Can one love another as one’s self?
The well-known requirement of Leviticus 19:18 – “Love thy neighbor as yourself” – is difficult to understand and impossible to implement. A similar mandate is repeated in 19:34, regarding non-Israelites, “Love him as yourself.” Significant also is the command, repeated an unusual 36 times, “You must love the stranger,” meaning a non-Israelite.
1. How important is the command to love another as one’s self?
2. What is difficult about the command?
3. What are some views concerning its meaning?
The Leviticus 19:18 command has been deemed a fundamental divine decree since ancient times. Midrash Sifra to this verse reports that Rabbi Akiva in the early second century of the Common Era identified it as the basic principle of the Torah. It is repeated in the New Testament, which also calls it a fundamental law.
Of course, as we could expect, not everyone agreed with Rabbi Akiva. His usual disputant, Rabbi Ishmael argued that, on the contrary, the prohibition against idol worship is the fundamental Torah law. Maimonides (1138–1204) agreed with Rabbi Ishmael. Maimonides felt that idol worship was prohibited because it removes us from God. It causes us to focus on inconsequential matters that cannot assist us in our and society’s growth. Nevertheless, Rabbi Ishmael and Maimonides agreed that the Leviticus command is important.
What does it mean?
Despite its significance, the verse is problematical. How can one force “love”? Isn’t it contrary to human nature to love another as much as one loves oneself? So what is the Bible demanding? There are many different interpretations of the verse. I will describe three of them: the understandings of Nachmanides, ibn Ezra and Hillel.
Nachmanides (1195–1270) recognized that it is impossible for most people to bestow as much love for another that they have for themselves. Rabbi Akiva himself teaches in the Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 62a that when one’s life is in danger, concern for your own life takes precedence. Therefore, Nachmanides concludes, this cannot be the meaning of the verse. Thus he felt that the command instructs people not to be jealous. People should want others to have as much success as they hope for themselves.
Curiously, Nachmanides failed to note that in many instances it is impossible for people to wish another the same success they hope for themselves, especially if the two are striving for the same object.
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164) took another approach. He understood that the passage is stating, “You should love [that which is] to your neighbor [meaning, his possessions] as yourself [meaning, as if they were your own].” The command then is one that can be observed. It is to respect the possessions of others.
Another interpretation that recognizes the limitations of human nature focuses on the fact that the Torah frequently chooses to dramatize its points by stating it in an exaggerated fashion, in hyperbole. Thus, for example, the Bible relates that the Tower of Babel reached all the way to heaven. It similarly describes the descendants of Abraham as being as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand upon the beach. When Scripture describes some people as giants, it is probably telling us that they were mighty warriors, not that they were impossibly tall. The Bible states frequently that a leader, such as Moses, spoke to all Israel when it means to a select group, because one cannot speak to a million people without a microphone and be heard.
The first century sage Hillel appears to have understood Leviticus 19:18 as hyperbole. He gave a practical and non-exaggerated version of the command. In the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a, he stated that the basic principle of Judaism is “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.”
The biblical law to love another as oneself was considered either the most basic principle of Judaism or one of the most basic. Yet it is difficult to understand, overly demanding, and virtually impossible to implement. Nachmanides contended that it proscribes jealousy. Ibn Ezra offered that it requires respect for another’s possessions. Hillel recognized that the biblical wording is hyperbole and was not meant to be taken literally; it should be understood in its negative sense: do not do to others what we do not want others to do to us. Most people today understand the command as Hillel.
 This is a version of a chapter in my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Publications.