Leviticus 19

This climactic chapter emphasizes the obligation to be holy in our dealings with our fellow human beings.

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Our passage is apparently the oldest written version of the principle. When Hillel, at the beginning of the Christian era, was asked to sum up the entire Torah briefly, he replied: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." (This negative form of the golden rule was apparently proverbial in Hillel's time for it appears in practically the same words in the apocryphal book of Tobit (4:15).) Jesus of Nazareth, Hillel's younger contemporary, declared that the commandment of Leviticus 19:18 is second in importance only to the command to love God (Mark 12:28-30.). In the following century, Rabbi Akiba declared it to be "the great principle of the Torah" (Sifra).

…Some Christian apologetes have argued that the negative form of the golden rule is spiritually inferior to the positive form ascribed to Jesus: "All that you would wish that men should do unto you, do ye also unto them" (Matthew 7:12). In their zeal, they forgot that the positive form occurs first in the Torah. But, actually, there is virtually no difference in meaning between the two versions. The golden rule, it has been remarked, is an instrument of criticism. It enables us to judge a proposed course of action, but it does not provide us the means of proposing a course of action; that always requires an effort of creative imagination. Regarded as a standard of judgment, the golden rule is equally effective in negative or positive form.

Some Christians have also tried to show that the saying of Jesus is more truly universal and inclusive than that of Leviticus. They argue that "neighbor" in Leviticus (19:18) means "fellow Israelite" which is true enough; but they apparently overlook the commandment of verse 34 which requires us to show the same love to a foreigner resident in the land. There is no evidence that Jesus had a broader outlook (see Matthew 15:26).

Such theoretical distinctions would in any case not be important. Our opportunity to practice the golden rule is chiefly in our relations to those who are physically near to us, our literal neighbors. In ancient times, most people had little awareness of events beyond their immediate vicinity. They had no share in major political and economic decisions.

They rarely knew even of major occurrences until the results came upon them in the form of invasion, deportation, new tax demands, and the like. Only in recent centuries, especially in our own, has the average person had the knowledge, the opportunity, and the obligation to apply the golden rule on a global scale. Today, indeed, we must consider what duties we owe to the Vietnamese, the Biafrans, the Bengalis; but that is something new. And it does not make the question of our relationships with those nearer home any less compelling.

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.