According to a rabbinic story in the Talmud, a pagan once asked Hillel, the first-century Jewish sage and contemporary of Jesus, to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel accepted the challenge and said to the man, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn."
It is unlikely that this admonition was a complete revelation to the pagan. Unless the pagan was what today we would call a sociopath, the notion of treating others fairly cannot have been utterly foreign to him.
In advocating the Golden Rule, Hillel (and Jesus) were surely urging their followers and challengers to listen to their better instincts, their better angels, not propounding a new revelation. Most human beings feel some altruism toward members of our family, close friends, and often toward our nation. Perhaps Hillel was urging the extension of this natural feeling toward an ever-wider circle, as the contemporary philosopher Peter Singer has urged. Singer, an animal rights activist, believes that our circle of moral concern should go beyond family, tribe, nation and all humanity to include even other species.
But what about the commentary? The entire Torah, or indeed the entirety of any religious tradition, can hardly be seen as simply a commentary on the Golden Rule. All religions, and Judaism is no exception, tend to make a distinction, often a moral one, between believers and non-believers, right believers and wrong believers, those who belong and those who don't.
The Hebrew (and Christian) scriptures in general are a mixed bag of the universal and the tribal, morally edifying parts and, at least from our modern perspective, morally objectionable parts.
Another rabbinic tale has God permitting Moses to return to Earth to hear the first century sage, Rabbi Akiva expound of the Torah that Moses received at Sinai. According to the story, Moses could not understand anything Rabbi Akiva was saying. So each generation interprets the Torah anew and in ways that can baffle previous generations.
The current surge of protest against racism and police brutality that began in Minneapolis and has spread across the globe looks like the beginnings of a major re-interpretation of the stories, religious and secular, that inform our attitudes toward the other. Images of the protests in cities from New York to Seattle, from Toronto to Sidney, show the diversity of the protesters. Could it be that the circle of our moral concern is expanding?
The massive participation of whites in the current protests seems like a real sea change. The American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s never enjoyed a majority of white support. Some white Christian and Jewish clergy joined Reverend Martin Luther King in his struggle, but most did not. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”
The easy coexistence of religious piety and social injustice means that we must be selective about what in our religious tradition is worth keeping and what is not.
Jewish religious tradition includes this remarkable commandment: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.23:9).
There is also a great secular Jewish tradition of social activism and resistance to oppression. The Jewish political activist Emma Goldman said:
“The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”
Alan Rutkowski is a member of the Victoria Society for Humanistic Judaism and a founding member the Victoria Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? He has contributed articles to the online edition of the American Journal Jewish Currents
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, June 27th 2020