Table of Contents
- The Golden Rule in Judaism – Hillel and the Impudent Stranger
- The Golden Rule in Unitarianism – The Interdependent Web of all Existence
- The Golden Rule in Native North American Spirituality – Reverence for Mother Earth
The Golden Rule in Judaism
– Hillel and the Impudent Stranger
By Robert Chodos
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a
As with so much else in Judaism, the Golden Rule comes with a story.
This story is recorded in the Talmud, the great compilation of Jewish law and lore completed about 500 CE, and concerns two of the leading rabbis of the first century BCE, Hillel and Shammai. The two were very different personalities: Shammai was strict and irascible, Hillel genial and tolerant. They also differed on many points of law, with Hillel’s rulings being the more lenient. Jewish tradition honours both of them, but the law has generally followed Hillel’s interpretation.
A non-Jew came to Shammai and asked the rabbi to teach him the whole Torah – the word can mean Jewish teaching as a whole or its primary source, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy) – while standing on one foot. Shammai, angry at the man’s impudence, chased him away with a builder’s cubit. The man then went to Hillel and asked the same question. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
There is much more in Hillel’s statement than meets the eye. Let us look at it one piece at a time.
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour.
The Torah (in the sense of the Five Books) contains many commandments – 613 according to a rabbinic calculation – and they deal with a wide variety of subjects, from a law against murder to one against wearing clothes made of a mixture of flax and wool. But they are not all equally important. For Hillel, as for many other Jewish teachers before and since, the essence of the Torah has to do with how one treats other human beings.
One of these other Jewish teachers was Hillel’s younger contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth, who expressed this point in a slightly different way: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Over the centuries, many people have compared Jesus’ statement with Hillel’s. Some have regarded Jesus’ formulation as more “positive,” in contrast to Hillel’s “negative” statement. Are they the same, or is there a significant distinction to be made?
There can be no doubt that, from a logical point of view, the two statements are not the same. Hillel’s statement can be rephrased to read, “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” In other words, each statement is the converse of the other.
In practical effect, however, the two statements are virtually identical. After all, inaction can be as “hateful” as action. If I am starving and my neighbour passes by without offering me something to eat, or if I am homeless and my neighbour does not help me find shelter, that would be hateful to me. The Golden Rule implies a social obligation to provide help to those who need it. On that Hillel and Jesus, and the weight of Jewish tradition, are in wholehearted agreement.
This is the whole Torah.
The statement that in Hillel’s view represents the “whole Torah” is not, in fact, in the Torah (the Five Books) at all! The words are Hillel’s own. From this we learn that, for Jews, the Torah is not a closed book but a living document. There are new interpretations of the Torah in every generation. Not everyone can be a religious genius like Hillel, but all of us can add to the tapestry of Jewish tradition.
There is, however, a closely related declaration in the third book of the Torah, Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Why did Hillel not simply quote this verse to the impudent stranger?
The difference between the biblical statement and Hillel’s is that Hillel’s is more action-oriented. It is a practical application of the biblical verse. It tells us what we need to do to put our love of neighbour into effect. For Jews, action is paramount. Simply saying that we love God or love our neighbour does not count for much. It is through our actions that we show that we really mean it.
All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
This is not as dismissive as it sounds. Commentary holds an honoured place in Jewish tradition. From ancient times to the present, scholars have written commentaries on the Torah, the other books of the Bible and the Talmud (which is itself a commentary of sorts). Study and interpretation of these texts constitute one of the primary ways in which Jews serve God.
Hence, absorbing Hillel’s “standing-on-one-foot” teaching would be the beginning, not the end, of the impudent stranger’s journey. A one-sentence formulation of the essence of the Torah only goes so far. To be truly faithful to the Torah, much intellectual effort as well as moral sensitivity is required.
Now go and learn!
Robert Chodos is a founding director of Across Boundaries Multifaith Institute and managing editor of its flagship publication, Voices Across Boundaries. He is also chair of the ritual committee and a lay service leader at Temple Shalom, a Reform Jewish congregation in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Faith and Freedom: The Life and Times of Bill Ryan SJ, written in collaboration with Jamie Swift.
The Golden Rule in Unitarianism
– The Interdependent Web of all Existence
By Rev. Peter Boullata and Ellen Campbell
We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
Unlike many religious groups, Unitarians do not have a creed or a statement of belief to which adherents are expected to agree. Our source of moral and spiritual authority is individual conscience. We are committed to freedom of belief.
What holds us together is a covenant – an agreement to support one another in our own spiritual quests and to abide by agreed-upon standards and principles in terms of the way we live our lives. Throughout Unitarian history, our way of expressing these principles has changed. What has not changed is our commitment to
- faith in individual conscience in its quest for Truth
- democratic decision-making
- justice and equity for all.
In 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the continental body of Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America, adopted a revised set of principles. This statement of principles begins:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote . . .”
Seven principles follow.
The Seventh principle – Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part – is the “Golden Rule” by which we propose to live. There is a great deal of wisdom in this statement, particularly in the keywords, “of which we are a part”.
It is not enough to say that the natural world functions as a mutually supporting system of diverse organisms which we observe from the outside. Rather, we human beings are an integral part of this larger network of organisms. Humankind is neither above the natural world nor outside it. We are embedded within this delicate, interrelated web of creation, a strand woven into the whole.
For Westerners, this worldview is quite different from the conventional way of understanding our relationship to the world around us. For many centuries, human beings in the West have viewed themselves as “the crown of creation”, the pinnacle of God’s creative work. In the Western tradition, humans have seen themselves at the top of a pyramid of the created order, standing above animals, plants and other life-forms.
Accordingly, we have viewed culture and nature as being in opposition to one another. Little wonder that we have lived our lives in ways that ignore the earth and its natural cycles. But to see ourselves as part of an interdependent web — this is really quite different from believing that our own human achievements are to be viewed as being at the centre of things; or that this world is an illusion; or that this world is something to be endured until we get to our true home in the afterlife.
What does it mean to be a part of creation, to understand one’s self as a link, a node, a juncture connected to a vast network of others? In order to understand ourselves as part of this immense web connected to a vast web of others, we have to know and understand the place where we are. In a world of dislocations and environmental disasters, one of the most saving things we can do is love the place where we are.
To belong to the world, to be a citizen of the world, is to be intimately related to our immediate location in it. It is like an intimate love-relationship. We cannot love in the abstract; we need to focus our love in terms of a particular person. We learn about love, we learn what it means to love, in a constant, attentive relationship to a particular person-parent, child, partner and friend.
Our location – the particular place where we are – contains and reflects the whole. We are called to unlearn the binary oppositions of “self and other”, “subject-object”, “them and us”. Instead, we must live our connectedness to the interrelated, interdependent networks that are the web of life on this planet. We act here, we love here. We act locally and think globally.
Love where you are. Live where you are. We can only adequately love and belong to the earth if we can love and belong to our neighbourhood. We can only live wisely in our chosen place when we recognize its connections to the rest of the world. We care for the earth because we are part of it – the earth is our home. We care for those around us because we and they are all part of the same interdependent community.
Rev. Peter Boullata works as a Unitarian minister in Fenton, Michigan, U.S.A.
Ellen Campbell is a former executive director of the Canadian Unitarian Council. Currently, she is the president of the International Association for Religious Freedom. Ellen lives in Toronto, Canada
The Golden Rule in Native North American Spirituality
– Reverence for Mother Earth
by Frances Sanderson with Mark Hathaway
We are as much alive as we keep the Earth alive.
Many expressions of the golden rule are found in the rich diversity of oral traditions that make up Native North American spirituality. Chief Dan George’s version is one that has a particularly widespread resonance among Native peoples. George (1899-1981) was a chief of the Salish nation who reside on the Pacific coast of North America. The Salish territory stretches through most of southern British Columbia in Canada and into Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana in the United States.
Dan George was an elder, a teacher, an actor and a great orator. In his talks and writings, he spoke of reverence for the trees, the whales and all of creation in a way that blended the common threads of different Native traditions; he thus gave voice to values held in common by diverse tribes and bands.
Even today, a quarter of a century after his death, he is widely quoted by elders of many Indigenous Nations. He continues to be relevant because his words speak to the same truth that all Native Peoples believe in; his words also echo the instructions given to Native Peoples by the Creator. This wisdom represents a tradition that has been handed down over thousands of years through the lips of elders, a living tradition that continues to reverberate through time and space.
The following statement grew out of an interview conducted with Frances Sanderson by Mark Hathaway. Here Sanderson reflects on Dan George’s Golden Rule statement – “we are as much alive as we keep the Earth alive.”
Our life depends on the life of Mother Earth. If Mother Earth gets sick, so shall we. So, we must keep Mother Earth, including all her people, healthy – the creatures who crawl, the ones who swim, the ones who fly. The trees, the bushes, the waters, the air, and the rocks, all of these are part of Mother Earth. If we do anything to harm the balance that has been created for us – if we do anything that shows disrespect – then we are going to become sick, too.
Mother Earth supports all life, and all things on Earth are alive – not just plants and animals – but also the rocks, the air, and the water. Consider the water. Water is so important! It makes up so much of our being. We begin in the water of our mother’s wombs. We need water each and every day. The Creator gave us water to care for. In caring for the waters, we are also caring for our own well-being. Yet, we are not listening to the Creator’s instructions. We are not looking after the waters.
All of the Earth is alive. The Earth is not simply “dirt”, much less a storehouse to be robbed and pillaged. Earth is alive. It is a community of living beings. The word “Mother” must be linked to Earth because all we need, all that sustains us, comes from Mother Earth – the water, the air, our food.
Humans often see themselves as superior to other creatures, yet we are really the weakest link. We depend on all the other creatures of the Earth for our survival. If we killed all the animals, if we fouled all the water, what would we do? We would not be able to exist. It is our responsibility to keep Mother Earth healthy.
The great Lakota elder, Black Elk, taught that, “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.” Native people speak of their brother wolf or their sister loon. We are related to all creatures and we all – quite literally – form a single family. We are related to the trees, to the waters, to other humans. How could we think of doing harm needlessly to any of our sisters or brothers?
If we start to kill Mother Earth, we also start to kill ourselves. We are only alive because of Mother Earth. We are only alive as long as we keep looking after these things.
“We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive”. In many ways, then, this statement of the golden rule by Chief Dan George is absolutely basic. It is the foundation of all. It includes all of creation, not just human beings. It is a simple statement, but also a very broad one. We must treat people, animals, trees, mountains, rocks, and waters with respect.
Another way of stating the golden rule can be found in the (Iroquois) Six Nations’ Great Law of Peace where it says, “Respect for all life is the foundation”. We must respect all of creation.
Everything made by the Creator – rocks, insects, birds, animals, people, and trees – has a spirit. Each has a reason for being here. The Creator gave instructions to every creature according to the Creator’s plan for the world. The pine and birch tree follow the Creator’s instructions each day. It is their duty. Even the tiniest flowers bloom and pass away according to the Creator’s plan. The birds nest, fly south, and sing according to the Creator’s instructions.
People are the only ones who harm each other, and think of ways to do it. Animals don.t do that. Yes, animals have to eat, so they do kill for that reason, but they do so in accordance with the instructions given by the Creator. The lion would never eat all of the antelopes or kill them needlessly, because the lion follows its instructions; it takes only what it needs to sustain itself.
Why should we humans be any different? Our instructions are very simple: Respect Mother Earth, respect each other, and respect life itself. Respect is the law we must live by.
Respect means making room for others, looking out for them, and watching over them. Each of us must be the caretaker of others. Respect, then, means not to abuse any of the Creator’s creation.
We must think, not only for our present time, but also for those who will follow us seven generations from now. Seven generations ago, our ancestors thought of us. They were watching over us, making sure that there would be a place in the world for each of us.
We must do the same. We build momentum toward the seventh generation. We can see the eyes of our future in the Earth, and we must look into them. The Creator gave us the Earth to sustain us for all time. Our responsibility is to insure that the Earth – including all that is part of the web of life – is there for those who come afterwards.
If we respect the animals, we will not abuse them. We will make room for the grass, the insects, and birds. We will only chop down a tree if we truly need to do so, but we will never cut down all the trees. We may kill a deer for food, because the Creator put the deer here for that purpose, but we will never harm a deer without reason, and we receive the life of the deer with gratitude.
Respect also means respecting the decisions of others. You do not have to agree with the other person’s point of view, but you must try to understand it and treat it with respect. The Lakota have a teaching that says, “Great Spirit, help me to never judge my neighbour until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” We need to know where people are coming from; we need to walk their path before judging them.
Each time we pray, each time we make an offering, each time we speak to the Creator, the bottom line is respect. If we live with respect, we will care for the life of Mother Earth both now and into the future. We will be fully alive, because we are keeping the Earth alive.
Frances Sanderson is Ojibwa. The Ojibwa population is equally divided between Canada and the United States. Currently, Frances functions as executive director of Nishnawbe Homes, a non-profit housing provider in Toronto, Canada. For several years, she has been sharing the Native teachings with non-Native audiences.
Mark Hathaway lives in Toronto where he works as a freelance writer and website designer. He also works half-time as South America Programme Coordinator for The United Church of Canada. Mark has a special interest in themes related to ecology, spirituality, social justice, and transformative action.
Various expressions of the Golden Rule by other indigenous peoples:
- South AmericaEach should do unto others as he would have others do unto himself.
Manco Capac, Inca leader (Peru)
- North AmericaGreat Spirit, help me to never judge my neighbour until I have walked a mile in her/his moccasins.Sioux/Lakota/Plains IndiansDo not wrong or hate your neighbour. For it is not he who you wrong but yourself.
Pima Indians (Arizona)
Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand of it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
Chief Seattle (Salish nation)
All things are our relatives. What we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really one.
Black Elk, Oglala/Sioux elder
The hurt of one is the hurt of all; the honour of one is the honour of all.
Traditional First Nations code of ethics, Assembly of Manitoba (Canada) Chiefs, Youth Secretariat
- AfricaOne going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.
The Yoruba people of NigeriaO Man, O woman, what you do not like, do not do to your fellows.
The Ba-congo people of Angola