There’s a lot which we humans argue about. But when it comes to the ethic of reciprocity – the idea that we should treat others as we want to be treated – almost all of us seem to be on the same page. Upon being asked to identify “one word that may serve as a rule for all one’s life,” Confucius memorably replied: “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” Later in Chinese history, Buddha cautioned his disciples “not to hurt others in a way that you yourself would find hurtful,” and Laozi advised his to “regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and his loss as your loss.” In India, the notion that “one should never do to another that which one regards as injurious to oneself” was attributed to Brhaspati, one of the Hindu gods. An anonymous Egyptian playwright put it slightly differently in his Eloquent Peasant: “Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.” From the Greeks we have the Epicurean maxim “never to harm nor to be harmed;” from the Romans, Seneca’s warning to “expect from others what you did to them.” Then there are the Abrahamic faiths. “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them,” Jesus proclaimed. Mohamed followed up with an expanded version of his own: “As you would have people do to you, do to them, and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.”
So the “ethic of reciprocity” is pretty popular. In fact, it’s so popular that philosophers have come to refer to it simply as the golden rule. There are a few ways to understand what is meant by this term, but the most straightforward interpretation, it seems, is that the “golden rule” is so-called because those who gave it this name regard it as the fundamental, universal – and perhaps even the single – guiding principle of moral behavior. To many, this position may come off as overly reductionist: it presents dozens of ethical theories and religious systems in one or two pithy sentences, completely glossing over their nuances and complexities. Yet, at least at first glance, Jewish tradition appears to condone these sweeping generalizations. In this week’s Torah portion, Hashem delivers the famous commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In the original Hebrew, this is the doctrine of ואהבת לרעך כמוך. It is studied in day schools, synagogues and summer camps all over the world. It is also the subject of a well-known Midrash, whose text doubles-up as the lyrics to arguably the best Yeshiva Boys Choir song of all-time:
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). R. Akiva says, “This is a great principle (כלל גדול) of the Torah.” (ירושלמי נדרים ט:ד).
It may be tempting to read this Midrash as though R. Akiva were teaching us that all of Judaism can be boiled down to the commandment of “loving your neighbor as yourself” – and indeed, as kids, many of us are encouraged to do just that. Yet R. Akiva doesn’t use a definite article – he never claims that “love your neighbor” is the great principle of Judaism, only that it is a great principle. That’s our first clue that there’s more than meets the eye hiding within this text. Here are a few more:
In Rabbinic Hebrew, something that is primary in significance or value is called an עיקר, and something that is subsidiary or corollary in this respect is called a טפל (see, for example, Berakhot 12a and 35b; Sukkah 50b; Ta’anit 27a; Bereshit Rabbah Vayishlakh 78; Bamidbar Rabbah Matot 22; and Midrash Tehillim 31). To that end, the “thirteen fundamentals of Jewish faith” famously codified by Maimonides in his commentary to the Mishna are called in Hebrew the“thirteen עיקרים;” R. Joseph Albo trimmed the list down to three, but he too titled his work “The Book of עיקרים.” Yet R. Akiva doesn’t invoke the language of עיקר and טפל in our Midrash. Instead, he refers to Judaism’s “golden rule” as a כלל. In Rabbinic Hebrew, כלל means, most literally, “generality,” and its opposite is a פרט– a “detail” (as in the hermeneutic principle known as כלל ופרט: see for example Zevahim 4b; Hulin 66a; and Menakhot 20a). So R. Akiva is not presenting “love your neighbor as yourself” as the most important of all the commandments. He is presenting it as the most general.
In fact, the best way to demonstrate this point is by citing our Midrash in full. In the original text, R. Akiva’s statement is disputed by one of his colleagues: “Ben Azzai says: ‘This is the narrative of the generations of Adam’ (Gen. 5:1) – that is an even greater principle / generality (הכלל גדול מזה) [than ‘love your neighbor as yourself’].” What is going on in this exchange? Were this truly a debate over Judaism’s “most important” principle, we would expect to find many other candidates nominated – including perhaps, the existence of God; His omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence; the divine nature of the Torah; the concept of reward and punishment; the possibility of repentance; the value of prayer; the significance of the land of Israel; tikkun olam, redemption, and the world-to-come; etc. But this isn’t a debate over Judaism’s most important principle – it is a debate over its most general one. R. Akiva submits “love your neighbor” as his entry in this contest. This doctrine, in three words, subsumes entire tractates of the Talmud. And Ben Azzai counters that even it is too specific. Possibly, this is because “love your neighbor” can be interpreted to refer primarily to fellow Jews, whereas “these are the generations of Adam” reminds us of our bonds with all of humanity, and anchors the interpersonal commandments in a source more general still.
Ultimately, both verses express ideas central to the Jewish conception of morality. Yet even they can only take us so far. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) recounts that a non-Jew approached the sages promising to convert to Judaism if they could “teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai flatly refused this request. Hillel, however, played along. His exact words were: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, and the rest is commentary – go and learn it.”
What were our rabbis trying to teach us with this story? For one thing, they seem to praise Hillel’s patience and his willingness to engage in dialogue with someone who thinks quite differently than he does. Undeniably, they are also identifying the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” as a fundamental principle of Jewish tradition – although Hillel doesn’t quote the verse verbatim (he speaks in Aramaic, not Hebrew, and he phrases himself in the negative rather than the positive), there really is no other way to read this text.
But there’s another crucial element to this narrative that we rarely pause to think about. What does it mean to learn Judaism “on-one-foot?” At one level, this idiom suggests that the gentile wishes to fast-track his path to Jewish knowledge. Yet there are many ways, both literally and figuratively, in which the student standing before Hillel could have communicated this “need for speed.” That he chose the peculiar pose that appears in our text, then, is most telling. By studying Judaism “on-one-foot,” the would-be-convert may save a lot of time – the only trouble, the phrase implies, is that his positions are inherently unbalanced. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a beautiful teaching, but you can’t take it anywhere as long as you’ve got one foot up in the air. As inspiring as the “golden rule” may be, it will never move us if we aren’t well-grounded. That’s what Hillel subtly communicates when he instructs his disciple to “Go and learn.” “I’ve given you the basic tenet of Jewish morality,” he seems to say. “Abstract dictums don’t suffice, though. Now it’s time for you to bring your leg down and begin the process of הלכה: of walking the walk.”
To understand the principle of “love your neighbor as yourself” is relatively easy. To know how to apply it in cases of השבת אבדה (returning lost objects) or אבק לשון הרע (borderline hurtful speech) or ניחום אבלים (comforting mourners) or מתנות לעניים (gifts to the poor) is much harder. For that we need not only the golden rule, but also the golden mean: the balanced, grounded approach to life which, according to Maimonides (עי’ הל’ דעות ושמונה פרקים), it is one of the goals of the Halakha to instill in its adherents. That, to borrow the phrase of our Midrash, is כל התורה כולה: it is the work of taking the sublime but ultimately stagnant morality of “love your neighbor as yourself” and converting it into a comprehensive, religiously-grounded system of ethics powerful enough to move us forward.