ואהבת לרעך כמוך
The Exodus, the Alien, and the Neighbor
Remember old conundrums like this? You’re on a desert island, and you can bring only one [insert whatever you want here: one tool, one book, one thing]. What would you bring?
As a biblical scholar, my variation over the years has been to ask people: “You’re on a desert island, and you can bring only one chapter of the Bible. What would you bring?”
My answer is Leviticus 19, which comes in Parashat Qedoshim, not too far from the center of the Torah. It is my (and my wife’s) favorite chapter in the Torah.
It combines laws of all kinds, ethical laws and ritual laws: sacrifice, heresy, injustice, mixing seeds, wearing shaatnez, consulting the dead, gossip, robbing, molten idols, caring for the poor. And it does not divide them by category, for example setting all of the ritual laws first and then all of the ethical laws, in the manner of the Decalogue. Rather, it intersperses them, which implies many things, including that all of the laws are important. This intermixing may also imply that we should not be quick to judge the meaning of a law based on the law that immediately precedes or follows it.
Concern for Foreigners
Case in point: In my piece for TheTorah.com, “The Historical Exodus,” I gave a brief sample of my coming book, The Exodus. There I introduced the book’s case that the exodus from Egypt was historical and that it particularly involved the Levites. I included the central idea that the Levites’ experience of having lived as aliens in Egypt led them to emphasize the importance of treating aliens fairly in the Torah. I said:
Over and over, the Levite sources E, P, and D command that one must not mistreat an alien. Why? “Because we were aliens in Egypt.” The first occurrence of the word “torah” in the Torah is: “There shall be one torah for the citizen and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:49). In the three Levite sources, the command to treat aliens fairly comes up 52 times! And how many times in the non-Levite source, J? None. William Propp’s commentary on Exodus makes a strong case on the etymology of the very word “Levi” that its most probable meaning is an “attached person” in the sense of resident alien.
Other law codes from the ancient Near East also show concern for vulnerable persons — widows, orphans — but extending this concern to foreigners is unique to the Torah.
Who Counts as Your Neighbor?
Which brings us to Qedoshim and Leviticus 19. Probably its most famous line is (19:18b):
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
We have been hearing a claim from time to time that this command is not gracious and inclusive at all. It is rigidly ex-clusive, meaning to love only one’s fellow Jews.
Now that is very strange. When the text already directs Jews/Israelites to love aliens as oneself (19:34).
כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
what would be the point of saying to love only Jews — and in the very same chapter! So who is our neighbor?
The Term Re‘a in the Bible
The Hebrew term here for “neighbor” is re‘a.
The first occurrence of re‘a in the Torah is in the story of the tower of Babel (Babylon), the Bible’s story of the origin of different nations and languages. It involves every person on earth (Gen 11:3):
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ
and they said each to his re‘a…
The term refers to every human, without any distinctions by group. Now, one might say, though, that the word might still refer only to members of one’s own group because, at this point in this story, all humans are in fact still a single group. So let us go to the next occurrence of the word.
In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis, Judah has a re‘a named Hirah the Adullamite (רֵעֵהוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִי; Gen 38:12, 20). Hirah is a Canaanite! He comes from the (then) Canaanite city of Adullam. He cannot be a member of Judah’s clan because, at this point in the story, that clan, the Israelites, consists only of Jacob and his children and any grandchildren.
In the exodus story the word appears in both the masculine and feminine in the account of how Moses instructs the Israelites to ask their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold items before their exodus from Egypt (Exod 11:2).
וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ
…that each man will ask of his neighbor and each woman of her neighbor…
The word there refers precisely to non-Israelites.
On the other hand, in the story of Moses’ early life in Egypt, when he intervenes between two “Hebrews” who are fighting, he says to the one at fault (Exod 2:13),
לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ
“Why do you strike your re‘a?”
So in that episode it refers to an Israelite.
In short, the word re‘a is used to refer to an Israelite, a Canaanite, an Egyptian, or to everyone on earth.
And still people say that “Love your re‘a as yourself” means just your fellow Israelite. When the Ten Commandments include one that says: “You shall not bear false witness against yourre‘a” (לֹא תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר; Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:17), do they think that this meant that it was okay to lie in a trial if the defendant was a foreigner — even though elsewhere the law forbids Israel to “bend the judgment of an alien” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)?
When another of the Ten Commandments says not to covet your re‘a’s wife ( לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ; Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:20), do they think that this would mean that it was okay to covet a Hittite’s wife — even though elsewhere the Bible condemns King David for doing just that!? David desires Bathsheba, who is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and the prophet Nathan brings God’s condemnation for David’s behavior.
Context and Context
So from where did this idea come that one is supposed to love only one’s own group? Some get it from context. When we read it with the preceding line, it says:
לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ
You shall not take revenge, and you shall not keep on at the children of your people.
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Since the line before it is about “the children of your people,” and the two lines were put together into a single verse when verse numbers were added to the Bible, some have assumed that the “love your neighbor as yourself” line must also be just about “the children of your people.” Why? No reason at all. As we have seen, the laws in Leviticus 19 come interspersed. No line can be judged by what comes before it or after it.
Indeed, there is context and there is context. In the full context of the occurrences of the wordre‘a, we would never take the verse about loving your neighbor to mean: now this is just if your neighbor has the same religion as you. And in the full context of 52 references to treating aliens the same as ourselves, we would never take loving one’s neighbors to exclude aliens. People who have been reading the verse as meaning just-your-own-kind, were both misjudging the immediate context of the passage and completely missing its total context in the Bible. Apparently, on their desert island they brought only one verse, Leviticus 19:18.
So unfortunately Richard Dawkins in a bestselling book, The God Delusion, wrote:
‘Love thy neighbour’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.’ The point is devastatingly made by the American physician and evolutionary anthropologist John Hartung.
It was not devastating. Hartung, a professor of anesthesiology, emphasized the importance of context, but he had only Lev 19:18 on his island and used it even though he was aware that the joining of its two statements was done by those who created numbered verses centuries after the Bible was written. And, reading the Bible only in translation, he mistook the meaning of the word re‘a.
Love all People as Yourself
So let’s teach not to repeat this mistake again. Something extraordinary happened in ancient Israel. The writers of the Torah who came from the stock of those who had experienced the exodus bequeathed to us something tremendous: Treat the alien the same. Love your neighbor as yourself. This piece of wisdom has reached us from a text written over two millennia ago. And, if we are right in our analysis, it derived from an event over three millennia ago. We no longer need to argue over whether love of neighbor really means what we thought. It does. Perhaps now we can use our time trying more than ever to live it.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 4, 2017
March 22, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman is the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and is the Katzin Professor (Emeritus) of Jewish Civilization of the University of California, San Diego. He earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard, and is the author of Who Wrote the Bible?, The Disappearance of God, The Hidden Book in the Bible, Commentary on the Torah, The Bible with Sources Revealed, The Bible Now, and The Exile and Biblical Narrative.
Essays on Related Topics: