Kedoshim: Love to disagree? Disagree to love!

“What can I learn from (you/him/her/them)?” 

This is not normally the question we ask ourselves when deciding whether to meet with someone.  But if it was, we would be acting to fulfill what no less an authority than Rabbi Akiva called “the main principle of Torah.” (Sifra, Kedoshim, 45). 

Rabbi Akiva was referring to the verse from this week’s (Diaspora) Torah portion at Deuteronomy 19:18: “Love Your Fellow (or ‘Neighbor’) As Yourself.” It is one of many magnificent commandments (or, if you prefer, maxims) of the Torah.

It is also one of the most enigmatic.  What constitutes “love?”  What does “as yourself” mean?  Whom should we consider to be our “fellow” or “neighbor?” And how, in any case, can we be commanded to “love”?   

Not surprisingly, the verse has been the subject of innumerable interpretations over the millennia.  

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of hearing the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, R. Shlomo Riskin,, give one view of this verse.  He spoke at the Reform synagogue to which I belong in California, Temple Beth Tikvah. 

What was a prominent (if controversial) Orthodox rabbi from Israel doing speaking in a Reform congregation in California?  In fact, not just speaking, but formally inaugurating an ongoing relationship between his Modern Orthodox community and my predominantly Reform Jewish community? 

In part, he was putting “Love Your Fellow As Yourself” into action.  Rabbi Riskin advised the audience – which included rabbis and laity from various Jewish “streams” -- that he subscribes to R. Abraham ibn Ezra’s (1089-1164) broad interpretation of the verse.  Since all human beings are created in the Divine Image, Ibn Ezra taught, every human being is our fellow/neighbor.   

Rabbi Riskin then noted the famous maxim from Pirkei Avot 4:1 (Ethics or “Sayings” of the Sages), “Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.” Combining and applying the verses from Torah and Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Riskin said (I am paraphrasing here from memory): 

I am an Orthodox rabbi.  I am deeply committed to Halachah and to Orthodox Judaism.  But just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean that I can’t love you.  I am commanded to do so.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from you; our sages have taught us that learning from everyone is the path to wisdom.

Rabbi Riskin’s message was that Reform and Orthodox Jews … religious and secular … men and women …. young and old … right and left wing … Jews and non-Jews … everyone (except those who seek to kill us; we are neither naïve nor suicidal!) can and should sit with each other, study with each other, learn from each other. 

Thinking about this, I am reminded of a paradox of our times.  Never in human history has it been easier to access and learn from those with different opinions from our.  On the internet, we need not engage with them nor even reveal ourselves; in seconds and at no additional cost, we can search, find, and read innumerable websites or blogs setting forth diverse views about seemingly every subject.

The paradox is that, unfortunately, as social scientists report, we generally do not use this incredible learning opportunity to seek out opinions different from ours.  Instead, we seek confirmation, affirmation, and approval from more and more people who think “like” us and thus, we feel, actually do "like" us.  We act as if we interpret the verse “Love your fellow/neighbor as yourself” to mean “Love your Fellow/Neighbor Who Thinks Like You.”  

But this is not the Jewish way to wisdom.  Nor is it the way to fulfill the “main principle in Torah,” the full verse of which reads “Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord.”  Ibn Ezra explains that the conclusion to the verse -- which is seldom quoted -- means, “I am the one G-d who created you all.” 

This Shabbat, let us resolve to respect, engage with, and learn from those with whom we disagree.  We can start by reading opinion pieces by commentators from “the other side.”   We can next endeavor to strike up respectful conversations with people who we know hold different views from ours, whether the subject be Judaism, politics, Israel, mandatory childhood vaccination, abortion, or anything else.  

Let not convincing them of the correctness of our positions be our goal, but rather learning from them … even if we learn that we disagree with them even more than we thought.  We might nevertheless find that we like them – or even “love” them -- more than we would have thought.    

Which may, in fact, be the key to our sages’ admonition to learn from everyone.  Not so that we will acquire their “knowledge” and thus become wise. And, not because they are also images of the Divine.  

Rather, that in seeking to learn from them, we will discover the truth that they, like us, were created b’tzelem Elokim.  With this discovery, we will become able to love them as our fellow AND to acquire some of their knowledge.  In both these ways, we will become wise.  

Shabbat shalom.  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3