One of the Talmud’s most famous stories involves Hillel who, long before he was a campus student organization, was a man and rabbi — indeed the consummate rabbi’s rabbi.
Hillel was known for his patience, and once a non-Jew seeking to convert approached him with the following demand: “Teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” Anyone who has attempted a Yogic Tree Pose knows standing on one foot is not so easy, and Hillel grasped the man’s meaning quickly: “Distil an entire, ancient, robust, complex, multi-vocal tradition into one pithy phrase!”
It’s what’s affectionately referred to as a klutz kashe, a question unworthy of thoughtful response. But if Hillel views it this way (or the questioner as a klutz) he doesn’t respond in kind. He converts his interlocutor on the spot and summarizes Jewish tradition in this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”
This expression is a precursor to the Golden Rule, which frames the call to human empathy in the positive. But Hillel’s approach may point to a deeper truth of human nature: Our tendency is to postulate what we think best for others by assuming our desires and needs are also theirs.
Dara Horn puts it this way in her recent novel, “Eternal Life”: “It’s arrogant to think that others want exactly what you want.” Placing a demand for empathy in the negative is, ironically, more believable; there are plenty of things most people “hate.”
But this begs another question: Why doesn’t Hillel say, “What is hateful to your fellow, don’t do to him”? Is it really that difficult to know what our neighbors, family members and co-workers don’t like? Can’t we just ask them? The answer is as simple as it is inscrutable: sure, we can ask those with whom we’re already in a relationship. But it’s much harder to do so with people we’ve never met!
In our increasingly polarized society, where even family members can barely talk to each other across political or ideological divides, Hillel’s concise summary of Jewish wisdom is in fact a passionate call for thinking justly, for making the audacious cognitive leap to accept that there must be a set of experiences so anathema to human thriving, they apply to all of us.
Who doesn’t hate feeling invisible, unheard and undervalued? Who among us is not offended by the prospect of a life of destitute poverty or abuse? Says Hillel, if you do not want these things for yourself, how can you abide them in others?
Hillel is trying to teach us less about interpersonal relations and more about societal justice. What are the basic parameters, the boundaries of an acceptable life? How can communities and municipalities be organized to permit fewer journeys beyond the pale? How can a city avoid becoming the next Sodom – a place fundamentally lacking in empathy and therefore irredeemable?
There was a time I thought relationships were a gateway to justice. Increasingly, I believe they are the very nature of justice itself! There’s a teaching in the Mishnah, a 2nd century legal text from the land of Israel: The temperament of the one who says: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours … there are some who say that’s the way of Sodom [midat Sdom]” (Avot 5:10). Relational Justice is the capacity to say, as did John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself. … And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
We are all interconnected. We know what we do not wish for ourselves and, therefore, we cannot wish it for others. None of us wants to be misunderstood, so we are called to understand. None of us wants to be left behind, so we are directed to look over our shoulder. None of us wants to be hated, so we are commanded – despite difference and disagreement – to love.
(A version of this post appears in Jmore).