Volume 3, Number 165
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, August 2-3, 2009

How arrested rabbis in New Jersey may have attempted to justify alleged criminal behavior

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO—Distress over the recent arrest of prominent rabbis in New Jersey for alleged sales of human kidneys and money laundering continues to percolate in the Jewish community. A member of our congregation recently asked me how self proclaimed "religious Jews" could behave so immorally?

One reason is that some Orthodox Jews twist the meaning of the Torah's verse: "Love your fellow as yourself." (Lev. 19:18) They interpret the word "fellow" (Heb: reiecha) to mean: "Your fellow in Torah and That is, if your neighbor observes the Torah and mitzvot in the same way as you do, you should consider them your "fellow" and treat them accordingly. However, if your neighbor does not believe and practice as do you, you are not obligated to treat them morally.

The arrested rabbis have not made any public comments about their alleged illegal activities. I would venture, that in their hearts, they justify their actions based on their belief that they only have to treat members of their own religious communities with love and respect. Anyone else was "fair game." Furthermore, the money they were raising from nonbelievers was being put to a "good" use: supporting their yeshivas and other religious institutions. The ends justified the means.

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Applying the Torah's commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" only to Orthodox Jews is a clear perversion of the Torah's meaning and intent. While many of the Torah's mitzvot apply exclusively to Jews (e.g., wearing a Tallit), many also apply to all human beings (e.g., you shall not murder). Over and over again the Torah states that Adonai is not only the God of Israel, Adonai is the lord of the entire universe.

Rabbi Ben-Yair Hakohein is it writes that the word v'ahavta, you shall love, appears three times in the Torah: 1. "Love your fellow as yourself" (Lev. 19:18), 2. "You shall love him as yourself" (referring to the strangers among you) (Lev. 19:34) and in parashat Ve-etchannan: 3. "You shall love the Lord your God" (Deut. 6:5)

He notes that the obligation to love one's neighbor in the book of Leviticus precedes the obligation to love God in Deuteronomy*. One cannot hate one's neighbor and love God at the same time.

This, he continues, is why the Holy Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) wrote : "Before praying one must first take upon oneself the mitzvah of "Love your fellow as yourself. You must fill your heart with love of humanity before being worthy of standing before God." (Iturei Torah, Devarim, p. 48)

* In the interest of "full disclosure," Rabbi Ben-Yair Hakohein actually wrote that the obligation to love one's fellow Jew precedes the obligation to love God, but I "adapted" his words!

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue (Conservative) in San Diego. His email:

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