Because Judaism comes with a full library of difficult texts, worthy of decades of study, there is an inclination to simplify it, clarify it, and reduce it to its basics. For some, the so-called Ten Commandments provides such a distillation, even though Christians and Jews disagree on what the 10 are. Moses Maimonides, weary of explaining what Jews believe, created his celebrated Thirteen Articles of Faith, each starting with “I believe with perfect faith…” For many, these articles define the creed of what has never been a credal religion, despite the fact that when one reads Maimonides’ A Guide for the Perplexed, we realize that he couldn’t have believed half the articles in the list, even imperfectly.
The most famous attempt at simplification occurs in Tractate Shabbat (Talmud), wherein a gentile approaches two celebrated Jewish scholars and asks each to tell him everything he needs to know about Judaism while he stands on one foot. Shammai responds to this question by hitting the young man with his cane. But Hillel famously reduces Judaism to one sentence: That which is hateful to you, do not do to another person. This statement, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule, is only part of what he says. We’ll discuss the rest of his answer below.
Hillel’s version, with its negative injunction, is far less well known than the positive version often attributed to Jesus: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Actually, this positive version also appears in the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [Lev 19:18])
Both these sentences are deceptively clear and not easy to implement. To do to others what you would want done to yourself means you need to know what you want done to yourself, and most people cannot guess what they want done to themselves until they know what’s available. Indeed, we often don’t know what we want done to ourselves until we’ve tried it out.
To refrain from doing to others what we find hateful requires a sense of timing and the notion of sacrifices and tradeoffs. I find it hateful, for example, to exercise, to wake up early for shul, to visit the dentist, to clean up after my dog… Does that mean I would not recommend these things to other people? How do we protect things that are hateful in the short term but beneficial in the long term? Or am I just overthinking what seems obvious to everyone else?
(In Twenty-One Letters to the Twenty-First Century, Yuval Harari proposes “Do no Harm” as a clearer alternative.)
The Golden Rule pops up in several ethical schemes in ancient world religions and philosophies. Its most renown formulation is in Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. This formulation of ethics eliminates the need for discussions of God, scripture, or any other supernatural guide to behavior. This is what motivated Nietzsche, after reading Kant, to declare that God is dead.
But most Jewish clergy I know are unsatisfied with this view.“Suppose,” one rabbi said to me, “I am a pederast and I think everyone should practice pederasty.” It’s a valid question that exposes a flaw in the theory—a flaw addressed in the great works of 20th Century philosopher John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, Justice as Fairness). Rawls points out that in any ethical choice the parties involved in the choice differ in how they are affected and by how much. Ethical choices tend to redistribute advantages. To apply the Categorical Imperative or the Golden Rule we must not know in advance which of the parties we will be.
If I argue, for example, that it is ethical for a car-seller to add made-up fees like “undercoat” and “document charges” to the bill of sale on a car, then I cannot know in advance whether I am the seller or the buyer. Or if I argue that it’s ethical to retain the same-sized coffee can while reducing the amount of coffee inside the can, then I cannot know whether I am selling or buying. Or if I claim that it is ethical for a father to murder a daughter who has brought dishonor to his family, then I cannot know whether I am the father or daughter!
Rawls’ thorough exploration of the Golden Rule is widely known and celebrated in democratic societies. The main criticism of it, oddly, is that is Liberal, that is, it asserts that everyone, regardless of power or wealth, must be treated fairly, equally and justly. There can be no justification for the strong abusing the weak, for government to favor one group or class over another. It is the ethical spine of musar and a mission statement for all those busy tikkun-ing the olam.
Lately, though, as I continue my 80th revolution around the sun, I’ve begun to suspect that ethics in general, and liberal principles like the Golden Rule in particular, might possibly be a mass distraction from the fact that the people with the most power —throughout history — are indifferent to these rules, that they have been foisted by the powerful on a trusting public so that we would not, as it were, see the man behind the curtain.
Long ago there was a police TV series called Hill Street Blues, which included a daily address by a sergeant giving out assignments. At the end of his speech, he would dismiss the meeting by urging the police to “Do it to them before they do it to you!” When the public objected that this seemed to be urging police violence, the line was changed to “Be careful out there.”
I now believe that Do it to them before they do it to you should be considered a kind of pragmatic golden rule as well, certainly for Jews. It has clearly been the philosophy of Israel’s IDF and Mossad and explains, more than any other principle, why Israel still exists in an environment pledged to eliminate it.
I am also fairly sure at this late date that love is rarely more powerful than hate, and that negotiations mainly succeed, not through reason, but through bribery and extortion.
But these problems are entirely too large for this little essay. Let me advise you, then, as Hillel advised the gentile: Go Study!
Dr. Weiss is a writer, lecturer and retired professor, who received his rabbinical ordination in 2018 at the age of 75. He develops courses, workshops, and seminars for adult Jewish education. You can email him at EdmondWeiss@comcast.net.