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~ by Michael Dallen

The Golden Rule

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. - Leviticus 19:18

Many people don't know that the so-called Golden Rule comes from Torah. For the people of Israel, obedience to the Golden Rule is a legal obligation. In fact, it's two obligations (Leviticus 19:18, 19:33). You shall love your neighbor; you shall love the stranger. Together the two of them constitute "a fundamental principle of the Torah," according to the Rabbis. In his classic work, the Sefer HaMitzvot or Book of the Commandments, the great scholar Maimonides lists them as the 206th and the 207th of Israel's 248 Positive Commandments (the Torah includes a total of 613 commandments, 248 positive, 365 negative), based on their location in the Written Torah.

Noahides, people who aren't bound by the Covenant of Sinai, who are obligated only by the First Covenant, aren't legally bound, compelled or obligated by any of the Torah's positive commandments. If they fail or refuse to keep these laws - to Israel the Golden Rule is law, as well as moral precept - they are not liable legally. They will have sinned, however, at least in the case of these two laws: they will have "missed the mark," as "sin" originally meant. In other words, they will have fallen short of what they should and could have done, and also what they should and could have been, as decent, righteous, moral human beings.

Even though God has not commanded Noahides directly in this matter, He has given all mankind some knowledge of His law through His Torah - through the Bible, which we can read in any number of versions and translations.

Concerning the stranger*:

The stranger who stays with you shall be unto you as the homeborn [that is, like your own neighbor] among you, and you shall love him like yourself, because you [Israel] were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am HaShem (the Lord) your God. - Leviticus 19:34

"Love him like yourself." To love another person as yourself: 1) if you can give yourself the benefit of the doubt, you must do so for your fellow; 2) as you try to anticipate your own wants and needs, you should try to anticipate the wants and needs of the stranger. God wants us, at the very least, to show sensitivity to the needs of one's neighbor and the stranger.

Who is the stranger? One who doesn't quite fit in. He or she is the outsider, the visitor, or foreigner. God refers to the stranger in the same context as the orphan or widow - as someone who may be weak and helpless (as opposed to the convert, one would think; someone recognized or even sponsored by a congregation of one's fellows) who especially needs your help.

What does it mean to love the stranger? To see yourself in him or her; to recognize the Divine spark in him or her. To feel empathy and act upon it. If you think that you might feel thirsty if you were in the stranger's place, for instance, as you see him passing by on a cloudless day panting in the heat, for instance, you should anticipate his need for water and offer him what he needs.

The great sage Hillel, in order to put the two Golden Rule commandments together in a very practicable form, expressed them in the negative, as follows:

What is hateful to yourself do not do unto another. - Talmud, Shabbat 31a

One might extend this, however: what is hateful to yourself you should not suffer to be done unto another. This is what love, and justice, is really all about - and this is what God cherishes. He expects us to recognize the godliness in our fellow man.

Why should we behave this way? Because this is a principle of Torah which has been revealed to all humanity, according to the Torah itself. It is a basic part of "the general drift of Torah," which is the essence of the Law or Way of the First Covenant::

Beloved is man, for he exists and was created in the very "image" of God. - Rabbi Akiba, Mishnah Torah, Pirke Avot 3:18.

What is man that You are mindful of him. . .? For you have made him little lower than the angels. . . . (Psalm 8:5)

I call Heaven and Earth to witness, the Divine Spirit (in Hebrew, ru'ach hakodesh) rests upon every person, whether he be Jew or gentile, if his life be worthy - Seder Eliyahu 9

All men are God's creatures, and manifest the glory of His work. All are sacred to His Holy Name. - Rabbi Yehuda Loew, Beer HaGola (c. 1589, p. 150)


*Stranger - in Hebrew, geyr; plural, geyrim. In later Hebrew, the meaning of this word changed to refer mainly to converts or proselytes to Israel's religion (that is, converts to Judaism). In the Torah's Hebrew, as one can clearly see from the context of the quoted passage here, stranger simply means stranger - that is, a visitor, a temporary sojourner, a misplaced person or a traveler - a different sort of person from one's neighbors, basicially, but not a convert or proselyte. It is commonly recognized, after all, that the Hebrews in Egypt weren't converts or proselytes to Egyptian cults or religion. They were simply "strangers" - foreigners - in the sight of native Egyptians.


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