Perhaps the most famous verse, we read this Shabbat, is, ‘And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself.’ (Leviticus 19)
Rabbi Akiva, in the Sifra, suggests this is the ‘clal gadol’ - central principle of the Torah, the grounding standard from which all decent Jewish behaviour can be learnt.
What is less well known is that another Rabbi of the first century, Ben Azzai, suggests another verse as an even more foundational ‘clal’. Ben Azzai offers, ‘this is the story of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5).
At first glance it hardly seems a fair fight. Not only is Akiva a more significant figure than Ben Azzai, but Ben Azzai’s verse doesn’t seem to demand anything in terms of our behaviour. In its Biblical context the acknowledgement that ‘this is the story of the generations of Adam’ is merely a bridge connecting the story of the first human and into the narratives to come.
That said, there are problems with Akiva’s mighty ‘clal’. What if you don’t love yourself? What if you think, God forbid, that a bit of domestic violence is compatible with love? What if you think that love requires only an emotional feeling, and not action? Akiva’s verse can run out of power.
Ben Azzai’s verse on the other beckons the reader in, you have to start thinking, looking things up – that’s good news. You can find yourself, all of a sudden, a descendent of Adam yourself. ‘This story’ becomes ‘my story,’ and then one is forced into an engagement with Adam’s creation in the image of God. That means I am, you are, each one of us are created in the image of God and that means that anything done to hurt any human is an affront to the Divine. It doesn’t matter whether you like ‘your fellow’ or not, you can’t hit another human being, you can’t oppress another human being, the responsibility for another human hangs heavily on all our shoulders.
There is much that is wonderfully inspiring in Parashat Kedoshim, read this year with the added bonus of Parashat Acharei Mot, but cast adrift on a desert island, I would take Ben Azzai’s verse with me, before even Akiva’s ‘clal gadol.’