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N.V. Goldfeld: The Divine Image in All Humankind

One of the most important chapters in the Torah is included in Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus. It is customary to start the curriculum of the five-year-old-children who enter the traditional Jewish day-school with the book of Leviticus, not Genesis.

It is not only because its name is connected with Holiness (it contains indeed 51 mitzvoth, or commandments). It is not only because of its first two verses: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the Children of Israel, and say unto them: you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

It is not only because the majority of its mitzvoth refer to general and universal issues and commands, which are not limited to a single religion or nation, but became the basis of morality and law for all the three great monotheistic religions, and not only for them.

It is mainly because of the historical and educational message of this chapter, which is not always evident therein. The message follows the two introductory verses, which are mentioned above, and contains hints to a general spiritual democracy ("all the congregation") and to the motivation of Imitatio Dei (the word "for"), but are included mainly in verse. 3: "Every man should fear his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths, I am the Lord your God."

This verse connects for the first and single time in the Torah three units: (1) The family, whose predecessors are represented by mother and father; (2) the Creator, whose two names are presented at the end of our verse; and (3) God's "Sabbaths," which stress the creation, as they do until this very day in the traditional Jewish Sabbath ritual.

This connection stresses the historical and educational aspects of our chapter: The creation of the world in the remote ("mythological") past, the eternal Creator, and "all the congregation" which performs His commands (mitzvoth) in the present and will perform them in the future, have become a single entity. One must, however, educate the present and future performers, whose lives are temporary and short, about the historicity of the performance, its roots and customs, as only the eternal Creator is able to bridge the historical gap between the past of the creation and the future of the religious performances.

Commentators on our chapter, as well as of our sedra (weekly Torah portion) in general, have been aware of the many mitzvoth therein, and have stressed the high number of the mitzvoth which stress the relations between man and his fellow man, and are more numerous in our chapter than those between man and God. Here these mitzvoth follow the order of the chapter. At the beginning of the quotation the number of the verse is indicated. Left out are the mitzvoth between man and God, as for example verse 4 (about "turning towards idolatry and making idols), verses 5-8 (about keeping the time-limits while eating sacred meat), and so on.

Verses 9-10: "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning (the ears of corn that fall to the ground at the time of gathering the harvest). And you shall not glean your vineyard, neither shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger; I am the Lord your God."

The former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Dr. J. H. Hertz stresses the fact that "consideration for the poor distinguishes the Mosaic Law from all other legislations" whose object "seems primarily to safeguard the rights of the possessing classes.” He underlines there the fact that, in the Torah, "the poor man is a brother, and when in need he is to be relieved ungrudgingly, not only with an open hand but with an open heart." Rabbi Hertz quotes there a statement of the leader of liberal Judaism in England, Claude Montefiore (1858-1938), who states in his Synoptic Gospels (together with the Catholic theologian Baron Von Hugel, the author founded the London Society for the Study of Religion, a select group of Jewish and Christian thinkers, which met regularly to read and discuss papers on the philosophy of religion) that "there is no ethical quality more characteristic of Rabbinic Judaism than Rachmanut-pity."

Verse 11: "You shall not steal; neither shall you deal (deny) falsely, nor lie to another." According to the Tannaitic Midrash to the Book of Exodus, Mekhilta, this prohibition includes "stealing the good opinion of others" (gnevat da'at in Hebrew) which includes flattery deceiving others into having a better opinion of a person or of his doings than he deserves.

Verse 13: "You shall not oppress your fellow-man, not rob him; the wages of a hired man shall not abide with you all night until the morning." In the Deuteronomy 24:14 parallel, "your fellow man" (re'akha) is replaced by "the poor and needy hired servant" (sakhir'ani ve-evyon). Both prohibitions refer to taking advantage of the helplessness of a poor person, by paying him less for his work and robbing him by withholding his due. The poor and needy live from hand to mouth and their wages should be paid to them immediately after their day's work is done.

Verse 14: "You shall not curse the deaf [who does not hear the curses-NV], nor put a stumbling-block before the blind [who does not see the block-NV], but you shall fear your God." The end of this prohibition refers to the avenger of the helpless ‑ the deaf and the blind, who symbolize misfortune, inexperience, and moral weakness. These traits make a person helpless and unaware of the obstacles in his way.

Verse 15: "You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, you shall not respect the person of the poor [justice may be outraged in favor of the poor man, even when he is wrong; cf. Exodus 23:3: "You shall not favor a poor man in his cause"-NV], nor favor the person of the mighty; in righteousness shall you judge your colleague." The teaching of this and the preceding verses is restated by the Prophet Zechariah (8:16-17): "Speak, everyone, the truth with his neighbor: execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against his neighbor..." The closeness of "truth and peace" in the English King James Version (unlike the Hebrew original, where the formula is "truth and judgment of peace" ‑ emeth u-mishpat shalom) of the Prophet Zechariah should become one of the basic slogans in a discussion of good governance and peace.

Verse 16: "You shall not go up and down as a peddler among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your fellow-man; I am the Lord." The prohibition is intended against slandering and the "evil tongue" (lashon Hara in Hebrew). Many Jewish circles regard the informer (malshin or moser in Hebrew) as the worst among all evil-doers. "Standing idly" means indifference, when a fellow man is in mortal danger.

Verse 17: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your colleague and not bear sin because of him." This and the next verse, which culminates the mitzvoth between man and his fellow man, prohibit hatred and vengeance, and include the "positive" command of "Love your fellow-man." Most of the hatred in the world is unjustified and groundless. Its Hebrew term is sinath hinam (hating for nothing). According to the Jewish tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed "because the causeless hatred," and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of modern Eretz Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), demanded from his people "causeless love" (ahavat hinam in Hebrew) in order to enable and to facilitate the understanding and harmony between "observing" and "not-observing" Jews.

Verse 18: "You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against the children of your people, and you shall love your fellow-man as yourself; I am the Lord." This, as I said before, is the culminating verse in our chapter. After a long list of prohibitions (38 in our sedra) a positive mitzvah (13 in our sedra) ends them and as many passages in our chapter, our verse ends too with God's name. There are 16 endings of this kind in our chapter, eight of them ‑ as in our verse by four words in English (two only in Hebrew), and eight by six words in English (three only in Hebrew). These endings serve as a constant reminder that God, the holy creator, is behind "His" commands.

The three Hebrew words (six in English) ‑ Ve-ahavta le-re'akha Ramokha ‑ became the quintessence of the traditional Jewish attitude toward our fellow man. In the Tannaitic Midrash to the Book of Leviticus ("Sifra") Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 CE), the foremost scholar of his age, calls this "Golden Rule" of monotheistic religions "a fundamental principle of the Torah" (Kelal Gadol Ba-Torah ‑ three words in Hebrew, mentioned also in the Yerushalmi Talmud, Nedarim 9:3). His words, mentioned also by the leading commentator of the Bible and Talmud, Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Ben Isaac, 1040-1105), in his commentary to Leviticus 19:18, have been immortalized in a famous folk song which we sang in my school and in my youth organization, "Bnei-Akiba."

This "Golden Rule" should become the maxim of universal morality, the spiritual understanding of interreligious dialogue.

Our Biblical three words have served long enough before the rise of Christianity as the essence of the international moral life, and they were often quoted:

So says Ben-Sira (second century BCE) in his Book of Wisdom (Ecclesiasticus): "Honor your fellow man as yourself" and in the pseudo-epigraphic Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, we read a negative statement: "A man should not do to his fellow man what a man does not desire for himself."

Another apocrypha hero, Tobit, admonishes his son: "What is displeasing to yourself, that do not do unto any other." Philo and Josephus have sayings similar to the above.

As to the Rabbis, there is the well-known saying of Hillel (end of the first century, BCE-beginning of the first century, CE), the greatest of our sages during the Second Temple period to the heathen scoffer who asked the Rabbi to condense for him the whole Law "on one leg," which actually means "in the shortest possible form." The Rabbi's answer was "Whatever is hateful unto you, do not do it unto your fellow man. This is the whole Torah, the rest is explanation."

These early post-Biblical, but pre-Christian explanations formulate the rule of our Leviticus verse as an international, social, and central rule. All the other commandments of the Jewish tradition (there are altogether 613 mitzvoth) are an illustration, which need study and contemplation.

The contemporary disciple-colleague of R. Akiba, Simeon Ben Azzai (early second century, CE) emphasizes the idea of "unreasonable love," but explains it in conjunction with Genesis 5:1: "This is the Book of the Generations of Adam (man); in the day God created man, in the likeness of God made He him." Ben Azzai connects the Biblical rule of Leviticus 19:18 with the holy Creator of the Universe and of Mankind, and emphasize thereby the pre-Abrahamic origin of the Divine image in all mankind. The doctrine of the brotherhood of man does not start, according to Ben Azzai, with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, nor with Abraham our Patriarch. All men since Adam and Eve were created in the Divine image, and this principle should become a leading principle in the educational attempts of liberal religions. These religions will not negate differences, but will stress the common roots of all of them, starting with the creation of mankind by the holy Creator.