Who Is My Neighbor?

The Torah requires every Jew to love his neighbor—but who qualifies as a neighbor?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "The Good Samaritan". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

A Torah scholar once asked Yeshua how to inherit eternal life. In the ensuing discussion, they agreed that loving one’s neighbor was a key component. But the discussion didn’t end there.

The Torah scholar pressed the matter further because he wanted “to justify himself.” He wanted to be found righteous before God and inherit eternal life. To do so, he needed to love his neighbor as himself. But exactly how far did that command extend? He asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

The context of Leviticus 19:18 places the “neighbor” parallel with “one of your people,” thus implying that the neighbor should be understood only as a brother Israelite. Following that literal reading of the text, the majority of Jewish interpretation limits the scope of the commandment to one’s fellow Jew:

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18)

When he asked, “Who is my neighbor,” the expert in Torah might have been wondering whether such love must actually extend to include all Jews, or if it might be appropriate to despise Sadducees, Herodians, apostates, and heretics. He hoped to justify himself by declaring those types of Jews as outside of the definition of “your neighbor.” Perhaps he hoped Yeshua would narrow the scope a little bit.

The Community Rule from Qumran espouses a similar sentiment. It says, “Love all the sons of light … and hate all the sons of darkness,” understanding the sons of light as members of the sect and sons of darkness to be fellow Jews outside the sect. Consider the following adage about loving one’s fellow:

This teaches that no man should think, “Love the sages but hate the disciples,” or “Love the disciples but hate the ignorant.” On the contrary, love all of these, but hate the sectarians, apostates, and the informers. (Avot DeRabbi Natan)

The Torah does not sanction hatred for fellow Jews. The Torah explicitly says, “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). The Torah requires a man to love even the stranger and to show kindness to enemies by assisting them when they fall into difficulty.

Yeshua taught a broad interpretation of “your neighbor,” much broader than your “fellow Jew” or “fellow community member.” He may have based His broad definition upon a similar passage in Leviticus 19:34, the third and final commandment in the Torah containing the verb ve’ahavta (“and you shall love”), and a parallel to Leviticus 19:18 in that it instructs to love the stranger as yourself. Compare:

  • You shall love (ve’ahavta) your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
  • The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love (ve’ahavta) him as yourself. (Leviticus 19:34)
  • You shall love (ve’ahavta) the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

This is in keeping with the main thrust of Yeshua’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The sages of the Talmud claim that Jerusalem was destroyed for the sin of baseless hatred. Yeshua’s generation was deeply divided by internal animosities, political acrimony, and senseless violence. Yeshua called upon the people of His nation to repent from the baseless hatred for which they were about to be judged and to embrace extravagant love for one another and even for those outside the community of Israel.

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This year Torah Clubs are studying the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Every week Club members encounter Yeshua of Nazareth in his Jewish context. Discover the historical and cultural backdrops of the gospels and be amazed as the teachings of Yeshua snap into focus and clarity. Unravel his difficult words and parables; study Jewish parallels to his teachings; and ultimately know Jesus better.

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