Who Is My Neighbor?

SERMON ON THE MOUNT AND TORAH PORTION

 

Even among non-Christians, there is a general consensus that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the greatest moral discourse ever given. Have you ever thought of the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount could have been a sermon on a specific Torah Portion – probably even read that same Shabbat? Jesus’ audience would have known the Torah portions very well and therefore would have known exactly what he was referring to. From the New Testament, we know that, by the first century, synagogues existed in most of the towns and villages of Galilee. The book of Acts tells us explicitly that the public reading of the Torah was practiced every Shabbat in every synagogue: For Moses has … those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.[1] Even though there were many different directions and teachings in Judaism at that time, the Torah given by God to Moses was an unshakable and unquestionable foundation for all these directions. Therefore, whichever synagogue Jesus entered on Shabbat, as His custom was[2]whether the weekly Torah readings followed an annual cycle in which the five Books of Moses were read in one year, or the “triennial” cycle that lasted approximately three years, in any case, Jesus would have listened to the Torah there. I believe that the last verse of Matthew 5, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, makes the connection clear: The Torah portion that is called Kedoshim[3] in today’s annual cycle, begins with almost the same words: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”  It is in this Portion that we find the famous words that not only Jesus, but many Jewish sages before and after Him, considered to be the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These words, however,  might be read and understood in completely different ways, depending on the interpretation of the word “neighbor”.    For instance, when Jesus says in Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” he is probably referring to the texts of the Dead Sea sect. In the opening paragraph of the Manual of Discipline, one reads: “… to hate all that He has rejected”. So, what was Jesus’ interpretation of one’s neighbor?

 

 

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?

The well-known words from Leviticus 19 are quoted in all the synoptic gospels. However, only Luke’s Gospel has the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, where the question, “who is my neighbor?” is addressed. The episode opens with a “lawyer” asking Jesus how to inherit eternal life. In a traditional Jewish way, Jesus responds with a question: “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quotes verses from the Torah known to all Jews of his time—Deut.6:5 and Lev.19:18. By that time, these verses had already been combined in Jewish thought and had indeed been considered to be the foundation of the whole Torah; so at this stage, we observe only continuity between the covenants.

The conversation didn’t stop there though. The dialogue continues and the famous parable follows. The newness and shock of this parable may escape a non-Jewish reader, but it is important to understand that “Jews generally then, and now, fit into one of three groups: priests (kohanim) descended from Aaron; Levites (levi’im) descended from other children of Levi; and Israelites, descended from the children of Jacob other than Levi. The citation of the first two anticipates the mention of the third.[4] After priest and Levite in this story, a first-century Jew would have expected mention of someone from the third group—an Israelite. However, the third person in the parable is not the expected Israelite, but an unexpected Samaritan – the enemy of the Jews. Tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans were particularly high in the early decades of the 1st century, so Jesus parable would have seemed outrageous to his Jewish audience. Not only is the appearance of this Samaritan absolutely striking, but the fact that this Samaritan expressed compassion and care, while the priest and the Levite fail, directly challenges the contemporary Jewish interpretation of the word “neighbor”. Thus, not only continuity, but also the newness of Jesus’ teaching, is evident here.

 

NOT TO DESTROY BUT TO FULFIL

Or is it? Based on this parable, and on Jesus’ commandment  “love your enemies” (Mt 5.44; Lk 6.27–35), many Christian readers “accuse Judaism of having an exclusivist ethic: Jews only love fellow Jews; Christians expand the definition of neighbor and are to love everyone, Jew and Gentile, friend and enemy.”[5] Is it possible that something is missing in this understanding?

First of all, let us try to see where the idea that the Jews are commanded to love only each another, came from. Leviticus 19 opens with an imperative addressed “to all the congregation of the people of Israel …: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (19:2). In Jewish thought, Leviticus 19, and indeed the whole Torah, is addressed to the congregation of the people of Israel only. Therefore, the commandment to “love your neighbor” – both in the original context and in later Jewish interpretations – is inevitably restricted to members of this congregation.   “These are this nation’s particular laws rather than a set of universal guidelines; in this context ‘neighbor’ (rea) refers to a person encountered within the framework of covenantal relationships.”[6]

Secondly, in Hebrew the words “neighbor” (rea) and “evil [one]” (the word that can also designate “an enemy”) share the same consonants: רע (resh and ayin). The difference is only in the vowels, which were not in the text. Therefore, when in the parable Jesus asks the lawyer, “What do you read there?” he is asking, “Are you able to see, in Torah’s words, the command to love both neighbor (narrowly defined) and those you would see as enemies?”[7]

Thus, if we think of Jesus as one who “did not come to destroy but to fulfill” the Law, we will see that his use of Leviticus 19:18, and his understanding of the neighbor, however challenging it was for his listeners, was still based on the Torah.

 

I would like to remind you, my dear readers, that we offer a new  course, called  Weekly Torah Portion, and those interested to study in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights,  are invited to sign up for this course (or to contact me for more information and for the discount). Also, for those interested in  my books, here is the link to my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/.

 

 

[1] Acts 15:21

[2] Luke 4:16

[3] “Holy People” (Lev. 19:1-20:27 )

[4] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 123). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[5] THE CONCEPT OF NEIGHBOR IN JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS,  Michael Fagenblat, in : The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 541). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 123). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (8 comments)

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  1. Dot Healy

    Thank you Julia for putting this parable into context, and bringing a new dimension to our understanding.

  2. Nick

    Thanks Julia for showing the continuity! Good behavior counts.
    Nick

  3. H den Harder

    Did’t Jesus also refer to 2 chronicles 28 : 12 – 15 ?

    1. Julia Blum

      We don’t know for sure whether there was an allusion to this story in Jesus’ parable, but definitely the story of the compassionate Samaritans in 2 Chron. 28: 8– 15 provides a conceptual parallel to the parable.

  4. Daniel Kroger

    Julia Blum, Your comment expanded my thinking about the “Good Samaritan” parable. Keep up the good work.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Daniel, I am really happy to hear that!

  5. Lois

    I am so glad that you did not say that Jesus is building fences around the Torah with the sermon on the mount as has been said in another blog. I truly believe that Jesus was giving the true interpretation, originally there in the mind of God, and not building fences. The sermon on the mount is meant to tell us that we cannot perform without grace covering us. We cannot do it on our own. This why we need a saviour.A beautiful insight on the Hebrew words. Thank you.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Lois! So glad you found it helpful!