All the laws of this chapter derive from the transcendent commandment – You shall be holy. They encompass the gamut of human activities and relations, private, social and spiritual, his attitude towards the weak and needy and his conduct towards his enemy and oppressor. These guidelines reach their climax in the verse which heads this section. The text is puzzling both in content and wording. Our sages declared that Man is partial to himself. This is fundamental, as reflected in R. Akiva's ruling that Your life takes precedence over your fellowman's. How then are we to love others as ourselves, with equal force, irrespective of their conduct?
Rashbam qualifies the requirement, thus:
Love thy neighbor as thyself – only if he is – your neighbor, i.e., virtuous but not if he is wicked, as it is written, the fear of the Lord is to hate evil (Prov.8:13).
Thus (according to R. David Rozin's interpretation of Rashbam) love him only if he is righteous, but not if he is a villain, in which case you must follow King Solomon's dictum: "the fear of the Lord is to hate evil; avoid him and shun his company."
Rashbam, the noted exponent of the plain sense, here seems to deviate from his principle. The text affords no hint of any such distinction between the righteous and the wicked. Rather, it employs the neutral, comprehensive term – fellow. The identification of this term with an "Israelite" is conclusively refuted by its use in "Let every man ask of his neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold …" (Ex. 11:2), where it evidently refers to the Egyptians.
Nahmanides qualifies the subject of the commandment "love thy neighbor as thyself," rather than the object, thereby also addressing himself to the unusual form of to your neighbor rather than thy neighbor.
The phrase "love thy neighbor as thyself" is not meant literally, since man cannot be expected to love his neighbor as his own self. Moreover, R. Akiva has ruled that your life takes precedence over your fellowman's. The Torah here enjoins that we should wish upon our neighbor the same benefits that we wish upon ourselves. Perhaps this is the reason for the dative instead of the accusative form of the verb phrase, as also in "And thou shalt love him (the stranger) as thyself" (19:34). Indeed, sometimes a person may wish upon his neighbor certain benefits only, e.g., wealth, but not wisdom, and the like. But even if he wishes his cherished friend well in everything e.g., wealth honor, learning and wisdom, he will not do so unstintingly, but will still insist on a larger share of the benefits. It was this shortcoming that the Torah condemned. Rather, a man should wish his fellow well in all things, just as he does in his own case, and place no limitations upon his love. Thus, in the case of Jonathan and David, it says that Jonathan loved him as his own soul (I Sam. 20:17), since he had removed all jealousy from his heart, declaring "And thou shalt rule over Israel" (ib. 23:17).
This view underlies Hillel's negative formulation moving the golden rule of Judaism from the realm of abstract sentiment into that of concrete action:
"What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow" (Shabbat 31a). This removes the problem posed in the Biur:
If the text means that a man must love his fellow as himself, it is hardly conceivable that the Almighty should command something which is beyond human capacity. Moreover, feelings such as hate and love are hardly the object of commands, since they are not under human control. To fulfill such a command to the letter, man would have to grieve for his fellow's sorrows just as he grieves for his own. This would be intolerable, since scarcely a moment passes without hearing of some fellow Jew's misfortune … Hillel therefore correctly interpreted this passage in a negative manner: What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow – at least do nothing to your neighbor which you would not like to be done to yourself. It is obvious that we must never insult or cause hurt to any man, whether wicked or righteous, except through the proper judicial procedure or by way of loving admonition in order to correct his behavior. Just as the Torah ordained the death penalty for the shedder of the blood of any man, saint or sinner, scholar or simpleton so does the command to respect our neighbor's feelings and interests apply to every human being without distinction.
More plausible, however, is the view that takes the phrase as thyself not as qualifying the degree of love, but as motivating the principle embodied in the text – he is as thyself, a human being like yourself. This is the view R. N.H. Weisel offers after analyzing the other views:
The word as thyself is not usually used adverbially, but rather adjectivally, meaning similar to you, cf. Gen. 44:18, For thou art as Pharaoh, i.e., your position is similar to Pharaoh; or There is none so discerning and wise as thou art (ib. 41:39). Likewise here the meaning is: Love thy neighbor who is as thyself – like you, created in the image of God, a human being like yourself.
This encompasses all of humanity created in the image of God. R. Akiva was referring to this in his comment, This is a fundamental principle in the Torah, restated by him thus in the Mishna, "Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God" (Avot 3, 14). Even if he sinned, he can reform his conduct for he was created in the image of God and was endowed with free will and is able to control action...The correct translation of this phrase is, Love thy neighbor for he is like yourself...If meant as thyself, i.e., you should love him as you love yourself, then we could dispense with Hillel's interpretation, which would actually diminish the scope of this maxim. Furthermore the Torah would not be indicating the extent of this love, for the usual Hebrew expression for such ideal love is as he loves his own soul, as Scripture states in the case of David and Jonathan, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul (ib. 20:17). Accordingly, the text here should have read And love thy neighbor as you own soul. If every Jew must love his fellow as his own soul, there would be nothing extraordinary about the love of David and Jonathan, yet David declared in his elegy on Jonathan, Thy love to me was wonderful, more than the love of women (2 Sam. 1:26). Thus as thyself means because he is as thou and the verse is to be understood in its literal meaning, contrary to Nahmanides' explanantion.
This view gains further support from v. 34 of our chapter: The stranger who resides with you shall be treated the same as the native-born, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Were thyself to indicate the extent of the love, then an association with slavery would be irrelevant. Not so if thyself denotes one who is like yourself, who needs your love. Thus we read further, for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 23:9). This elucidates our own verse: Treat your neighbor lovingly, for he is a human being like yourself, and therefore you know his quest for love.
In conclusion, let us quote Ben Azai, who challenged R. Akiva's above dictum. Here is the full record of the dispute in Sifra Kedoshim 45:
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: R. Akiva said: This is the fundamental principle of the Torah. Ben Azai said: This is the book of the generations of man (Gen. 5:1) transcends the weight of that.
Bereshit Rabba 24, 7 elaborates:
Do not say, since I was shamed let my neighbor be similarly shamed, since I was cursed. Said R. Tanhuma: If you act thus, know whom you are shaming – in the likeness of God made He him (Gen. 5:1).
However, there are different kinds of love. One does not love one's animal as one loves one's child, nor love one's chattel as one's spouse, nor money as one's vine or fig tree. And even within a particular category of love there exist differences of intensity. Thus a father may love his youngest son more than his eldest, or one may prefer one's horse to one's donkey. Whenever a choice has to be made, the more or better loved will gain preference.
Accordingly, the Torah commands us to love our neighbor with the highest quality of the love we reserve for ourselves. Whenever the two loves do not actually clash, we must confer upon our neighbor whatever we would confer upon ourselves. However, there remains a difference in intensity. Thus, love for oneself may precede that of neighbor if it is detrimental to one's own legitimate interests, as formulated in the Rabbinic dictum, your life takes precedence over that of you neighbor.
Thus love of one's fellow man is not measured by the love of oneself. He, indifferent to his own lot, must not ignore the plight of his neighbor, whose Divine image commands consideration and respect. Hence, Ben Azzai did not single out "And love thy neighbor as thyself, with its emphasis on human equality, "but the text testifying to the origin of mankind, as fearing the Divine image. Here lay the fundamental principle of Judaism:
This is the book of the generations of Man,
In the day that God created mankind,
In the likeness of God He made him.
When editing the Biur, Moses Mendelssohn added this comment to that of N.H Weisel's:
Though his (Weisel's) commentary is incisive and plausible, it does not reflect the plain sense of the text. In my view, this passage is to be understood as follows: The commandment not to hate applies not only to cursing or perpetrating hostile acts but also hatred in one's heart.
Indeed, several commandments of the Torah are addressed to our dispositions, for they too can be controlled by the mind. Thus we are commanded not to covet (see Ibn Ezra ad.loc.) and to love, e.g., to love him (the stranger) as thyself, not to take vengeance, not to bear a grudge, neither verbally nor in thought. We are enjoined to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This does not refer to quantity but to quality. Let us explain these terms in the realm of emotion. Let us take the example of love which can extend even to inanimate objects.
In sum, the Torah here does not refer to the scope but to the quality of love. Provided there is no conflict of interests, you must love your neighbor as yourself in every way, i.e., not for selfish motives as you love your property, but for the sake of the loved one – as you love yourself.