In what may be an apocryphal story, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary once said, “Whoever said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ did not have my neighbors!”
That teacher was pointing out that the well-known and oft quoted verse from this week’s Torah portion is a great ideal, but maybe difficult to put into practice. Some of us may have unfriendly neighbors, incessant loud music from next door, or a poorly tended lawn bordering our own. Still, that verse from our Torah portion has been understood to be central in Jewish life. Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the second century of the common era, said that it was “the major principle of the Torah.” (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4).
A medieval text explains love of others in a way that reminds me of a timeless issue. In Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu, a medieval collection of midrashim, we read the following to help define love of one’s neighbor: “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.’”
What does treating every person with dignity mean?
I have been thinking about this as the chair of the Fair Lawn, Glen Rock, and Ridgewood Community Read 2022 of the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. In it she describes patterns of racism in America, Nazi antisemitism, and the caste system in India to help us understand how such structures operate with hope that by learning about them and comparing them we can work to dismantle them. A basic lesson is that in all three examples all people are not seen as having inherent dignity.
To make that point she includes several illustrations of how she, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who works for the New York Times, has faced racism. She once decided to write a piece for that newspaper about the high-end stores on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. She arrived for an appointment with the owner of a boutique who questions her identity, saying that he can’t speak to her because he has an important appointment with a reporter from The New York Times. She identifies herself as that reporter, but then she is asked for a business card to prove it. However, she has already given away all of her business cards earlier that day. He asks to see her driver’s license but that, of course, does not say she works for The Times. Finally, he asks her to leave because he has to get ready for his meeting with a journalist. Isabel Wilkerson ends by saying that she was “dazed and confused” for having been “accused of impersonating herself.” The store owner could not imagine that a national correspondent for that paper could look like her. She did not mention the name of the store, because she wants us to know he was not an outlier, and identifying him would not have rooted out the problem, rather, “…the problem is, in fact, at the root.” He simply could really see her like himself.
In her final chapter of her book, she points out that “If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity of the person in front of us, search for the key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common…it could begin to affect the way we see the world and others in it, perhaps change the way we hire or even vote.” She is noting that not seeing others who differ from ourselves as humans may be the first step to dehumanization and the caste systems she describes in her book. She even quotes the verse from Leviticus in our Torah portion in the final chapter of her book.
There is another Talmudic sage, Ben Azzai, who disputed the teaching of Rabbi Akiva about what is the central verse in the Torah. Ben Azzai said that it was not “Love your neighbor like yourself.” Rather he said that the most important verse is, “This is the book of the generations of humankind… (Genesis 1:5).” He reads that verse as a superior fundamental principle. He holds that we must first see our common humanity whenever we encounter our fellow human beings.
We could do well to align our lives with the teachings of our Torah portion, as both Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai understand them. Yes, love your neighbor as yourself, even if he doesn’t say hello when you walk by his house, or practices the drums late at night. Even more, whenever you see anyone, look at him or her and see the dignity and humanity inherent in every one of God’s creatures. That could be a critical step in eradicating many of the evils that spring from seeing anyone as less than human.