The biblical command in Leviticus 19.18 to “love your neighbor as yourself,” if taken literally, is a very difficult command to obey.
Perhaps someone can love a child, a parent or a spouse as oneself. But a neighbor? And every neighbor? What if the neighbor has many negative characteristics? What if the neighbor is a despicable person?
And can someone really be commanded to love another person? Love is an emotion. Emotions are feelings. Can someone be commanded to have feelings?
I think the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” really means that you should act AS IF you loved your neighbor as yourself. You should treat other people with respect, compassion and empathy. You may not like someone, but treat him with courtesy. You should treat others as you would want to be treated. You should not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.
It’s wonderful to love others in our hearts. But too often we are cardiac humanitarians. We feel for others. We are sorry for their plight. We feel terrible when someone is down and out. In our hearts, we empathize with the misery experienced by others. But that’s where it stops. We don’t act on our feelings. We don’t write a check out to a worthy cause, or visit or call someone who is ill or in distress. But in our hearts we feel for them.
Action is more important than feelings. Feeling for someone in need makes us feel worthy. It makes us feel good about ourselves. But it doesn’t do much for the person in need. Actually doing something to help someone in need is much more meritorious than just feeling for the person. The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” should motivate us to ACT in a loving way toward our neighbor.
The commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” has particular relevance in the political arena. While it is certainly appropriate for a candidate to criticize his/her opponent’s ideas, his/her opponent’s past record and his/her opponent’s proposals for the future, it violates the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” to attack your opponent in a nasty, personal, demeaning, insulting manner. Although we may agree with a candidate’s economic and social policy views, we should not condone or ignore a candidate’s failure to treat his/her opponent with dignity. And we should let the candidate know that although we may agree with him/her on many issues, we find the methods he/she uses to express his/her views offensive and unacceptable.
Rabbi David Weissman