Torah portion: Loving your spouse as yourself?


The imperative to “love your fellow as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is so lofty, so sublime, that thinkers of many different ages doubted that it could actually be accomplished. 

Sigmund Freud objected to this biblical command, asking, “Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. Indeed I should be wrong to do so, for my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of my preferring them, and it is an injustice to them if I put a stranger on a par with them.”

Centuries earlier, Nachmanides, too, doubted that the command could be fulfilled — or even meant — literally (and in the process, pointed out that Rabbi Akiva had preceded him in this opinion). “Love your fellow as yourself is an exaggeration,” Nachmanides wrote, “for a person’s heart is not capable of loving his friend as he loves his own life. In addition to which, Rabbi Akiva has already taught that a person must insure his own life before saving the life of another.”

Perhaps with these very doubts and questions in mind, the sages of the Talmud largely redirected this most well-known of mitzvot toward one very specific human relationship, where they felt that it could indeed be fulfilled in its pristine literal form. In Tractate Kiddushin, after acknowledging that in pure legal terms, a man and woman could become betrothed to marry without ever meeting each other face to face, the talmudic sages then proceeded to forbid this practice, lest the blindly betrothing couple later discover they detest each other, and would then be in violation of “love your fellow as yourself”! 

The application of this mitzvah specifically to the marital bond continues in the Talmud’s formulation of the “Seven Blessings” that we recite beneath the chuppah. Using the exact (and rare) biblical word for “fellow” (rey-ah) that is used in the famous mitzvah, the wedding blessing proclaims, “Greatly rejoice beloved fellows (rey-im)!” And a third point in the pattern comes in the foundational rabbinic instruction — an obvious paraphrase of the biblical mitzvah — that “a man should love his wife as himself, and honor her more than himself.” The talmudic sages believed that within at least one human relationship — the marital relationship — this lofty, sublime, but oh-so-difficult mitzvah could find literal fulfillment. 

Loving one’s spouse as oneself can, of course, express itself in a variety of different ways. The most obvious is in the spousal willingness to sacrifice for the other, to forfeit the fulfillment of personal desires in order to facilitate the fulfillment of the other’s. (Though, as I always counsel couples that I will soon be marrying, each spouse also bears the responsibility to know and understand what sacrifice his or her spouse must not be allowed to make, no matter how lovingly it is offered, for that particular sacrifice would damage the very core of that spouse’s identity.) 

A less obvious but no less important way of loving one’s spouse as oneself can be borrowed from the way Nachmanides ultimately understands the biblical verse’s intention. Nachmanides posits that what the Torah is actually asking us to do is to fully rejoice in the other’s good fortune. To genuinely desire the very best of everything for our fellow, to not hold back in terms of what we hope he will achieve, or of what blessings she will attain. To not be impeded by any kind of secret desire that her blessings fall, at least a little bit, shy of our own. This is the meaning, realistically, of “love the other as yourself.” 

But when we broaden Nachmanides’ idea of complete emotional investment in the other to encompass other aspects of the human emotional experience, his instruction becomes extraordinarily important to a healthy marriage and constitutes an incredibly wise piece of marital advice. For a spouse can — and needs to — not only fully rejoice when his spouse is rejoicing, but also to feel the frustration when his spouse is frustrated. A spouse can — and needs to — experience excitement when her spouse is feeling excited about something and mournful when her spouse is feeling a sense of loss. 

This is not always easy, as people who are married don’t always readily understand their spouse’s emotional reaction to particular events or developments. Yet the commitment to love one’s spouse in the way that you would yourself like to be loved requires making a maximal effort to understand, to emotionally participate, to be in position to empathize.  

“Rejoice greatly beloved friends,” we say to every couple as they stand beneath their chuppah. For marriage requires that husband and wife be the very best of friends — the kind that can realistically fulfill the imperative to love each other just as they love themselves. 

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.

Not everyone, not yet


“Times have certainly changed,” someone said to me the other day. “We have a new generation of children growing up just with marriage — not gay marriage and straight marriage, but ‘just marriage.’ ”

Nice pun, I thought, “just marriage.” The oft-quoted Torah verse, “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) came to mind.

And of course, times have indeed changed; I need only look at the number of weddings on my calendar since last summer (or at the number of new babies in our congregation!) to see how the United States Supreme Court’s toppling of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) has affected life in the LGBTQ community.

On the other hand, it’s a rare week when I don’t get a “hit” of the homophobia or naiveté (sometimes willful) that remains. How quickly people think legalized marriage in some places solves all problems in all places. A quick scan of Web sites such as the Williams Institute (williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research), Keshet (keshetonline.org) or Lambda Legal (lambdalegal.org) tells a different tale. There, statistics and anecdotes still report sad stories of bullying, rejection, suicide and hate crimes. 

The source of much of this ongoing pain remains one Torah verse from this week’s portion, Kedoshim: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; mot yu-ma-tu, they will surely die, d’mei-hem bam, their blood upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).

We shall indeed die, blood upon us, if that verse remains an invitation to reject or kill us. 

How sad that this one verse still causes such pain, though it comes in the midst of a long list of other prohibitions, few of which are given much attention today. How sad that this verse gets singled out, even though it immediately follows one of the most revered passages of Torah, the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19) with its litany of Judaism’s core values, all of which heighten the understanding of one central verse: You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). 

Twenty-one years ago, I wrote a commentary on these verses. Perhaps the juxtaposition of the Holiness Code with Leviticus 20:13, and, for that matter, all of chapter 20’s sexual behavior codes, really was intentional, meant to remind us that we are all created in the image of God and remind us how to fulfill God’s image of us: “You must be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). 

A “Commentary” on Leviticus 19, “The Holiness Code”:

We are your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered children:

“You must not seek vengeance, nor bear a grudge against the children of your people” (Leviticus 19:18).

We are your bi, trans, lesbian and gay parents:

“Revere your mother and your father, each one of you” (Leviticus 19:3).

We are elderly lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and transgendered people:

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old” (Leviticus 19:32).

We are the stranger:

“You must not oppress the stranger” (Leviticus 19:33).

“You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

We are lesbian, gay, trans and bi Jews:

“You must not go about slandering your kin” (Leviticus 19:16).

We are your trans, gay, bi and lesbian siblings:

“You shall not hate your brother or sister in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17).

We are lesbian, gay, trans and bi victims of gay-bashing and murder:

“You may not stand by idly when your neighbor’s blood is being shed” (Leviticus 19:16).

We are your bi, gay, trans and lesbian neighbors:

“You must not oppress your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:13).

“You must judge your neighbor justly” (Leviticus 19:15).

“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

So many seders last week looked different from the ones 21 years ago. So many more family members welcomed home for an old-fashioned holiday meal, and more than a few newly fashioned families sitting down to seders as well. Times have changed, attitudes have changed, and understanding has deepened, thank God — but not everywhere, not everyone, not yet. 

Perhaps the conversations around this year’s seder tables, the resolutions to accept the invitations from Elijah and Miriam to walk through the open doors with them to help change the world, will bring yet more progress. As we count the Omer and the days with eager anticipation, may the Torah we receive and study anew this year at Shavuot continue to open hearts as well as doors. 

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim


Two parshot are read on this Shabbat: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim. The second portion begins with God telling the Israelites: Kedoshim — You shall be holy, for I am holy. What does this mean? It means acting with love and respect to ourselves, to other people and to the world. This week, we remember the Earth when we celebrate Earth Day on April 22. Go to Balboa Park on April 21 for the Whole Earth Fest (after you’ve visited the Israeli Independence Day Festival) and check out all the booths, crafts and activities.