Thursday, April 28, 2011





You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor [re’akha] as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:18).

This verse is the centerpiece of the Torah’s so called holiness code, and is often called its golden rule. It is not surprising that the great Rabbi Akiva regarded it as the most all-encompassing imperative of the Torah. What is surprising is that the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:4) recalls that one of his most eminent colleagues disagreed.
“You shall love your neighbor [re’akha] as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva says: ‘This is the most all-encompassing imperative of the Torah.’ Ben Azzai says: [The verse] ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Gen. 5:1) is much more encompassing.
At first glance, Ben Azzai’s opinion is counterintuitive. Rabbi Akiva’s verse is grand and commanding.  Ben Azzai’s verse, in contrast, seems to be mundane, nothing more than the introduction of a passage of biblical chronology.  What was his objection to Rabbi Akiva’s claim?  In what way was his verse more encompassing? 
The great Maharal of Prague suggests that Ben Azzai was bothered by our text’s requirement that love of the other is conditional on one’s love for one’s self [kamokha]].  What if one hated oneself?  Could one justifiably hate one’s neighbor?  Did Rabbi Akiva’s verse permit a masochist to be a sadist?  It was precisely because of his difficulty with love of self as the essential criterion for love of others that Ben Azzai chose an alternate verse.  The Jerusalem Talmud abbreviated his citation.  The full citation is: Ben Azzai says: [The passage] ‘this is the book of the generations of Adam. The day that God created mankind, He made him in the likeness of God. Male and female He created them.’ (Gen. 5:1-2). The commanding principle is that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Irrespective of what I think of myself, the person whom I encounter is characterized by godness. Therefore he or she must be treated with the love and respect that is owed to God. 
While Ben Azzai’s objection to Rabbi Akiva’s all encompassing principle seems to make sense, it leaves Rabbi Akiva’s judgment open to question.  Surely he too embraced the notion that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated accordingly.  Indeed, it was Rabbi Akiva himself who used to say:  “Beloved is man in that he was created in the Divine image.  An extraordinary love was his awareness that he was created in the Divine image.” (Avot 3:18).  Why then did he not agree with Ben Azzai regarding the most encompassing imperative of the entire Torah?  
It seems to me that the meaning of the Hebrew word re’akha is the key to Rabbi Akiva’s understanding of our verse.   Re’akha is commonly rendered “your neighbor”.  But the Hebrew word for “your neighbor” is shakhen’kha. Re’akha is also sometimes rendered  “your friend,” but the Hebrew for “your friend” is chaver’kha.  What then is the real meaning of re’akha?
The root of the word re’akha is re’a.  It consists of the two Hebrew letters resh and ayin.  However, the Hebrew language is generally inhospitable to biliteral [two-letter] roots.  It customarily converts them into triliteral roots, either by inserting the letter vav [pronounced oo] between the two root letters, or by doubling the last root letter.  Thus the root-word km [rise] is transformed either into koom or kamam, and the root-word shv is transformed either into shoov or shavav. 
According with this grammatical rule, the two-letter root of the word re’akha, resh/ayin, is transformed into the trilateral root resh/ayin/ayin—[ra’oo’a].  The word ra’oo’a means unsteady, broken or vulnerable.  Thus, for example, the broken sound of the shofar is called teru’ah, evoking the weeping of a broken spirit. 
Although this grammatical analysis of the word re’akha seems almost too technical, it explains Rabbi Akiva’s majestic understanding of the Torah’s golden rule.  The beloved other is recognized as vulnerable and imperfect.  The Torah notes that just as one is oneself flawed, insecure and vulnerable, so is the other. Even though we are all endowed with godness, no one is without weaknesses, flaws and self-doubt. Just as one accepts and even loves oneself despite one’s frailties, so is one required to accept and love the other.  This is the authentic, unconditional love that God requires of us.   Loving tolerance and acceptance of weakness in other people is the Torah’s golden rule.
Just how all encompassing is this principle? “It was taught: Where does the Torah mandate the most humane method of execution for [rarely imposed] capital sentences? Rav Nachman said in the name of Rabba ben Avuha: The Torah states, ‘You shall love your re’a as yourself.’ Therefore, devise for him the most humane mode of execution. (BT Ketubot 37b; Sanhedrin 45a). Rabbinical courts exceedingly rarely imposed capital punishment. According to most authorities it was not imposed more than once in seven years. According to Rabbi Akiva, so precious was human life that it was not imposed more than once in seventy years. So when it was imposed, the offender must have been radically evil, without redeeming features. And yet the Talmud calls him a re’a, and applies the imperative of unconditional love to him.
Another example: Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: One may not betroth a woman sight unseen, lest he subsequently find her unattractive and she become repulsive to him. The Torah declared: “You shall love your re’a as yourself,” [thus preempting this kind of pain to the hapless bride]. (BT Kiddushin 41a).
Although the imperative “You shall love your  [re’akha] as yourself” extends to the entire gamut of human relationships, it is most commonly applied to the special love between spouses. On their wedding day, bride and groom are called re’im ahuvim—each is termed the beloved re’a of the other. They have decided to consummate their deep love each for the other in the sacred bond of committed intimacy and companionship. Each knows that the other is not perfect, that each carries the unhealed wounds of childhood, that each has fears and vulnerabilities. But accepting mutual frailty endears each to the other, inspiring each to support the other in sickness and sadness, and to exult in the other’s successes. They are reim ahuvim to each other because their love is unconditional, because their relationship embodies the Torah’s golden rule.

Who says that our religion is the religion of law and that theirs is the religion of love?


1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Rabbi Weiss, for a beautiful drosh on loving your fellow imperfect and vulnerable "brother". I shared your drosh at my Shabbat table (in your name) and every one was very touched by it.
    -- steve fink