Table of Contents

  1. The Golden Rule in Judaism – Hillel and the Impudent Stranger
  2. The Golden Rule in Unitarianism – The Interdependent Web of all Existence
  3. 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.

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