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John J. Collins





Love Your Neighbor: How It Became the Golden Rule





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John J. Collins





Love Your Neighbor: How It Became the Golden Rule








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Love Your Neighbor: How It Became the Golden Rule

The biblical precept “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” has long been understood in Jewish and Christian circles as universal, a transcendent principle encompassing the whole Torah. However, in Leviticus, it is actually one of many action-oriented commandments focused on Israelite social cohesion.


Love Your Neighbor: How It Became the Golden Rule

Mosaic based on Norman Rockwell’s “The Golden Rule” painting (1961). Wikimedia

The Neighbor as Kinsman

We are familiar with the precept in Leviticus 19:18 וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is found in the Holiness Collection (Leviticus 17–26). The Collection, which intersperses moral laws with ritual ones, gets its name from a refrain, found for example in the introduction to this chapter:

ויקרא יט:ב ...קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Lev 19:2 …You shall be holy, for I YHWH your God am holy.

The remainder of the chapter is usually divided into two panels, vv. 3–18 and 19–36, with this law, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה “love your neighbor as yourself, I am YHWH” marking the end of the first panel. Despite general familiarity with this injunction, each of its three Hebrew words requires unpacking.

1. What Is Love?

What does it mean to “love” one’s neighbor? We often think of this as requiring us to feel something, but its more probable meaning becomes clear when we look at some of the preceding laws:

ויקרא יט:יג לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק אֶת רֵעֲךָ וְלֹא תִגְזֹל לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר.... יט:טו לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. יט:טז לֹא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 19:13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning…. 19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am YHWH.

Love, then, is not an emotion here, but refers to treating one’s neighbor justly—the manner you might treat someone whom you do love.[1]

2. Who Is Your Neighbor?

Most contemporary scholars agree that the “neighbor” (רע) in Leviticus 19 refers to fellow-members of the Israelite or Judahite community.[2] Although the word itself does not necessarily refer to Israelites, the context here is determinative:

ויקרא יט:יז לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא. יט:יח לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה.
Lev 19:17 You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your kinsman, and not incur guilt because of him. 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor like yourself; I am YHWH.”

The term “neighbor” is the fourth in a sequence that includes “brother,” “kinsman,” and “your people.” Neighbor, like the previous three, refers to a fellow Israelite.

3. “Like Yourself” or “One Who Is Like You”?

The most difficult part of the formulation in Leviticus 19:18 is the use of the word kamokha.[3] The more common interpretation is to construe the phrase adverbially, i.e., the way you should love them is the same way you love yourself. For example, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) writes:

ועל דעתי: שהוא כמשמעו, שיאהב הטוב לחבירו כאשר יאהב לנפשו.
In my opinion, it means what it sounds like, that one should love for good to happen to one’s neighbor the way one would love it for oneself.

This is also the way the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translates the term, “as yourself,” ὡς σεαυτόν. Scholars almost invariably take this as “a reflexive, adverbial modifier that defines the manner in which one should love.”[4]

The other interpretation is to understand the phrase adjectivally, i.e., “(only) if he is like you.” Among medieval Jewish interpreters, this is suggested by ibn Ezra’s contemporary, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam):

אם הוא רעך שהוא אדם טוב כמוך.[5] אבל אם הוא רשע – כדכתיב: יראת י״י שנאת רע.
If he is your neighbor, that is he is a good person like you. But if he is wicked, it is thus written (Prov 8:13) “Fear of the LORD is hating the wicked.”

Alternatively, it could be considered as explanatory, as suggested by Hartwig Wessely (1725–1805), “love your neighbor, that is someone like you” (liebe deinen Nächsten wie dich selbst),[6] and most famously in the Die Schrift Bible translation of Martin Buber (1878–1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), “love your fellow, [he is] like you,” (halte lieb deinen Genossen, dir gleich).[7] All of these readings are grammatically possible, but the parallel command in the second panel of this chapter discounts this latter interpretation.

Is the Alien “Like You”?

Leviticus 19:18 should not be understood in isolation. Toward the end of the second panel, we find a parallel to the love your neighbor passage:

ויקרא יט:לג וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ. יט:לד כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Lev 19:33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native born among you; you shall love the alien like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am YHWH your God.

The word ger (here rendered “alien”) occurs 92 times in the Hebrew Bible—21 times in H— and refers not to all foreigners, but only to one who has settled in the land for some time and has special legal status as a resident alien.[8] Leviticus repeatedly commands that the גר be treated like the native born, even though he is still different. In this case, the command to “love him” is identical to the earlier command to love one’s neighbor.

Since the ger by definition is not an Israelite, kamokha here cannot have an adjectival force (the alien who is like you).[9] The reason given for the command to love the alien is “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” a reason often given in support of concern for the alien (Exod 22:20; 23:9; Deut 10:19; 23:8). Kamokha then—here and in verse 18—is adverbial, which is to say that it clarifies how one should love.[10]

This verse does not ground the command in ontology, in the creation of all human beings in the image of God. If it did, there would be no reason to distinguish between the ger and other kinds of foreigners. It is grounded in analogous experience, and calls to mind the Golden Rule: one should treat others as one would wish to be treated oneself.

Summary: The Meaning of the Law

In short, a few things seem clear regarding the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and its corollary of loving the ger, in its original context:

  1. Love here is not a matter of feelings but of practice.
  2. The love command is not universal but applies only to Israelites (19:18) and to the ger (19:34). It is primarily concerned with relations within the Israelite community, whether with other Israelites or with long-term foreigners living in their midst.
  3. The preposition and suffix kamokha is used adverbially to indicate how one should love the neighbor or the alien.

Thus, to love one’s neighbors (fellow-Israelites) as oneself is to treat them as you yourself would wish to be treated. To treat aliens as like oneself is to treat them as one would native-born Israelites.

Second Temple Interpretations

Second Temple authors in the Greek and Roman periods made use of these laws in their works. For example, the book of Jubilees (3rd cent. B.C.E.) makes several allusions to the love commandment, in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and the exodus, though it never cites the commandment to love the ger, thus restricting its application to fellow Jews.[11] The Damascus Document (2nd cent. B.C.E.) clearly alludes to both, instructing the members of the group (CD 6:20):

לאהוב אישׁ את אחיהו כמוהו ‎ולהחזיק ביד עני ואביון 〚 〛 וגר ולדרוש איש את שלום אחיהו
To love his brother like himself,[12] support the poor, destitute, and ger, and to seek each man the peace of his brother.

By the time of the Scrolls, the ger is probably—though not certainly—a proselyte, and thus, ipso facto, a reference only to Jews.[13] The usage in these works has the same function as in Leviticus, namely to ensure the cohesion of the group. In the first and second centuries C.E., however, the understanding of the law undergoes a change.

The Emergence of the Golden Rule

In a series of stories about the 1st cent. B.C.E. sage, Hillel the Elder, the Babylonian Talmud tells the following story (Venice printing):

שוב מעשה בגוי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר ליה גיירני ע"מ שתלמדיני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו באמת הבניין שבידו בא לפני הילל גייריה א[מר] ליה דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור.
It happened again that a gentile came before Shammai. He said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah as I stand on one leg.” He pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. [The gentile] came before Hillel, who converted him. He (=Hillel) said to him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole entire Torah; the rest is its explanation. Go and learn.”

While Hillel is not quoting Leviticus, this seems to be an interpretation of that verse, since, as noted above, the verse is about actions and not about feelings. In fact, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ca. 6th–8th C.E.), a rabbinic-Jewish translation into Aramaic which utilizes midrashic tropes, translates Leviticus 19:18 to match Hillel’s maxim:

ותרחמיה לחברך דמן אנת סני לך לא תעביד ליה
Love your fellow, that which is hateful to you, do not do to him.[14]

What is significant here is that, to Hillel, this maxim is a transcendent moral principle, encompassing all other commandments. While Hillel lived in the 1st century B.C.E., the Babylonian Talmud was only written in the 6th century C.E., which makes it difficult to evaluate this story’s historical validity. Nevertheless, a much earlier source, the Sifra—a 3rd century rabbinic commentary on Leviticus—ascribes a similar sentiment to the 2nd cent. C.E. sage, Rabbi Akiva (Sifra, Kedoshim 2:4.12):

ואהבת לרעך כמוך, רבי עקיבא אומר זה כלל גדול בתורה
“Love your neighbor as yourself”—Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great general principle in the Torah.”

In between Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, another Jewish teacher also advocated for this law as an overarching ethical principle.

Love Your Neighbor in the Gospels

In the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels, Jesus declares this law to be one of the two most important commandments, together with the command to love God found in the Shema:

Mark 12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is (Deut 6:4–5), ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 12:30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 12:31 The second is this (Lev 19:18), ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[15]

The Gospel of Matthew, which includes this story from Mark in its own words, adds “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).[16] The parallel passage in Luke 10:25–28, the third Synoptic Gospel, runs the two passages—love God and love your neighbor—together, as if it were one passage:

Luke 10:25 Just then Torah scholar (nomikos) stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 10:26 He (Jesus) said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 10:27 He (the Torah scholar) answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 10:28 And he (Jesus) said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”[17]

Paul’s Epistles

One of the prominent early apostles of Jesus, also a Jew, presents this law in a similar way as the Talmud does for Hillel. For example, in Romans, Paul writes:

Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 13:9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.[18]

Here Paul explicitly describes the ethical commandments in the Decalogue as deriving from this principle. Similarly, Paul writes in Galatians:

Galatians 5:14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[19]

From all these sources, it is clear that by the first century of the common era, Leviticus 19:18 had attained an exalted status among Jewish interpreters as an especially important commandment, transcendent in that it included all others.[20]

Moderate Expansions of the Law

Nothing in the rabbinic or New Testament sources states that the law applies to all human beings. Instead, the most natural interpretation in context is that it applies within a given group: Israelites, Jews, early Christians, etc. [21] Nevertheless, some moderate expansions already appear during this period.

The Good Samaritan

For example, the version of the story in the Gospel of Luke (quoted above) broadens the horizon, if only somewhat, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. After Jesus elicits the response from the questioner that loving God and loving one’s neighbor are the most important commandments, the story continues with the law expert challenging Jesus with “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a parable in which a priest (kohen) and a Levite fail to take care of a fellow injured Jew, and instead a Samaritan does so.

Jesus then asks which one of these three people fulfilled the principle of love your neighbor, and the man answers that it was the Samaritan. The point here is that the Samaritan, a “Jew-like” person—Samaritans see themselves as Israelites and follow (a version of) the Torah similar to but distinct from the Masoretic Text—but not actually a Jew, and one who certainly does not belong to the questioner’s core group, counts as a neighbor. This is a somewhat expansive definition of neighbor, but it is unclear that it would apply to gentiles, who are in no way connected to Israel.[22]

Love your Enemy: The Sermons of Jesus

The most striking innovation in the Gospels, exceptional in ancient literature, is the command to love one’s enemies, which is framed as an expansion of the laws in Leviticus. Thus, in the Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

Matthew 5:43 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 5:45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors (=bad people) do the same? 5:47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?[23]

From the final verse, it is clear that Jesus is speaking only to Jews. Moreover, his opening reference about hating enemies is not from the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, neither is loving one’s enemy, though a number of texts from the Hebrew Bible comment on the importance of treating one’s enemy properly:

שמות כג:ד כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ. כג:ה כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ.
Exod 23:4 4 When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. 23:5 When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
משלי כד:יז בִּנְפֹל (אויביך) [אוֹיִבְךָ] אַל תִּשְׂמָח וּבִכָּשְׁלוֹ אַל יָגֵל לִבֶּךָ.
Prov 24:17 If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.
משלי כה:כא אִם רָעֵב שֹׂנַאֲךָ הַאֲכִלֵהוּ לָחֶם וְאִם צָמֵא הַשְׁקֵהוּ מָיִם.
Prov 25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

None of the sources speak of loving the enemy, thus Jesus can be seen as taking the biblical values a step further, which is an important theme in Sermon on the Mount. (In both cases, “enemy” likely refers to “enemy Jews.”) The connection between Jesus’ speech and the verses in the Hebrew Bible is clearer when we remember that “love” here, as in Leviticus 19, refers mainly to actions and not feelings.

A parallel command appears in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain:

Luke 6:27 But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 6:28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 6:29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 6:30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 6:31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 6:32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 6:33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 6:34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 6:35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.[24]

That Jesus is referring to actions rather than feelings is even clearer in Luke than in Matthew, as he adduces practical examples such as charity, praying for one’s enemies, and allowing them to abuse you.

Love All Humanity?

The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is undoubtedly one of the great contributions of the Hebrew Bible to the ethical development of humanity. In context, the law was primarily concerned with the cohesion and identity of a particular people, yet the application of the “neighbor” would in time be extended to all people, and grounded in the recognition of shared humanity.


April 27, 2020


Last Updated

July 14, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University. He received his Ph. D. from Harvard (1972) and holds honorary degrees from the University College Dublin and the University of Zurich. Collins' most recent books are The Invention of Judaism. Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul (University of California, 2017), and What Are Biblical Values? (Yale, 2019). He serves as general editor of the Anchor Yale Bible and Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library and has received the Burkitt medal for biblical scholarship from the British Academy.