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Ahavat Yisrael – A mitzvah to love all Jews?

Tammuz 5782 | July 2022

Do we really have to love all Jews? What does this mean today, in a world where the Jewish people possess such diverse views on Torah, halakha and the State of Israel? As polarization and demonization continues to grow among different Jewish denominations and affiliations, a look at the Talmudic and halakhic sources provides some definitions and guidance. 

The Torah contains a mitzvah to love our fellow Jews. Halakhic literature discusses the nature and scope of this mitzvah. Various modern thinkers have written about this issue from a halakhic and philosophical perspective as well. There are other mitzvot which operate on a more universalistic level and show concern for non-Jews and the world, but this article focuses on the particularistic relationship between Jews and Jews. 

The biblical source for the mitzvah of “Ahavat Yisrael” is found in Vayikra 19:18:

 

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה’

Love your fellow as yourself: I am Hashem.

This verse begs numerous questions: How does one fulfill a commandment to feel love? How can one love another as much as one loves oneself? And who is re’echa? Does “your fellow” refer to all Jews or only those who subscribe to traditional Jewish beliefs? Rabbi Akiva taught that this mitzvah was unique and a great rule of Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12). Perhaps it was singled out precisely because of how challenging it was to fulfill. 

The Rambam presents this mitzvah in somewhat different ways and further complicates the question of who is considered re’echa. In Sefer Hamitzvot he writes that “one’s love and compassion for one’s (religious) brother [should] be like the love and compassion for himself regarding his money – regarding his body and regarding everything that is in his domain. If he wants it, I want it; and all that I will want for myself, I will want the same for him. And that is His saying, ‘and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The focus is on shaping one’s feelings and emotions. Also, this source, originally written in Arabic, has been translated in different ways. The translation by Rabbi Kapach reads specifically as “religious” brother, while another traditional translation reads just “brother.” (Warsaw, 1883) So re’echa could mean only fellow “religious” Jews, or could apply to all Jews, depending on how Rambam’s words are translated and understood.  

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam’s focus is on deeds rather than emotions and desires (Mishneh Torah, hilchot Avel 14:1-2). Here the biblical mitzvah is defined as broad and containing within the rabbinic fulfillment of it many interpersonal mitzvot such as: visiting the sick, comforting mourners and cheering the bride. Rabbi Sacks calls this “Love as Deed,” where acts of chesed and love beget feelings of love in return (To Heal a Fractured World, chapter 4). Yet, here, Rambam is specific about to whom the mitzvah applies: “to your brothers in Torah and mitzvot.” That said, this could also just reflect the reality in which the Rambam lived, when pretty much everyone was observant. Perhaps it would still apply today to anyone who identifies as Jewish. 

The Sefer HaChinuch however, does not use such limiting language when he writes that being compassionate to fellow Jews will lead to them being compassionate with you and this will spread peace among the briyot, humankind (Sefer Hachinuch, positive mitzvah 243). This sort of behavior among fellow Jews increases love among all people. The Chinuch clearly takes the approach that this mitzvah applies to all Jews. The Shulchan Aruch cites the mitzvah of “ve’ahavta” in the laws of redeeming captives. One who “shuts his eyes” to redeeming captives violates a number of mitzvot including “וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ.” (Yoreh Deah 252:2)

This mitzvah is also put to the ultimate test when the Talmud discusses execution and death of a criminal who has been accused of a capital offense. The Talmud teaches even in this case they should receive a מיתה יפה – a compassionate death, based on “ve’ahavta.” The verse still applies even to a great sinner. (BT Sanhedrin 45a)

Today the Jewish community looks very different than ever before in history. There were times and places when non-Orthodox movements posed a threat to the Orthodox community in the diaspora. Given that this may no longer be the case, perhaps it is time to revisit this halakhic discussion. In Israel, the focus is on the influence of secular Israelis on religious Israelis, though these terms have become much more fluid in recent years. Some readings of the Rambam view the mitzvah of “ve’ahavta” as applying only to “religious” Jews. However, the Rambam can also be understood as referring to all Jews. More significantly, the Talmud, the Sefer HaChinuch, the Shulchan Aruch and others don’t limit the definition of “re’echa.”

According to a majority of (if not all) sources it is clear that verbal or physical attacks on other Jews are against the Torah. Moreover, given the growing divide, alienation and feelings of animosity there is a great need to demonstrate compassion and acts of chesed among the Jewish people. Acts of kindness are after all the essence of “ve’ahavta” according to many poskim. The three weeks (bein hametzarim) marks the lead up to the churban, which was partially due to sinat chinam (baseless hatred). This is an appropriate time to refocus on the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael – toward all Jews. 

Rabbanit Karen Miller Jackson

is a Jewish educator and writer, who studies and teaches at Matan HaSharon and recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakha program. She has an MA in Talmud and Midrash from NYU.