“… You shall love your friend like yourself…” (Lev. 19:18)
One of the great tragedies of our times is the terrible conflict between different streams of Jews. Three times last year, a Reform Synagogue in Ra’anana was vandalized by overly-zealous adolescents overtaken by an evil excess of religious fervor. A letter condemning the attack signed by virtually all of the orthodox rabbis in Ra’anana – including chief rabbi of the city, Rabbi Peretz – was read out at that Reform Synagogue, so that it would be clear to all that at least the Orthodox establishment decried the crime.
The manner in which halakhically observant Jews relate to other streams of Judaism will depend upon the interpretation of a well-known verse in this week’s Biblical reading, “You shall love your friend like yourself.” Yes, Rabbi Akiva referred to this commandment as “the great rule of the Torah” (Torat Kohanim 19,45 and ad loc). Yes, when a would-be convert came to Hillel with the request to be converted to Judaism on the condition that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, the sage responded merely re-stating the words of our commandment: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend; that is the entire Torah the rest is commentary. Go and study” (B.T. Shabbat 31a). But an observant Jew’s attitude towards this crime will ultimately depend upon our interpretation of a single word in the text of the commandment: “friend” or re’a (Hebrew).
The narrowest interpretation of the word would insist that the verse refers only to “your friend vis a vis the commandments,” which means an individual who is as ritually observant as you are. If it is someone who would be considered ritually lax in his observance, you may even hate him. Maimonides would seem to limit the Biblical commandment to another Israelite (Laws of Proper Opinions 6:3), although he would most probably extend the practice of human sensitivity to every individual who keeps the universal moral laws of Noah. It is the Ibn Ezra who interprets the text in accordance with every word in the verse and understands that it refers to every human being created by God “in His image.” This is why this verse dealing with inter-personal laws concludes, “I am the Lord,” in order to explain that God created all of us “as one.” All of us were created in His image, all share a portion of God within ourselves, and hence we are all siblings. (Ibn Ezra, ad loc).
It is from this perspective that Rabbi Akiva taught, “Beloved is the human being, who is created in the Divine Image” (Mishnah Avot 3,18). This is what makes this commandment “the great rule of the Torah,” the rule which is inclusive of all of humanity. And it would most certainly include our Reform siblings and co-religionists.
I would like to go one step further. I am a very proud Orthodox Jew, teacher and rabbi, who believes that our Torah is the word of God. I believe that it is the halakha – our fealty to the Jewish legal system which has its roots in Sinai and which developed through the generations as recorded in the Talmud, the Codes and the Responsa – which has guided our continued and creative existence into this period of “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.” Hence, I cannot pray a statutory prayer service conducted in a non-Orthodox synagogue, since it would not conform to the rules of congregational prayer that I hold to be sacrosanct.
However, the other movements are not my enemies; from a certain perspective, they are my partners. In many instances, they have reached Jews whom neither I nor my Orthodox co-religionists were successful in reaching and have brought them closer to Jewish traditions. There are even a significant number of students who have come to our rabbinical school on a religious journey which began in a Reform congregation or a camp setting. Yes, we do not agree, yet, are there not many instances wherein partners generally disagree?
There were many aspects of synagogue life, especially in the Diaspora, where we learned from non-Orthodox movements — such as having more decorous services, including a sermon in the vernacular, and explaining our prayers to the uninitiated. Indeed, the challenge of the non-Orthodox movements made Orthodoxy more receptive and more open to human sensitivities.
The bottom line: our Torah teaches that we must love others like we love ourselves — perhaps especially if the other is different from ourselves. We must always be mindful of the fact that our common “image of God” makes that which unites us as siblings more significant than anything which divides us.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.