Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim: Love & Imagination

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

We’re reading the double portion Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim this week, which covers a lot
of textual territory: from the Yom Kippur offerings to banning
adultery, from the most universal ethical aspirations to the rejection
of paganism, from loving one’s neighbor to rules about haircuts and
beard trims. (No, really, and they’re important ones, too.)

Among the ethical commandments taught in Kedoshim is the principle of
loving the “stranger,” or non-Israelite, who lives among the Israelite

“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among
you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 19:34)

It’s a noble law, but I see two questions looming out there in our

1) How can we love the stranger as ourselves if the stranger- or
alien, or immigrant, or sojourner- is, by definition, different than
us, perhaps with different needs, perspectives, and values? What
somebody else might experience as love (a big slice of cheesecake
after a hard day, maybe) might be very different from what I would
appreciate (I hate cheesecake and would never think to offer it- it’s
a trivial example, but you get the point.)

To put it another way, “don’t do to others what is hateful to you” (as
Rabbi Hillel put it) actually requires thinking about not only what is
hateful or unpleasant for the do-er, but also about what is hateful or
unpleasant for the receiver- in other words, one needs not just
self-knowledge and generosity, but also empathy. Framed as a positive
principle, loving the stranger also requires thinking about who they
are and what they need, which may not be obvious if we only know our
own needs and preferences.

2) It’s easy to connect the need for empathy with the reminder that
the Israelites were once strangers in the land of Egypt; as we were
once without social status, support, or sufficient sustenance, we of
all people should act out of a deep understanding of what that feels
like. However, as in the first question, how can later generations of
Israelites, who never knew the experience of bondage in Egypt, have
the same empathy as those who did?

To me, the answer to both questions is the same: knowledge and
imagination. It takes knowledge- perhaps investigation is a better
word- to clarify how to help another person. When I was training as a
hospital chaplain, we heard fascinating lectures from teachers of
Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and various streams of
Christianity on the topic of offering spiritual care to hospital
patients from the various religious traditions. Something as simple
and seemingly universal a prayer for healing could be deeply
comforting- or deeply offensive- to different people, each with
different perspectives and customs.

Thus, part of learning to “love the stranger”- that is, caring for
those who are most in need- means learning would actually be good and
loving to the person or community receiving the care. It takes
humility to realize that we may not know how to love others
intuitively! Yet “loving the stranger as yourself” also means
activating our imaginations. I have never been a slave in Egypt, but
the Passover seder asks me to put myself in that position, through an
act of imagination, in order to fully appreciate the miracle of
liberation and freedom.

Similarly, I may not have suffered the precise problem that somebody
else has, but I can try to imagine what the other person is going
through, and act accordingly to relieve suffering, indignities, or
privation. Of course, “loving the stranger”- or anybody else- is not
only a matter of helping them or caring for them when there is a
problem. I only focus here on that base-line level of caring because
to me, that’s what the verse suggests in context.

One negative stereotype of religion is that it’s all about following
rules, as if piety were somehow a matter of programming behavioral
algorithms. In our verse, the Torah requires us to act out of empathy
for those who are not like us, which in turn requires imagination,
humility, and curiosity- three qualities which defy all notions of
simple rule-following. On the contrary, one can’t “love the stranger
as yourself” without creativity and openness to the unexpected. To
love the stranger means expanding the vision of our hearts, and in
doing so, finding our truest humanity.

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