In a world which is filled with much animosity, the concept of Universal Love has become a famous and most discussed ambition. We are taught that only when all men start loving each other equally will all our problems be solved and universal peace ensue. Any discrimination whereby we love some people more than others will lead to more problems, hatred and jealousy.
To emphasize this philosophy we are reminded that this is indeed the biblical view as well. The famous verse teaching us that we should “love our neighbor as we love ourselves” (Vayikra 19:18) 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 which seems to challenge the very concept of equal love for all.
In Baba Metzia (62a) we are told about two people who find themselves in a desert far removed from civilization. The trouble is that only one of them brought his container filled with water and it does not take long before they realize that if they divide the water, both will die, while if only one will drink all the water, he will survive. What to do now? Based on the principle of universal and equal love, would it not be correct to divide the water and both die? Indeed this is the opinion of a scholar by the name of Ben Petura. Nothing shows our love for our neighbor more than to die with him when all other options will force us to violate the principle of equal love to all. Most surprising however is the fact that he is opposed by one of the greatest sages of all time: Rabbi Akiva. The latter takes issue and insists that the owner of the container should drink all of the water. Surely he should try to save his fellow’s life but only after he has guaranteed his own survival. According to Rabbi Akiva this is not just a suggestion which the really pious may ignore so as to prove their limitless love for their fellow men, but it is the law which may never be violated. What is even more surprising is the fact that it is Rabbi Akiva who in another section of the Oral Tradition makes it abundantly clear that the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is “the premier principle of the Torah”! (Sifra)
How did Rabbi Akiva come to this ruling while it seems to run against the very Biblical verse which he considers the ultimate principle of the Torah? After all it says clearly to love one’s neighbor as much as one loves oneself! No doubt Ben Petura was right and he, Rabbi Akiva wrong! The reason is that Rabbi Akiva did not believe it would be possible to ever love a person as much as one loves oneself. This he said is not humanly possible. Self preservation is the very sentiment by which all human beings live and it is only with that unprecedented self love that one can love another. This is indeed what the verse suggests: Love your neighbor under the condition that you love yourself. But even more important is the fact that the text does not really say that one should love one’s neighbor as much as one loves oneself. In Hebrew this would read: Ve’ahavta re’acha kamocha” The biblical text however says: Ve’ahavta LE-re’acha kamocha. You shall love towards your neighbor as much as you love yourself. This means that one does not need to love one’s neighbor as much as one loves oneself but one should wish all good things which one wishes for oneself also for one’s neighbor.
(see Ramban and R. Samson Rafael Hirsch, ad loc)
The notion of loving all people equally is a farce and in fact destructive. What would be of a man who would go on his knees and say to his wife: 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 sitting in her garden opposite our home. Oh, and that one riding her bike past the grocery shop… I love you as much as I love all the women who I never met… I love you as much as I love anybody else on this planet……”?
(see: Imagine: On Love and Lennon by Ze’ev Maghen (Azure, spring 1999)
We live for love. We are prepared to give up anything so as to experience love. But we should never forget that love means preference. Nobody gets turned on by universal love. Real love distinguishes. One loves a person because he or she is special, because he or she is different, not because he or she is just like another. And since love is the most unusual and greatest thing which can ever befall man, it is love which distinguishes what motivates us in ways nothing else can do. It gets us out of our bed in the morning, makes one feel warm, makes us tingle inside, causes us to do heroic things in our life, makes us to bring sacrifices and show unprecedented loyalty.
He who is of the opinion that one should love everybody equally has no idea what love is about and will not be able to love anybody either.
It was Stalin and Mao who tried to create a world of universal love. This became a world in which all people dressed the same, ate the same, talked the same and thought the same. It was a world without love, warmth and joy and an invitation for total disaster. This is also the mistaken philosophy of those who are followers of Hare Krishna and some other Far East philosophies and perhaps Christianity’s understanding of universal love as we have seen it in the days of the crusaders. Love cannot be distributed in equal portions. One should no doubt respect everybody and try to take care of them, but to believe that the world would get any better when we were to eliminate the notion of special love for special people is a bad mistake. Our world will only become better when we realize the truth of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation. (1)
(1) Ben Petura’s view does definitely not represent the authentic Jewish outlook on life and love and in fact reminds us of the Christian interpretation of love which claims to be universal. It therefore does not come as a complete surprise that some scholars have expressed the opinion that Ben Petura is in fact a corruption of the name Ben Pandora or Ben Pantera. Pandora or Pantera is the name of Joseph, the father of Jesus. (See Targum 11 on the scroll of Esther ) If so Ben Petura is Jesus himself. (See also Tosefta Chullin 11:22,24) In that case the Talmud states both opinions so as to counteract early Christian interpretations of the Torah.