"Masterfully presented, Telushkin's straightforward opinions are supported by enlightening anecdotes drawn from the Bible, Talmud and Midrash as well as contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers. While this superlative compendium focuses on Jewish ethics, people of all faiths will find the precepts so unambiguously presented here to have significant value."
“Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has done it again! An amazing task, clarifying and elaborating upon the essential elements of Judaism. To present a most scholarly work in a reader-friendly format is truly an achievement. This is a book that should be in every Jewish home.”
—Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., author of Do Unto Others
“An extraordinary work by one of the most knowledgeable and committed writers of our time. This twenty-first-century Jewish ethical master knows the texts of our tradition and, with wit and care, weaves together sources and stories, providing us with a powerful guide for action in today’s world.”
—Ruth W. Messinger, president, American Jewish World Service
“This stunning volume, filled with three thousand years of wisdom drawn from Judaism’s holiest books and most insightful teachers, shows us the way to become kinder, more perceptive, and more compassionate, no matter what our faith. Rabbi Telushkin’s examples and anecdotes moved me to tears. It is, perhaps, the most important book for everyone who cares about one of the most important issues we all face–how to become a more loving person.”
—Rabbi David Woznica, Stephen S. Wise Temple
“With psychological sensitivity and a personal warmth that radiates through the erudition of his pages, Rabbi Telushkin reveals the vast moral insights contained in the rabbinic tradition. The abstract commandment to ‘love one’s neighbor as oneself’ is brought down to earth in a web of compassionate moral dictates that bear witness to a civilization at a state of inspiring moral development. In doing justice to this arching achievement, this work itself achieves a moral grandeur.”
—Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Fellow and author of Betraying Spinoza
THE MAJOR PRINCIPLE OF THE TORAH
The central commandment
1. Even though the Torah ascribes no special significance to the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jewish sources have long understood this commandment as having special—and in some ways preeminent—significance. Rabbi Akiva (second century) declared that the injunction to love your neighbor “is the major principle of the Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4).
2. More than a century before Akiva, Hillel presented a negative formulation of this law, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” He also declared this to be Judaism’s central teaching: “This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a).* Occasionally, I have heard people describe Hillel’s formulation of the Golden Rule as representing a lower, more pragmatic ethic than the positive but vaguely phrased “Love your neighbor.” But, in fact, Hillel was concerned with offering people practical guidance on how to make this law part of their daily behavior, and he understood that it is first necessary to teach people what not to do.
In defining Judaism initially by what one shouldn’t do, Hillel may have been emulating God’s articulation of the Ten Commandments. Thus, my friend Dr. Isaac Herschkopf notes that “God did not command us to be honest, truthful, and faithful. Rather, He commanded us, ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t bear false witness,’ ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ It might be less positive, but it is undeniably more effective.”
*For more on the significance of moral behavior within Judaism, see A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy, pages 10–25.
A 1980s experiment conducted with American sixth-graders addressed young people’s differing responses to positive and negative formulations of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”). Educator Ron Rembert asked the students to compose two lists, one consisting of actions they would want others to do for them, the others of actions they would not want done. Their list of “Do’s” was short, focusing primarily on “love,” “respect,” and “help.” Their list of “Don’ts” was longer, and included “Don’t hit . . . steal . . . laugh at . . . snub . . . cheat.” Rembert pointed out that “the list of ‘Don’ts’ . . . included specific behaviors which are relatively easy to identify [while] the list of ‘Do’s’ . . . focused upon general attitudes and behaviors which are more difficult to define.” Professor Jeffrey Wattles cited this study in his book The Golden Rule, and noted that “The students concluded that the negative version of the Golden Rule would be easier to follow than the positive version.”1
3. The centrality of love in Jewish teachings also characterizes many post-talmudic texts. To cite but one example: The medieval Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu attributes to God one crucial request from the Jewish people: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: ‘My children, what do I want from you? I want no more than that you love one another and treat one another with dignity.’”
4. In the Torah, the commandment to love is immediately preceded by prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge. At some point, we all hurt other people—intentionally or not—and then hope fervently that our victims not take revenge or bear us a grudge. To love our neighbor as ourself means, therefore, to act toward others as we would like them to act toward us. If we want those we have provoked to let go of vengeful feelings, then we must act the same way when others hurt us.
Holding on to grudges is self-destructive as well as destructive. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., a psychiatrist who has devoted most of his professional career to working with people with addictions, notes that recovering alcoholics often relapse because of their inability to suppress anger and grudges against people who have hurt them. One man—who understood how vital it was for his own well-being not to bear grudges—told Twerski: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free.”
This insight applies to everyone, not just recovering alcoholics, for many of us spend hours, days, even months, preoccupied with thoughts of the person or people we most dislike. Rabbi Twerski asks wisely: “Why would anyone allow that?”2
5. The commandment to love is followed by the words “I am God.” What is the connection between these two statements? Jewish tradition understands the commandment to love our neighbor as rooted in the belief that all human beings are created by God and thus are part of one extended family. As the prophet Malachi asks: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” (Malachi 2:10). From this perspective, the command to love other people is similar to the expectation that we love our siblings; we and they share a parent or parents in common. In addition, the failure to show love and kindness to others reveals not only an emotionally stingy nature, but also a denial of the biblical teaching that the people we encounter are, like us, created by God in His image and should be treated as such.
On purely logical grounds, if there is no God commanding us to love our neighbor, then there is no rational reason why we should feel obligated to do so. John Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690): “Should that most unshaken rule of morality and foundation of all social virtues, ‘that one should do [unto others] as he would be done unto,’ be proposed to one who had never heard of it before . . . might he not without any absurdity ask a reason why?” Since Locke posed this question over three centuries ago, no one has offered a logically compelling reason why we should love our neighbor as ourself (on the relationship between God and ethics, see A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy, pages 480–486).
6. While the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is explicitly stated, a moment’s reflection reveals that this verse suggests an implicit command as well: to love ourselves. A person who has low regard for himself is unlikely to consistently carry out the injunction “as yourself” in a loving way. Indeed, one wonders whether there has ever been an abusive parent with a decent self-image. This is why even if self-love does not come naturally or easily, we are obligated—for the sake of others as well as ourselves—to cultivate a sense of self-esteem and liking.
Think about your own behavior. Are you more likely to be patient, forgiving, and generous to others when you are feeling good about yourself or when you are feeling low and self-critical? A sense of personal well-being and accomplishment tend to translate into a more joyful and accepting attitude toward others, including family members. However, when we are feeling unsure of ourselves and self-critical, we often become more disapproving and less forgiving of others.
A healthier attitude toward ourselves is one I saw cited in a newspaper article and attributed to an anonymous third-grade boy: “I can’t make people like me, but if I wasn’t me, I would like me.”
What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?
7. The wording of the Torah’s commandment—with its emphasis on “neighbor,”* implying a person whom we see often—suggests that this mitzvah relates to tangible behavior and not simply to abstract love, as would be the case had the Torah instructed us to “Love humanity.”† That is why Jewish legal texts generally focus on the actions this commandment entails. Thus, Maimonides emphasizes loving behavior far more than the emotion of love:
OIn “Laws of Mourning,” he describes as outgrowths of this command a series of additional Jewish laws, including the commandments to visit the sick (see chapters 5–7), to make sure that the dead are properly attended to and buried (see chapter 8), to comfort mourners (see chap-ter 9), and to act hospitably (see chapter 3). Maimonides also notes our
*The precise meaning of the Hebrew word re-acha is “your fellow,” which, like neighbor, suggests someone with whom we routinely have contact (of course, we are also obligated to act in a loving and helpful way even toward those with whom we have more casual interactions or perhaps none, such as victims of a natural catastrophe). I have followed the translation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” since it is so widely known.
†The character Linus, in Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts, was famed for his comment “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand.” A scene from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov expresses this more fully. Zosma describes to a visitor to his monk’s cell a conversation he had years earlier with a doctor: “He spoke just as frankly as you have done, but with humor, bitter humor. ‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I’m surprised at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love men in particular, that is, separately as individuals.’” The longer the doctor spoke, the sadder and more tragic his confession became: “‘In my thoughts,’ he said to me, ‘I’ve often had a passionate desire to serve humanity, and would perhaps have actually gone to the cross for mankind if I had ever been required to do so, and yet at the same time, as I well know from my personal experience, I’m incapable of enduring two days in the same room with any other person. . . . ...