A Code of Jew­ish Ethics: Vol­ume 2 — Love Your Neigh­bor As Yourself

  • Review
By – January 5, 2012
Love Your Neigh­bor as Your­self is the sec­ond vol­ume of Rab­bi Joseph Telushkin’s series, A Code of Jew­ish Ethics. All eleven of his non-fic­tion books elu­ci­date and present with great clar­i­ty tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish teach­ings on a wide range of sub­jects. Aside from mak­ing Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy acces­si­ble in con­cise for­mu­la­tions, his recent works focus on Jew­ish ethics and behav­ior. 

A major com­po­nent of his approach is that too often we mea­sure reli­gious” behav­ior in terms of rit­u­als as opposed as to how we relate to each oth­er as human beings. There are laws, direc­tives, and rul­ings which gov­ern Jew­ish eth­i­cal behav­ior which are on the same lev­el if not high­er than rit­u­al obser­vances. Nei­ther one nor the oth­er exists in a vac­u­um and both must oper­ate in tandem. 

Since emo­tion can­not be leg­is­lat­ed, Jew­ish ethics is mea­sured in terms of behav­ior. The human expe­ri­ence is quite vast and Jew­ish teach­ings cov­er every aspect of it. Rab­bi Telushkin does a fine job of select­ing those areas which are most preva­lent and reflect­ing on what Jew­ish ethics demands of us in each sit­u­a­tion. Top­ics cov­ered include duties of a host, of a guest, vis­it­ing the sick, com­fort­ing mourn­ers, giv­ing advice, how to give char­i­ty, rela­tions with non-Jews, busi­ness, relat­ing to our spouse and fam­i­ly, the Jew­ish atti­tude to ani­mals, jus­tice and tolerance. 

Lest one think that this is a dry com­pendi­um of laws and reg­u­la­tions, this book is leav­ened with a host of anec­dotes and sto­ries that teach by exam­ple. Real peo­ple exem­pli­fy­ing true Jew­ish val­ues are the vehi­cle for instruc­tion. It is easy to read and is appro­pri­ate for all ages as text study or for dis­cus­sion groups. We have advanced so far in so many areas, but as Rab­bi Telushkin points out, this is because there was an attempt to solve that which was thought to be insolv­able. Despite some advances, there has been no com­pa­ra­ble world wide advance in eth­i­cal behavior. 

The first five of the Ten Com­mand­ments deal with our rela­tion­ship to God. The sec­ond five focus on human rela­tion­ships. The tablets are always depict­ed side by side, of equal impor­tance. This series on prac­ti­cal Jew­ish ethics focus­es on the impor­tance of the sec­ond tablet.


Wal­lace Greene: Do you want this book to be read, stud­ied, or con­sult­ed as a ref­er­ence work? 
Joseph Telushkin: Love Your Neigh­bor is designed to be read by indi­vid­u­als but also to be used in more for­mal course set­tings. The book cov­ers the cur­ricu­lum of a course, and is, I hope, ency­clo­pe­dic in scope, with­out read­ing like an ency­clo­pe­dia. That’s why I used hun­dreds of anec­dotes to illus­trate the points I was mak­ing. I want­ed to make sure the book was high­ly read­able and high­ly practical. 

WG: You seem to quote Dr. Abra­ham Twer­s­ki and Dr. Ike Her­shkopf a lot. 
JT: What unites Dr. Abra­ham Twer­s­ki and Dr. Isaac Her­schkopf is that they are both psy­chi­a­trists and two of the wis­est peo­ple I know. I didn’t want to write things that per­haps made sense to me, but were psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly unwise, and I appre­ci­ate the vast num­ber of exam­ples and insights they each offered me.

WG: Can you elab­o­rate on why you feel the com­mand­ment to love is defined in terms of behav­ior rather than emo­tions?
It is prefer­able to define love in terms of behav­ior rather than emo­tions (the text doesn’t read Love human­i­ty”), because emo­tions are too vague. Many par­ents who abuse their chil­dren insist that they love them. But if the word love can be used to describe behav­ior that is abu­sive, it means that the emo­tion of love is insuf­fi­cient to guar­an­tee right­eous behav­ior. Behav­ior offers a bet­ter def­i­n­i­tion because it can con­vey to peo­ple what and how to be a lov­ing per­son.

WG: Do you feel that the Rab­bis brought forth a spe­cial under­stand­ing of this issue or just empha­sized what com­mon sense dic­tates is the prop­er thing to do?
In many areas, there is a spe­cial empha­sis giv­en in Jew­ish eth­i­cal teach­ings that would not occur to most peo­ple. Take, for exam­ple, Mai­monides’ teach­ing that the high­est lev­el of char­i­ty is giv­ing some­one a job or prepar­ing them to work at a pro­fes­sion so that they will no longer need char­i­ty and can become self-suf­fi­cient. Most peo­ple would think of anony­mous giv­ing as the high­est lev­el of char­i­ty, but Mai­monides deems this lev­el high­er (in any case, the most impor­tant anonymi­ty is that of the recip­i­ent, not of the giv­er). Or take Judaism’s rich body of teach­ings on lashon hara, the laws of fair speech. Com­mon sense dic­tates that it is moral­ly wrong to slan­der or libel anoth­er, but Jew­ish law teach­es that it is wrong to tell neg­a­tive truths about anoth­er unless the per­son to whom you are speak­ing needs the infor­ma­tion. The fact that some­thing is true doesn’t mean that oth­ers have the right to know it, and Jew­ish law there­fore for­bids spread­ing such infor­ma­tion. This makes sense. After all, we can all think of events in our life that would embar­rass us if made known to oth­ers, and just as we would regard one who spreads this infor­ma­tion as hav­ing done us a great wrong, so too should we refrain from spread­ing such infor­ma­tion to oth­ers (unless the par­ty to whom we are speak­ing has need of the infor­ma­tion, itself an issue wide­ly dis­cussed in Jew­ish law). Judaism even has the con­cept of con­sumer oblig­a­tions, not just con­sumer rights. The Tal­mud for­bids ask­ing the store­keep­er the price of an item if you have no inten­tion of buy­ing. You can’t arbi­trar­i­ly raise another’s hopes just to sat­is­fy your curios­i­ty. All these eth­i­cal teach­ings might seem true and obvi­ous once you hear them, but the fact is they are by no means obvi­ous to most people. 

WG: Why do you feel that the Love Thy Neigh­bor” aspect of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish cul­ture and prac­tice is defi­cient?
What I par­tic­u­lar­ly try to address is the issue of being a good per­son in a moral­ly com­pli­cat­ed world, and I want to present Jew­ish teach­ings that offer us guid­ance in this effort. One of the sad things that hap­pened to Jew­ish life in moder­ni­ty is that the word reli­gious’ has come to be asso­ci­at­ed in people’s mind exclu­sive­ly with rit­u­al obser­vances. Thus, if two Jews are speak­ing about a third and the ques­tion is raised if so and so is reli­gious, the answer will be based exclu­sive­ly on the person’s lev­el of rit­u­al obser­vance. He keeps Shab­bat, he keeps kosher, he is reli­gious,” Or She doesn’t keep Shab­bat or kashrut, she isn’t reli­gious.” And peo­ple treat eth­i­cal activ­i­ties as if they were an extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ty, nice but not very impor­tant. But we know that when a first-cen­tu­ry BCE non-Jew said to Hil­lel, Con­vert me to Judaism on con­di­tion that you can teach me its essence while I am stand­ing on one foot,” Hil­lel respond­ed, What’s hate­ful to you, don’t do to your neigh­bor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is com­men­tary. Now go and study.” So it is clear that ethics are not a periph­er­al activ­i­ty in defin­ing one’s Jew­ish­ness, but very central. 

WG: How would you elab­o­rate on Hillel’s advice to that non-Jew who want­ed to con­vert? JT: Empa­thy is about the hard­est of moral traits to engage in on an ongo­ing basis, and Jew­ish tra­di­tions use many tech­niques to try and bring us to it. But it is some­thing we have to work at on an ongo­ing basis. Empa­thy is what will ulti­mate­ly enable us to prac­tice love of neigh­bor in a con­sis­tent way. 

WG: Will there be a study guide for schools or adult ed. groups?
A study guide will be post­ed at the time of the book’s pub­li­ca­tion

WG: What will your next book in the series be enti­tled?
It Is Not Good for A Per­son to be Alone: Judaism and the Fam­i­ly, Judaism and the Com­mu­ni­ty.

WG: Any final thoughts?
I want the teach­ings in this book to impact peo­ple in their dai­ly lives, and affect them both in their per­son­al behav­ior and their inter­ac­tions with others.

Read Vol­ume One

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions