Sunday, January 9, 2011

Meditation on the "Golden Rule"

It happened that a certain Non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the carpenter’s yardstick which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, [and said the same thing. Hillel responded, ] ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary; go and learn it.
- Talmud Bavli – Shabbat 31a

[Hillel and Shammai were Rabbis of the 1st century BCE. They were famous for disagreeing with other other while maintaining peaceful relations.]

A man came to Tawus and said, “Advise me."
Tawus said:

I advise you to love God so deeply that nothing is more beloved to you than Him; that you fear Him until there is nothing more feared by you than Him; that you long for His mercy so intensely that it prevents that fear from overwhelming you; and that you love for other people what you love for yourself. Now stand up and leave for I have summarized for you the knowledge of the Torah, the Gospels, the Psalms and the Qur’an.”

Quoted in Zaid Shakir, Treatise for The Seekers of Guidance. P. 223

[I assume this is Tawus Ibn Kaysan (8th cent C.E) was one of the narrators of hadith]

The similarity between these two texts is obvious. Relatively attentive public-school educated Americans of my age will recognize them as variants on the “Golden Rule”

“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you!”

This is really a paraphrase of line from the Gospels. (which of course they failed to mention)
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matthew 7:12) [ I couldn’t resist the King James English forgive me.]

I have often wondered why Hillel’s phrasing is negative “what is hateful to you don’t do to others.” My best guess is that it is more practical. I may not know what I want but I do know what I don’t want. My desires may be a jumble of conflicting motives but I know with painful certainty what hurts me. Neurobiologists have come to the conclusion that positive and negative stimuli are processed by two side-by- side systems. The Negative system is far more sensitive and acute. [That’s why criticisms so often sting way far more intensely than compliments tickle the ego. The glow of a compliment may last for moments. The pain of sharp critique can last forever.] So even if this won’t necessarily lead me to do overwhelming good, it will at least lead me to immediately do no harm. That is progress.

I will add that doing for other people what you would want them to do for you is risky business. Think of all those gifts that you got for someone else because YOU liked them. I suspect we are much more alike in what we find aversive than in what we find attractive.

In addition to introductory call to love and fear of G-d which is as kosher as it is beautiful, Tawus’ version adds a passion to the concept. LOVE for others what you love for yourself. Its not only about what you do. Its about really caring and investing yourself which, of course, will lead to doing for others.

And both sources agree, this is the BIG THING. This is the ultimate piece of advice.
The key to using this advice effectively and perhaps the most amazing similarity between these two texts is at the end.
Hillel says “Go and learn!”
Tawus tells his student “Stand up and leave!”
Now get up and do something about it. Go learn more. Go do what I said. You got the message. This is not information to sit on. You got the advice and now its yours and its up to you to decide what you do with it.
That Greek boy standing precariously balanced on one foot and Tawus’ anonymous seeker, who are they really? They are everyone and they are all of us. And the message to us is clear. We have been reminded that amidst the complexity of all that we do to serve G-d there is an inner simplicity. We are in amazing training programs designed to make us wonderful people who love and fear their Creator but the ultimate mission is the furthering of kindness in the world. Learning how to do that in the real world. is our job.
“Go!” says Hillel
“Stand up and leave!” says Tawus.


  1. Peace and greetings everyone,

    Hi Lee,

    As you might be aware, the portion of the text from Tawus explicitly mentioning the golden rule is found directly in the hadith collections themselves. I know it's #13 of the famous '40 hadith' compiled by Imam al-Nawawi.

    I'll quote it here:

    'No one has realized true faith until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself'

    About this narration, I remember the commentator explained that the word "brother" referred to the "brotherhood of humanity."

    Deep ideas like this in which a "brother" includes more than just fellow co-religionists and encompasses all people can take a while to sink in. However, for many, I think they are eventually well received. Our weekly sermon was just given by a recent graduate who, in his younger days, had lots of vigor for on-campus political events (which clearly define 'us' and 'them'). Now, ironically, he was impressing on all of us the breadth and wide extent of the narration.

    I, for one, was happy to listen.

  2. and peace to you!
    Thanks so much for your comments Justin!
    Its nice to see that growth happening.
    Hopefully all of us will continue to grow in that direction.
    I had meant to mention that commentary. I was initially very surprised at it. Its also really refreshing. Its a big challenge though. You want to have a sense of identity, purpose, fellowship and peoplehood. There is a time for "us" and "them." (In Judaism this is perhaps a specialty) And then there is a time when you have to shift perspective and let that go and expand that fellowship. My personal experience is that by doing so you lose nothing and only gain. I am certainly proud to be an observant Jew and I am proud to be human being among other beautiful human beings. This is particularly true of my relationship with the Muslim community.
    In the realm of campus political events, I am hoping that a time will come when its possible to have a discourse that is a little less ruled by "us" and "them." The ultimate issues are human issues and moral issues, they are "we" issues, at least they should be. Standing behind our banners and yelling at each other in bumper sticker slogans hasn't worked. I understand and appreciate the appropriate passions on all sides and its not about "playing nice." Part of the struggle is to imagine what the alternative would even look like. Consider this blog an invitation to all imaginations.