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Telushkin: Love your neighbor and yourself

November 15, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Jack Forman

LA JOLLA, California–Rabbi Joseph Telushkin spoke engagingly with humor and insight on Sunday, November 8, to an almost-filled auditorium of San Diego Jewish Book Fair attendees at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center about some of the issues he examines in his most recent book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, volume 2 – which is subtitled “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”.

The first book in the series was subtitled “You Shall Be Holy” and it won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award. In it, Telushkin examined issues of character development such as judging other people fairly and deciding when forgiveness is obligatory and when not. He touched on these matters in this talk at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, but he concentrated his focus on the newly published second volume in the series.

The current spiritual leader of the Synagogue of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, a senior associate with CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Book Council, Rabbi Telushkin is the author of many authoritative, thoughtful and lively-written books on Judaism and Jewish life, the most recent of which is a multi-volume compendium dealing with Jewish ethics (A Code of Jewish Ethics).

The rabbi noted that Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against a member of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself; I am God” states the Golden Rule in a positive statement. But it is part of a passage prefaced by an example of loving your neighbor prohibiting specific behavior about revenge and grudges. That is why, Telushkin explained, the Rabbinic commentaries on that Torah passage re-phrased the Golden Rule into a more negative format.

Rabbi Hillel’s teaching is the most famous of these transformed expressions of The Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”, followed by the statement “This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary.” Hillel clearly believed that the Golden Rule summed up the essence of Judaism, but he also felt that it needed to be expressed in more specific terms related to oneself. And defining loving one’s neighbor as avoiding specific offensive behavior that others might inflict on you is more meaningful and instructive than simply saying “love your neighbor as yourself”.

In describing the toxic nature of holding grudges against people, Telushkin stated that “If you hold grudges or resentments, it is like allowing someone to live rent-free in your head.”

Telushkin emphasized while the central message of the Golden Rule is loving one’s neighbor, the sub-text — however it is formulated — is loving oneself. One can’t effectively be generous to others if one doesn’t have self-respect and self-understanding – an insight that is reflected in Rabbi Hillel’s often quoted passage from the Jewish Mishnaic classic, Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers): “If I am not for myself who will be for me? Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Telushkin related a moving story that appeared in You Shall Be Holy (volume 1 of A Code of Jewish Ethics) about the famous Russian rabbi, Chaffetz Chayyim. On a train taking him to a nearby city where he was scheduled to speak, he met a man and asked him where he going. The man answered that he was going to the city to hear a speech by Chaffetz Chayyim, whom he called “the greatest sage and saint in the Jewish world today”. The Rabbi was embarrassed and told the man that he knows the scholar well, and he is not so great, and he’s certainly no saint. The man slapped the Rabbi in anger. That evening, the man attended the talk and with horror realized that the person he slapped was the great Rabbi. After the talk, he approached Chaffetz Chayyim and apologized profusely. The Rabbi smiled and responded: “You have no reason to request forgiveness. It was my honor you were defending. For years, I’ve told people not to speak disparagingly about others. Now I’ve learned it’s also wrong to speak disparagingly about oneself.”

As the rabbi of the Synagogue of Performing Arts in LA, Telushkin said he has met many congregants who have been badly hurt by the economic recession. He has given them help by having them examine how the Talmud defines and discusses states of being, emphasizing the spiritual components rather than those that are materialistic. Who is rich? — someone who is happy with his life. Who is strong? — someone who overcomes his or her bad inclinations. (Everyone has them in their mind.) Who is wise? — someone who learns from others.

Given all the stresses of contemporary life, Telushkin said it is important to reflect on the good things in one’s life rather than on the negative; he asked everyone to have a 24-hour complaint fast, during which nothing negative passes through your lips. He encouraged all to extend the parameters of prayer beyond one’s family and pray for people one doesn’t know well because that will help us keep in mind other people’s needs. Instead of complaining about a massive traffic jam one is caught in, one should pray for the people in the accident causing the backup. He said it will make a world of difference when you pass the accident because you will leave the scene hopeful and positive rather than angry and negative.

The first book Telushkin wrote was a book entitled Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, a book he co-authored with Dennis Prager (who spoke at an earlier session of the Book Fair). It was – and still is today – a trailblazer because it presents for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike nine questions about Judaism and Jewish life that are basic to the understanding of the oldest organized monotheistic religion in the world. His most recent two books, which Telushkin’s talk highlighted so entertainingly in his November 8 speech, are likely to do the same for Jewish ethics.
Forman is a senior librarian at Mesa College in San Diego

  1. alex wilson
    February 28, 2010 at 8:31 am

    I have read with care all of your teachings and ideas, but am at a loss to understand how you can apply your logic when one takes into account the Gasa conflict,

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