‘but’, so that among both Jews and Christians the injunction is read simply as ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, meaning, so it has been understood, that man is obliged to love a neighbour as much as he loves himself, with the result that countless worthy people have been possessed with powerful guilt-feelings for failing to live up to this unrealistic expectation. Is it really possible to love a neighbour as one loves oneself? Is not the whole concept of ‘love’, by definition, directed to another, and do people, except those with split personalities, love themselves? Moreover, can love, an emotional condition, be coerced by divine command?
To appreciate what the verse actually says, the end should not be detached from the beginning and the ‘but’ should not be ignored. When the verse is read as a whole the meaning is clear: it states that instead of taking vengeance against the neighbour and bearing him a grudge, one should act lovingly to him. In spite of the fact, the verse is saying, that he has behaved badly towards you, you should not be tempted to retaliate but should behave decently towards him. Furthermore, the Hebrew le-reakha means not simply ‘thy neighbour’ but ‘to thy neighbour’, And the Hebrew kamokha means ‘who is like thyself’, the meaning being: behave lovingly towards him because he is like yourself, that is, with the same rights and feelings that you have. Thus in the original context the verse means: even when someone has behaved badly towards you, try to overcome your desire for revenge but rather behave lovingly towards him because, after all, he, too, is a human being and a member of the covenant people as you are and therefore entitled to be treated as you yourself wish to be treated.
As in other areas, however, the plain, original meaning of the text is not necessarily the meaning it bears in the long tradition of Jewish life and thought. In that tradition, the second clause is taken on its own as a command to love the neighbour as the self, even though it is the outcome of the love in deeds that is stressed rather than the loving feelings and emotions.
Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.