Although the return of the Jews from exile in Babylonia is one of the most famous events in Jewish history, a much larger Jewish population remained in Babylonia. Nobody knows how large this population was. We may have not a single work from the first 800 years of its post-Biblical history. But we do know that it began before second temple era Jerusalem or Alexandria, and outlasted both of them as a community of significance by about 1,000 years. The first known personality from post-Biblical Bavel, as this region has come to be known in Jewish lore, was a returnee to Israel. His name was Hillel, and we know nothing about him while he lived in Bavel. He came to Jerusalem an impoverished but budding scholar, hoping to study at the fount of Jewish wisdom. Decades later, he died (around 20 CE) one of the two most authoritative figures in the rapidly growing and highly influential movement known as the Pharisees, the forerunners of the rabbis.
He and his colleague, Shammai, founded rabbinic schools that ultimately led to the codifying of the vast corpus of Jewish wisdom, rule, and custom, known as the Oral Law. Shammai was known to be harsh, insisting that everyone, regardless of whatever shortcomings they may have, follow the letter of the law to its utmost. Hillel on the other hand, gained a reputation as one who was sensitive to the needs of those who hadn’t his abilities and perseverance. He understood that for Judaism to succeed in the Roman world it had to be made user-friendly.
A famous story epitomizes this difference between Hillel and Shammai. It tells of a potential convert (there were probably thousands of them in late second temple times) who came to Shammai requesting that he convert him on condition that he teach him the entire Torah ‘while standing on one foot’ (cutting out all the extra stuff, just the essentials). Shammai, true to his reputation, threw the guy out. He then went to Hillel, who responded, ‘Do not do unto others what you dislike – that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and learn’. This is probably the best known of Hillel’s many sayings.
Even though Hillel lived his entire life firmly in second temple times, statements like this somehow make him seem like he lived in a later era. It is so removed from temple rituals, from priestly laws, and from institutional politics, that one wonders how he lived in both worlds. Yet there it is in all its glory. This is the Golden Rule in its negative form (sometimes known as the ‘Silver Rule’). It was made much more famous via its New Testament rewording into a positive statement. Jesus’ timeless aphorism, ‘Do onto others as you would have them do onto you’, is Hillel’s advice to this convert switched around. But is this really the entire Torah?
Throughout the Old Testament there exists a tension between the obligations to God (known in Hebrew by the phrase ‘bein adam l’Makom’) and the obligations to one’s fellow human being (bein adam l’chavero’). Which take precedence? In the Chumash they seem to be of equal importance. In the Prophets we frequently encounter harsh criticism for the nation paying stricter attention to the ritual (obligations to God) than the ethical (obligations to man). The Apocryphal literature certainly expands on this trend and almost entirely leaves out the ritual side of Judaism. But ritual was there all along, both within the environs of the temple and in Jewish homes everywhere. The debate between the approaches of Hillel and Shammai in late second temple times reflects this tension. Shammai was unquestionably a hard-liner, cutting no slack to those who did not take the law seriously enough. Hillel was the opposite, favoring the ethical over the ritual. Though this debate still rages in many Jewish circles, there is no question that the approach of Hillel steered the course of post-Biblical Judaism.
What was he really saying here? Did he really mean that the Torah boils down to a collection of ‘be a nice guy’ statements? What about kashrut? What about Shabbat? What about belief in God? Through the centuries, countless rabbis have expounded on Hillel’s famous statement, taking it in many different directions. Perhaps the safest approach is to take it at face value. He meant what he said. The entire Torah does boil down to not doing what you don’t like to others. This is what he said, after all. But that is not all he said. He added that the rest is commentary that must be learned. The ethics are the purpose, but rest is absolutely necessary to elucidate that purpose.
Is there anything more to being a nice guy than just being a nice guy? Well, yes. It’s not as easy as just doing it. Hillel didn’t make this principle up – he derived it from the famous verse in Leviticus, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (19:18). To really do this right, you have to know yourself, which is anything but easy. There are a few steps that are pretty essential for success. First, it means searching deep inside the soul to discover inner motivations, emotional hang-ups, and spiritual powers. Not that this is inaccessible knowledge, but it does require a good deal of soul-searching. Secondly, and this may be the toughest part, you have to love yourself. For those who have been down that long road of disillusionment with oneself, this is not a walk in the park. It requires acceptance of one’s personality, warts and all. It doesn’t mean giving up on improvement and just settling on ‘that is just the way I am’, but it does mean loving oneself in spite of the problems.
The third step is where most of us hit a roadblock. This is the step of translating all this love over to your neighbor. Even if we can manage to live with, and maybe love, ourselves, we usually find that concern for others doesn’t quite measure up to concern for oneself. Something gets lost in the translation. Worrying about the feelings of someone else just isn’t as big a deal as worrying about one’s own feelings. This is normal and natural. It is normal and natural to be somewhat selfish. Hillel emphasized this very point in another of his words of wisdom, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ (Avot 1:14) This famous statement seems at first to be at odds with the Silver Rule. It stresses worrying about oneself as opposed to worrying about the needs of others.
But when the dust clears, all those other people out there need to be cared for. It simply won't do to love oneself while ignoring the needs of others. In fact, the next line of that just-mentioned statement is, ‘And if I am (only) for myself, what am I?’ How does one find the balance between natural selfish feelings of concern to oneself and the selfless demand of concern for others?
This is where Hillel’s magic formula shows its true beauty. The entire Torah is: not doing to others what you wouldn’t want done to you. There is a tinge of selfishness in here – you don’t want certain things done to you. But it must be translated into selflessness – don’t do those things to others. This is the whole Torah. Learn to be selfless by understanding what is important to you. Your own inner experiences are your most powerful and intimate feelings. They tell you who you are and what you are made of. They tell you your emotional needs and your spiritual limitations. Use those experiences to understand others. Use them to become selfless.
The rest of the Torah is commentary on this. It instills within us an inner power to become selfless. It reminds us to restrict our eating habits, regulates our work habits, and guides on how we should use our possessions. It steers us through marriage and teaches us to control our sexual urges. It tells how to run a society and how to care for those in need. It focuses our attention on spiritual matters even in the face of materialistic demands. It requires us to think about God at all times and places, and to recognize that God, and God alone, enables us to be. Ethics are the main thing, but ritual is essential to develop a complete ethical person and a moral society.
But it’s not so simple. We all know this. We’ve all experienced it countless times. It’s downright difficult to really care about somebody else who is not your child, parent, sibling, or spouse. Maybe we can extend it to a few close friends, but beyond that is really asking too much from most of us. How the heck is anybody supposed to care about others to anywhere near the degree that they care about themselves? Hillel would probably respond: ‘Didn’t I tell that other guy that this is what the rest of the Torah is for? Go and study it’. But this answer may not do the trick. It’s just too tough to get this sort of internal ethical strength from studying Torah. Most haven’t the wherewithal to try at all. So what are the rest of us supposed to do?
For starters, recognize that this is a task of a lifetime. It may be something that can be said in a few seconds, but it sure can’t be done in a few seconds. That may not go over well in the age of instant gratification and spirituality on the run, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In spite of that uncomfortable truth, there may be some short cuts out there. Hillel’s negative version may be a little easier than Jesus’ positive take. Take a single day and conscientiously try not to annoy people. Start with easy stuff like not cutting in lines. Move on to not putting people down, not gossiping, not backstabbing. It’ll be tough but it’s not impossible. Next, try to extend it by seeing how the other person's red lines of annoyance may be different from your own. Try to work these parameters into your day. Remember to use your own feelings as a way to anticipate the feelings of others.
Ironically, there is a very selfish benefit that springs out of this selflessness. We all know this benefit, but we reap it surprisingly rarely. Selflessness carries its own reward – it gets us out of our hang-ups, if only temporarily. There is no better way to get out of a funk than to do some random act of kindness. Try it for an hour, for a day. Be careful, it works so well you may get addicted. We all need some selfishness in life. It’s natural and necessary. But selflessness makes the world go round. It’s never too late to make your life’s goal one of caring for others and being sensitive to their needs. If not now, when?
Food for Thought
The Golden and Silver Rules are very simple. Why are they so darn hard to put into practice?
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