University Press Week: Practicing Compassion

Happy University Press Week! Today the UP Week Blog Tour’s theme is “How to Practice Compassion.” The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah, Volume 2: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society, 2017).



Excerpt: Kedoshim #2, Loving Our Neighbor

A Call to Emotion and Action

No words in the Torah are better known than “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), and no words are generally seen as more significant. Indeed no lesser a figure than R. Akiva goes so far as to declare that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the great principle of the Torah (k’lal gadol ba-torah; PT, Nedarim 9:4). And yet for all its manifest centrality in Jewish spirituality and ethics, the precise meaning of the verse is actually quite elusive.

What is the Torah asking for when it commands us to love? Can we really be commanded to love—or to feel anything at all, for that matter? Many people think that, since emotions cannot be controlled, they cannot be commanded. But both of these claims seem to me to be manifestly false. Understanding just how and why they are false can help us grasp the meaning of this all-important verse.

Many commentators have noticed something anomalous about our verse: The Hebrew does not say ve-ahavta et rei’akha, as we might expect, but rather ve-ahavta le-rei’akha. Ahav here surprisingly takes an indirect object rather than the usual accusative. We might capture this—crudely—in English as follows: The text seems to say not “love your neighbor” but “love to your neighbor.”

This le (to) is strange, and biblical scholars have speculated about its meaning. Noting other instances where ahav le suggests rendering practical assistance to someone, Bible scholar Abraham Malamat argues that “love your neighbor as yourself” ought more accurately be rendered as “be useful to your neighbor as to yourself.” It would thus have a “concrete and pragmatic sense” rather than what Malamat labels an “abstract” one.141 Our verse, Malamat insists, doesn’t deal with emotions at all—it’s about a general posture of helpfulness toward others. In an extremely stark formulation, Malamat writes: “The Bible is not commanding us to feel something—love—but to do something—to be useful or beneficial to help your neighbor.”142

But should we really be so insistent that the Torah can’t (or wouldn’t) command us to feel a certain way? And more, is it really so clear that we have no ability to choose what we feel?

The text seems to say not “love your neighbor” but “love to your neighbor.”

HeldIt seems far more plausible to suggest that the Torah does indeed command emotion. Love for God in the Torah does involve a willingness to obey. But it does not indicate a willingness to obey, and nothing more. As Lapsley rightly asks, “Is it not possible that love can mean loyalty and obedience to the law at the same time that it bears an affective connotation, asking and even commanding people to feel a particular way about God?”148 By extension, does it not seem possible that Leviticus asks us to do good for our neighbor and also to care about her?

In general, the Torah does not drive a wedge between action and emotion; on the contrary its ideal is to integrate them—to feel passionately about God and to observe God’s commandments, to care about people and to act caringly toward them. The argument that the Torah obligates us to do but not to feel strikes me as alien to the Torah’s vision of ethics, which asks me both to do and to feel. When the Torah asks for love, it is calling for doing and feeling, not doing rather than feeling.

But what about the psychological argument that emotions can’t be controlled? The answer, I think, is quite complex. To be sure, we cannot simply will ourselves to have a particular feeling at a particular time; we cannot just decide to love someone and then conjure feelings of love in the next moment. But we certainly can do things to help inculcate certain feelings within us. As Maimonides (1135–1204), for example, points out, if we want to learn to feel compassion, we can engage in compassionate action, and through that transform our character over time. We cannot will ourselves to care in any simple, straightforward way, but we can train ourselves through committed, disciplined action to begin to feel things we previously did not (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 1:7).149 Perhaps, then, the Torah asks us to learn to love, to act in such ways as to nurture and instill love within ourselves. When we act lovingly, we may learn to feel love, which in turn, will lead us to act more lovingly—and so on, in a virtuous cycle.150

The Torah repeatedly demands that we integrate emotion and action. It calls upon us to cultivate an inner state and to manifest that state in concrete actions. Turning to Deuteronomy again, the text informs us that what God asks of us is “to fear the Lord your God, to walk only in His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 10:12). Note the pattern of the verbs: fear, walk, love, and serve—emotion, action, emotion, action. The Torah’s goal is a seamless wholeness between feeling and deed. (Again: Love and fear are not merely emotions in the Torah—they also imply a commitment to obey, but they are surely also, fundamentally, emotions.) Returning to the mandate to “love your neighbor,” the first part of the verse provides another instructive illustration: We are commanded “not [to] take vengeance or bear a grudge.” Kamionkowski astutely observes that “taking vengeance means a deed, and bearing a grudge reflects thought. . . . Deed and thought—act and intention—are interwoven.”151

Real love is always manifested in concrete actions. Similarly our love for our neighbor must be manifested in our actions towards her—yet, crucially, it is not defined entirely by those actions towards her.

God’s love of the stranger is manifest in God’s “providing him with food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18); God’s love for Israel is manifest in God’s redeeming the people from Egypt (Deut. 7:8); and Israel’s love for God is manifested in obeying God’s commandments (Deut. 11:1).152 Real love is always manifested in concrete actions. Similarly our love for our neighbor must be manifested in our actions towards her—yet, crucially, it is not defined entirely by those actions towards her.

So while emotions cannot be simply and directly controlled, they can be cultivated and inculcated—and because of that, they can be commanded. I am not sure precisely what kind of love the Torah wants me to have for my neighbor: Obviously I cannot love everyone I know in the same way as I love my spouse or my children—nor should I want to. But it does seem clear that the Torah wants me both to “be useful” to my neighbor and also to learn to care about him.

Judaism is not just about duty; it is also, crucially, about love.

141. Malamat, “You Shall Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” 111–15. See 2 Chron. 19:2, which Malamat renders as “should you help the wicked and provide assistance to (a-h-v le) those who hate the Lord?” But see, by way of comparison, JPS, NIV, NRSV, and other translations. Other scholars aver that ahav et and ahav le are interchangeable and mean exactly the same thing. See H. P. Mathys, cited in Hartley, Leviticus, 318, and see 2 Chron. 10:6 and 9, where lehashiv le and lehashiv et mean precisely the same thing (to respond to). Mathys maintains that attempts to make a strong distinction between ahav et and ahav le are driven “more by theology than by linguistic principles.” Hartley, Leviticus, 305. But see, by way of comparison, Hartley’s own comments there.
142. Malamat, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” 51.
148. Lapsley, “Feeling Our Way,” 354.
149. Maimonides is talking about dispositions rather than emotions, but I think the point still stands.
150. I explore the idea of virtuous cycles in Jewish ethics in “The Importance of Character: Or, Why Stubbornness Is Worse than Idolatry,” Parashat Ki Tissa’ #1.
151. Kamionkowski, 707.



Explore what other University Presses are saying about practicing compassion:

University of Washington PressUniversity of Washington Press Publicity Manager M’Bilia Meekers and Interim Sales and Marketing Director Julie Fergus hold a conversation about the intersections between compassion, emotional intelligence, and marketing university press books.

Columbia University PressA guest blog post from Elizabeth Segal, author of Social Empathy, and how social empathy can help us become more compassionate people.

University of Illinois PressA post about the new Transformations series and how these books provide a collection of work that is radically committed to postoppositional, transdisciplinary, and transformative approaches to knowledge production and social justice.

Penn State University PressA post from PSU Press Editor-in-Chief about how books in the Graphic Medicine series can catalyze the practice of compassion.

University of South Carolina Press: Quote from authors of Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement about the importance of support and inclusivity within a diverse queer community in the 1980s-90s in an often hostile environment of a conservative southern state.

Bucknell University PressGuest post by Jason Farr, author of Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteentgh-Century British Literature.

Beacon PressA Q&A with Peter Jan Honigsberg, author of A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantánamo and director of Witness to Guantánamo.

University of Toronto Press: Acquiring editor Natalie Fingerhut delves into her work on UTP’s new imprint, New Jewish Press, to really explore the meaning and importance of compassion, empathy, and listening to others.



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