Featured image: Love Thy Neighbor

Professor Leonard Swidler is a global theologian who has pioneered and contributed to the field of interfaith dialogue for more than 50 years. He has been a professor of religion at Temple University since 1966. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the ecumenical research journal and the founder and director of the Dialogue Institute.

A Reflection in Church

For over half a century I have taught religious studies at a public university, Temple University. Hence, I have not spoken there as a Christian, or, indeed, as a theist, or from any position other than that of a humanist—which position can accommodate both of the former. This evening, in this churchly setting, I will reflect with you as a Christian, indeed, as a Roman Catholic Christian—though I suspect that the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia might think that in my case, Roman would best be spelled “Roamin.”

I chose as my reflection title: “Love in Action is the Purpose of Human Life.” And, I will approach it from a Christian-Scripture-based perspective. That is, I will quote and reflect on texts from the New Testament.

Bible text of the golden rule
The Golden Rule, as stated in the Bible. Image courtesy of
The Golden Rule: The Foundation of Christianity

I am persuaded that the heart of what Christianity is all about is the Golden Rule: “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” I am further persuaded that carrying that Rule out in daily life is precisely what the Foundation of Christianity—that is, Rabbi Yeshua ha Notzri (Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth)—thought, taught, and wrought.

I deliberately use Jesus’ Hebrew name, Yeshua, and title, Rabbi, to help draw us Christians—in the wake of two millennia of anti-Judaism, and a bloody century and a half of still ongoing antisemitism—back to our Hebraic/ Jewish, Yeshuanic Christian roots.

The Golden Rule, loving our neighbor as ourselves, is ancient. It goes back at least to Zoroaster, Confucius, Greeks like Thales, and the book of Leviticus (Lev. 19: 18) in the sixth century BCE. It was often cited in the subsequent biblical period among Israelites, and then Jews, as e.g., in the book of the second-century before the Common Era, Tobit (Tobit 4:15).

Love: The Core of the Teachings of Rabbi Yeshua and the Torah

If one were to ask, what single word might sum up the teaching and life of Yeshua, that word would be “Love.” In a pilpul (a rabbinic debate about the meaning of a Torah text and its application) Rabbi Yeshua was asked by a lawyer (nomikos) what the greatest commandment was.[1] This story is reminiscent of one told of his presumably two great teachers, Rabbis Shammai and Hillel: One day a Gentile came to Rabbi Shammai and asked him if he could sum up the Torah while standing on one foot. For his troubles, Shammai boxed his ears. He then went and asked Rabbi Hillel, who responded that he “should love God with his whole heart, mind, and soul, and his neighbor as himself; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

That story about Hillel rings through in Matthew’s Gospel story, which spoke of Yeshua’s answer to a lawyer’s question in the same way that his teacher Rabbi Hillel did: “You must love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.” (Mt 22: 37-40).

A rabbi holds up the torah, besides the stones of the temple mount.
Rabbi holding up the Torah. Photo courtesy of Josh Evnin, Flickr,

Of course, neither Rabbi Hillel nor Rabbi Yeshua were saying something new; they were simply quoting the Torah. Indeed, that was the opening of the daily Jewish prayer, the Shema: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength,” (Dt 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18)

Precisely the same summing up of the Law, the Torah, in the double commandment of love was likewise expressed by the Jewish contemporary of Rabbi Yeshua, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.). He wrote: “There are two fundamental teachings to which the numberless individual teachings are subordinated: … the commandment of honoring God and … the love of humanity and justice.”[2] Another contemporary of Rabbi Yeshua, the Hellenistic/Pharisaic Jew Saul/Paul wrote similarly: “Owe no one anything but to love one another, for whoever loves one another has fulfilled the Law” (Rom 13: 8).

In fact, the linking together of these two commandments—love of God and of neighbor—and the summing up of the Torah in them was not something new or special to Hillel, Philo, Yeshua, or Saul/Paul either. Already two hundred years before Yeshua was born, other Jewish thinkers, authors of books like the Testament of the Patriarchs and the Book of Jubilees[3] linked together the two ancient commandments to love God and neighbor.

Thus, it is clear—despite two thousand years of Christian denial—Rabbi Yeshua was being very, very Jewish in his placing love at the center of his teaching.

How to Manifest the Love of God:

However, not only did Rabbi Yeshua intimately link together the love of God and love of neighbor, he also made it clear that the way to manifest the Love of God was by the single commandment: The Love of Neighbor. This was aptly expressed by a biblical follower of his who wrote: “Whoever says he loves God whom he cannot see, but hates his brother whom he can see, is a liar.” (1 Jn 4:20).

A nun feeds the homeless in San Francisco, CA
A nun feeding the hungry in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Franco Folini, courtesy of Flickr,

Rabbi Yeshua’s understanding of love, however, did not consist only of words and emotion. Rather, he insisted that it was not those who merely spoke beautiful words who will gain the goal. He said: “Not those who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but those who do the will of my Father will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 7:21). Further, Rabbi Yeshua was quite concrete in what he meant by “doing the will of his Father in heaven.” He stated clearly and concretely: Give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned. “Insofar as you did it to one of these least ones, you did it to me.” (Mt 25: 40) This was all in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets through whom God demanded, not burnt offerings, but that we walk in justice by ceasing to oppress the defenseless: especially women, widows, children, orphans, the poor.

This is what Rabbi Yeshua models, and calls all who would follow him to: A life that puts in action the Golden Rule: Love our neighbor—very especially those who cannot care for themselves—as we love ourselves. This loving our neighbor as we love ourselves implies that the less we love our selves, the less we will love our neighbor. Hence, we must not shrink our selves, our “egos.” Rather, we must expand them—endlessly!—so that they include not just that “ego” trapped inside our skin, but also reaches out to those innumerable alter egos, “other selves,” beyond our skin, even to the point that we could follow Rabbi Yeshua when he said: “Greater love has no one than s/he give up his/her life for her/his friend” (Jn 15:13). Thus, in the end:

Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.”Where love is, there is God,”
Because: “Ho Theos agape estin.” “God is love.” (I Jn 4:8)

If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more by Professor Leonard Swidler, check out Yeshua: Jesus the Jew a Model for Everyone.

[1] According to Luke (10:25-28), however, it was the lawyer who asked Rabbi Yeshua what the greatest commandment was, and then answered his own question, and spoke of the twofold command of love; Yeshua merely agreed with him.

[2] Philo, “Concerning Individual Commandments,” II, 63.

[3] They are found in various of the Pseudepigrapha (non-canonical Jewish writings in Greek, especially the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs): “Love the Lord and the neighbor” (Testament of Issachar 5:2); “I loved the Lord and every human being with my whole heart” (ibid., 7:6); “Love the Lord in your whole life and one another with a sincere heart” (Testament of Daniel 5:3); “Fear the Lord and love the neighbor” (Testament of Benjamin 3:3); “And he commanded them to keep to the way of God, do justice, and everyone love his/her neighbor” (Jubilees 20:9); “Love one another my sons as brothers, as one loves oneself…. You should love one another as yourselves” (ibid., 36:4-6).

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