Torah from around the world #63


Rabbi Ron Kronish

, Director of the

Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel

Parashat K’doshim contains some of the most important moral values in the Torah, values which speak to us poignantly in today’s contemporary reality wherever Jews live and especially in Israel.

In Leviticus 19 verses 17-18 we find the one of the most important statements in the whole of the Torah:

You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart.

Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk.

Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai

.” (Leviticus 19:17–18)

And then a few lines further down in the text we find the commandment to love the stranger:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.

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:

I Adonai am your God

.” (Leviticus 19:33–34)

What is the connection between these verses? Is it not coincidental that in the same chapter of the Holiness Code we are commanded not only to love

our neighbors

as ourselves but also to love

the stranger

as you love yourself.

These opening passages from Parashat K’doshim, beginning with “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2), teach us in a very practical way what it means to be “holy.” They are undoubtedly among the most famous and most relevant passages in the Torah, and indeed, in all of world religions.

A key question that has always interested me is: what is the meaning of the word “neighbor” in the statement “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Does it refer only to Jews or to all human beings?

According to some interpretations, the Hebrew word for “neighbor,”


, refers only to Jews. This view is supported by the context in which the phrase appears in the Torah, which can be translated as follows: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not take revenge or feel resentment against the children of your people, you shall love your companion [


] as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17–18). Looking at this, it seems clear that “your companion” falls into the same category as “your brother” and “the children of your people,” all explicitly referring to one’s fellow Jew. According to this view, “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not refer to anyone outside the Jewish people.

However, “neighbor” is not an accurate translation for the word


. The Hebrew word for “neighbor” is


; the Hebrew word


means “a very close companion.” Sometimes


is used to mean “spouse.”

So who are our “neighbors” or “close companions” today? Are they only our fellow Jews? Can we extend the meaning to include “human beings” in general? Leviticus 19:33–34 sheds some light on these questions and offers a corrective to the notion that we should love only members of our own tribe or our own collective family. These verses relate to others who live in our midst, “the stranger who resides with you,” that is, the non-Jew. In these verses the Torah is very clear: you should love the stranger as yourself. Why?

An important midrash connects the verse “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17–18), to Leviticus 19:33–34, which concerns strangers:

When the Torah refers to the stranger that is to live among you and says that you should love him as yourself, just as it was commanded to the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself,”so the Jewish people is commanded to ‘love him [the stranger] as yourself because you were strangers in Egypt.’ You should know this well from your own experience of being strangers, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt

. (Sifrei K’doshim, chapter 8, section 3)

Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, i.e., because of our history as a persecuted minority in someone else’s land throughout our history, we Jews should have a special sensitivity to the non-Jewish citizens in our midst.  As Reform/Progressive Jews around the world and in Israel, we ought to give this issue higher priority. It ought to be more central to our Jewish identity today, both from the perspective of our understanding of Jewish history and from our understanding of Torah.  Moreover, if Israel is to remain both a Jewish and a democratic country, there is no question that the way we relate to this issue will be critical for the future of the state, both for Jews who live in Israel, and for Jews who support Israel all over the world.

Rabbi Ron Kronish has lived in Jerusalem for almost 32 years. For the past 20 years, he serves as Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel,

and can be reached at

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