The overwhelming importance of the command to “love your neighbor” echoes throughout the New Testament. Paul declared that the whole of the Law is fulfilled by obeying this one command (Galatians 5:15). Peter also exhorted his followers to “above all, love each other deeply” (1 Peter 4:8). And in John’s letters, he wrote that “this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” (1 John 3:11). James called the command to love your neighbor the “royal law found in Scripture” (James 2:8).
Jesus’ first Jewish followers put this command at the top of their marching orders, devoting themselves to fellowship, communal prayer, and breaking bread together (Acts 2:42-47). The emphasis on community was one of the outstanding characteristics of the Jerusalem church, responsible for its magnetic witness and strength during persecution.
Surprisingly, not only did they gather together, they also remained active in the larger community, joining the rest of the Jewish people in daily worship at the Temple. They didn’t denounce the world around them and cloister tightly with like-minded friends. As a result, they enjoyed the favor of outsiders and daily welcomed new believers.
Even though the early Jerusalem church emphasized community, within only a few centuries Gentiles brought into the church an emphasis on individual piety and private devotion. By AD 400, many Christians believed that the hermit’s utter solitude was the path to God. Modern Christians, especially American Protestants, still maintain a strong sense of “Jesus and me” individualism, emphasizing one’s “personal relationship with Christ” as the essence of faith.
By contrast, Judaism throughout the centuries has declared that “life is with people.” Religion, in their thinking, is inherently communal. Whereas Christians seek out solitude for drawing close to God, many Jewish prayers can only be recited in the presence of a minyan (min-YAHN), a group that contains at least ten adult Jewish men. In his article, “You Can’t Be Holy Alone,” Ismar Schorsch explains the premise behind this practice: when people gather to worship God, his presence among them sanctifies the place.
Recently the difference became quite palpable to me. In my own Christian “quiet time” I decided to read from the Amidah, the Jewish daily prayer liturgy, knowing that it’s typically recited communally. I was reciting lines like this:
Heal us and we shall be healed, help us and we shall be helped, for you are our joy. Grant full healing for all our wounds, for you, O God and King, are a true and merciful physician. Blessed are you, O LORD, who heals the sick of His people, Israel.
All by myself I was praying these ancient lines that were exclusively framed in terms of “we” and “us” and “our people” (as is the Lord’s Prayer, of course). A few days later I attended a large Christian worship service. There, the focus of every song was on God and me: “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice”…”Just as I am, without one plea”…”Here I come to worship, here I come to bow down.” Hundreds of us were worshiping side by side, a sea of voices resounding together, and every one of us was pretending to be all alone.
Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, 56-57.