Who Is Our Neighbor?
cottonbro studio: orthodox rabbi
Who is my neighbor? This is a Levitical question, a question for an Orthodox rabbi. Old Testament scholar, Ellen Davis provides exegetical wisdom on this issue: Within that book, which probably assumed final form in response to assimilationist pressure on exilic Israel, the obvious answer would seem to be that it is only the Israelite “neighbor” to whom love can safely be shown. Such an intra-Israelite interpretation is supported both by semantics and by immediate literary context in Leviticus 19. Semantically, the Hebrew word (reʿa) indicates something more than someone who lives nearby. Rather, it implies a deep bond and obligation within the context of community life; normally in Torah it means one’s fellow Israelite. This interpretation is initially secured by the fact that the immediately preceding lines contain multiple references to “your kin” and “your people.” Yet later in the very same chapter, that intra-Israelite interpretation is destabilized. Leviticus 19:34 has been formulated as an unmistakable echo of this cardinal principle of Torah: “As a native among you shall be to you the sojourner who sojourns with you; you shall be loving to him as (to) yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The effect of that echo is to force wide the scope of the love commandment. Through the proximity of these two verses, the resident alien has been redefined as a neighbor to whom is due the covenant obligation of love. So we see that the levitical vision of Israelite distinctiveness and solidarity already contains the mustard seed that will grow to burst the limits of that vision. What happens with Jesus and his followers is that the levitical vision of holiness is burst open in a way that is heavy with historical and theological consequences. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is inconceivable without such a reinterpretation of the levitical understanding of what constitutes covenant community.
Please complete the following sentence: My neighbor is ….
- The people who live in my neighborhood. But I don’t know them.
- The people who are my kin.
- My fellow Christians who believe as I believe, vote as I vote, think as I think.
In Leviticus, the common sense, worldly meaning of “neighbor” would be other Israelites. This is the plain meaning of neighbor in Torah in most places.
Some people of faith restrict the meaning of “neighbor.” Here the meaning of “love” and “neighbor” get confused. How can we “love” someone we refuse to treat as a neighbor?
The best way to read and interpret Leviticus is to pay attention to how Jesus read Leviticus. Jesus puts love and neighbor together. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The Wide Open Circle of Neighbor Love
In response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Samaritan. A man on the Jericho Road: robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The Jericho Road exists everywhere in every age.
A scribe responded to Jesus’ story and there is the key for us. Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Love of neighbor is much more important than all the laws of Leviticus, or more precisely, love of neighbor defines the laws of Leviticus.
I am not convinced that all persons of faith have accepted the teaching of Jesus. I question those who say, “I love all people, but I condemn gays for being an abomination.” That’s not neighborly. You are not a good neighbor. You are a “nay-bor.” You cry, “Nay” to all opportunities to widen the circle of neighbor.
Even in Leviticus 19, we have the precursor to the wide open circle of neighbor love that Jesus offers. The definition of neighbor undergoes radical change. The usual understanding is destabilized and people are faced with enlarging the concept of “neighbor.”
Leviticus 19:24 redefines neighbor to include resident aliens. I am amazed at biblical literalists straining to insist that “alien” does not mean immigrant. When literalists don’t like what the Bible plainly says, that find ways to not be literal.
“The resident alien has been redefined as a neighbor to whom is due the covenant obligation of love.” On this reading, those that evangelicals tend to treat as if they were “aliens” are due the covenant obligation of love.
I argue that you can’t have “love” and reject someone as your neighbor. Being neighbor is the act of love.
If you say that you “love” everyone, while rejecting some, you are not a good neighbor. If you are not a good neighbor, your love is window dressing.