In a world that is filled with much animosity, the concept of universal love has become a famous and much discussed topic. We are taught that only when all people begin loving each other equally will our multitude of problems be solved and universal peace prevail. Any discrimination whereby we love some people more than others will lead to hatred, jealousy and more problems.
To emphasize this philosophy we are reminded that it is indeed the biblical view as well. The famous verse “Love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” (1) is often quoted by those who are convinced that we are in need of universal equal love.
It is therefore most remarkable that the Talmud records a famous anecdote (2) that seems to challenge the very concept of equal love for all. It relates a story about two people who are traveling in the desert. One of them has a flask of water, but it contains only enough to enable one of them to reach civilization alive. What should they do? Based on the principle of universal and equal love, it is better for them to share the water, even though neither one will survive, rather than to have one of them drink all the water and watch the other die. Indeed, this is the opinion of Ben Petura, one of the Sages of the talmudic era. It is most surprising, however, that he is opposed by one of the greatest Sages of all time, Rabbi Akiva. The latter disagrees and insists that the owner of the flask should drink all of the water and live. He should certainly try to save his fellow man’s life but only after he has guaranteed his own survival. According to Rabbi Akiva, this is not just a suggestion, which the pious may ignore so as to prove their limitless love for their fellow men; it is the law and it may never be violated. What is even more surprising is the fact that it is Rabbi Akiva who elsewhere in the Oral Tradition makes it abundantly clear that the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is “the greatest principle of the Torah”! (3)
How did Rabbi Akiva issue this ruling, which seems to run contrary to the very biblical verse that he considers to be the ultimate principle of the Torah? After all, the Torah clearly says to love one’s neighbor as much as one loves oneself. No doubt Ben Petura was right and he, Rabbi Akiva, was mistaken.
The answer is that Rabbi Akiva did not believe that one could ever love a person as much as one loves oneself. This, he felt, is humanly impossible. Self-preservation is the first law of nature by which all human beings live, and only through that self-love can one love another. This is indeed what the verse suggests. Love your neighbor [which you can do only if] you love yourself. But even more important is the fact that the Torah does not really say that you should love your neighbor as much as you love yourself, in which case it would have written Ve-ahavta et re’acha kamocha. What the biblical text does say is, “Ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha” – the love you show toward your neighbor should be as much as the love you feel for yourself. This means that you need not love your neighbor as much as you love yourself, but all good things that you wish for yourself you should also wish for your neighbor. (4)
The notion of loving all people equally is a farce, and in fact destructive. Imagine a man going down on his knees to propose marriage to the woman he loves, and he says: “My darling, I love you. I love you so much. I love you as much as I love…as much as I love… as much as I love that other woman, the one walking down the street over there…Oh, and that one, too, riding her bike past the newspaper stand. I love you exactly as much as I love all my previous girlfriends… I love you as much as I love everybody else on this planet…” (5) What would you think of that man?
We live for love. We are prepared to give up anything to experience it. But we should never forget that love means preference. No one craves universal love. You love a person because he is special, because she is different, not because she is just like everybody else. And because love is the greatest and most unusual thing that can ever befall man, it is love that motivates us in ways that nothing else can. It gets us out of bed in the morning and makes us feel warm and tingly inside. It causes us to do heroic things, make sacrifices and show unprecedented loyalty. He who aspires to love everyone equally has no idea what love is about and will not be able to love anyone.
It was Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung who tried to create a world of universal love. Their world became one in which people dressed, ate, talked and thought the same—a world without love, warmth and joy. It was an invitation to disaster. This is also the mistaken philosophy of those who are followers of Hare Krishna, Buddhism and other Far Eastern beliefs—perhaps even of Christianity’s universal love as demonstrated during the time of the crusades. Love cannot be distributed in equal portions. One should no doubt respect everybody and try to care for them, but to believe that the world would improve were we to eliminate the notion of special love for special people is a terrible mistake. Our world will improve only when we realize the truth of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation.
(1) Vayikra 19:18.
(2) Bava Metzia 62a.
(3) Bereishit Rabbah 24:7, Sifra 89b.
(4) See Ramban on Vayikra 19:17 and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Vayikra 19:18.
(5) See Ze’ev Maghen, “Imagine: On Love and Lennon,” Azure (Shalem Press, Spring, 1999) pp. 139-140.