What is halachic love?


The phrase in parashat Kedoshim, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Sefer Vayikra 19:18), is one of the most often-quoted verses in the Torah. Unfortunately, its popularity has done little to reveal its inner halachic meaning and parameters. Let us turn, therefore, to the Rambam’s definition of this mitzvah:

“We are commanded to love others [our fellow Jews] in the same manner that we love ourselves.

“My mercy and love for my brother [my fellow Jew] should be exactly like the mercy and love I have for myself; [specifically in regards to] his money, physical welfare, and everything that will ever be in his possession or he will want. And, everything that I wish for myself, I should desire for him. [Conversely,] anything that I would hate for myself or for anyone who associates with me, I should find hateful to him in the exact same fashion. This is what the Torah stated: “… and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 206)

Maimonides’ formulation of our commandment in this passage is decidedly general, as befits the inherent purpose of the Sefer HaMitzvot. Fascinatingly, he also champions this approach in one of the two discussions of this mitzvah that appear in the Mishneh Torah:

“It is incumbent upon every person to love each and every person from the Jewish people — like himself. As the Torah states, ‘and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Therefore, you must relate his praise and be protective of his money in the selfsame manner that one is protective of his own money and his desire to be respected [by others].” (Hilchot Deot 6:3)

My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) zatzal, understood the Rambam’s presentation of “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in Sefer HaMitzvot and Hilchot Deot as epitomizing “a passive contemplative perspective.” Moreover:

“On the face of it, at least, it appears that this love requires no actions and no concrete realization in the form of energetic acts and relationships. It is expressed through a spiritual link of esteem and affection, inner warmth and closeness. The commandment is fulfilled through the emotion itself: a person shows concern for the honor and property of the other; he is dismayed when his friend finds himself in difficult straits or is embarrassed in public. It is all a matter of sympathy, participation in his sorrows, and sharing in his troubles and misgivings. … Therefore, both the essence of the commandment as well as its performance remains enclosed within the borders of faceless inwardness.”

It is within the second discussion of “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in the Mishneh Torah wherein we find this commandment cast in a decidedly contrasting light. Instead of passive contemplation, we are met with the obligation to be actively and dynamically engaged in the lives of our fellow Jews:

“It is a positive Rabbinic Commandment to visit the sick, to comfort the mourners, to “bring out” (l’hotzi) the deceased, to provide for the needs of the bride, and to escort guests. [In addition, one] must involve himself in all aspects of the burial and carry the deceased on his shoulder, walk before him, eulogize him, dig his grave, and bury him. So, too, [one is obligated] to rejoice with the bride and groom, and to provide for all their needs [at the festive feast.] All of the aforementioned are in the category of physically demonstrated acts of kindness (gemilut chasadim she’b’gufo) and, as such, have no upward limit. Even though all of these mitzvot are Rabbinic in nature, they are in the category of ‘and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [In general,] all of those things that you would like others to do for you; you should do for your brother in Torah and mitzvot. (Hilchot Avel 14:1)

In sum, this passage provides us with a truly pragmatic formulation of how to fulfill the commandment of “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Rambam teaches us that this is achieved through the performance of clearly delineated Rabbinic acts of gemilut chasadim, such as visiting the sick, burying a deceased individual and comforting his family, as well as rejoicing with a newly married couple. In consonance with the nature of the needs of the recipients themselves, these actions have no upward limit as to how often they may be performed. Rav Soloveitchik explicated the meaning of this passage in his deeply insightful manner:

“Love is understood as performing physical acts of kindness; its essence is identical with acts of kindness, with the mighty effort to express the feeling through deed. Internal sympathy does not suffice. It must find its active correlative so that it shapes my way of life, my actions with regard to the thou. The external manifestation is essential to the fulfillment of the commandment of love, and without it the person has not fulfilled his obligation. If that is the case, this commandment is similar to others insofar as it is fulfilled through concrete action. Although its fulfillment focuses on the heart, its realization is objective.

Upon reflection it appears that the Rambam’s statements in Sefer HaMitzvot and Hilchot Deot contradict his position in Hilchot Avel. In other words, is the mitzvah “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” fulfilled solely through passive contemplation, or does it demand decisive and clearly defined external acts of gemilut chasadim? According to Rav Soloveitchik, both notions of the Rambam “are accurate, for they are complementary, not contradictory.”

This is the case, since “the Torah is not content with the passive-contemplative form of love,” it also “demands a dynamic love with respect to the thou.” At this juncture the Rav explains exactly why the Rambam’s two approaches to the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow Jew are truly complementary:

“In Hilchot De’ot [and Sefer HaMitzvot] where Maimonides discusses character traits, moods and states of mind, he mentions only the axiological [value-laden] action that is expressed in a feeling of warm affection. … Accordingly, it does not mention the concretization of the quality of love. However, the energetic love that is channeled into concrete actions is important as well [Hilchot Avel]. Internal, subjective feelings of affection are not enough. A person must…give them the concrete form of showing kindness and love to others. And thus the commandment to perform acts of kindness emerges, manifesting dynamic love that motivates one’s conduct toward others.”

Long ago, Rabbi Akiva famously declared: “V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha, zehu klal gadol b’Torah” (“And you should love your neighbor as you love yourself, this is the overarching principle of the Torah.”) (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim, 9:4) Armed with the Rambam’s insights, and the Rav’s penetrating analysis, we can now understand Rabbi Akiva’s adage and the truly singular import of this mitzvah. With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may we ever grow in our feelings of love and mercy for our fellow Jews, and stand ready to help them through heartfelt actions of gemilut chasadim. V’chane yihi ratzon.