Among the most famous stories in the Talmud (Shabbat, 31a) involves a mocking pagan who claimed he wished to convert to Judaism but on the condition that he be taught the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai, the first scholar he approached, chased this clearly insincere man away with a stick. But then the man approached Hillel. This great scholar, seeing the same mockery, agreed to the man’s terms. So the pagan stood on one foot and listened. This is what Hillel said to him: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” The man, hearing this, embraced Judaism.
It is worth analyzing Hillel’s summary, to consider its constituent parts. First of all, in teaching the pagan, Hillel chose to focus on the ethical not the ritual. Here was a learned student of the faith who didn’t say, for example, “Obey all the laws of the faith,” or “Keep the Sabbath,” or “Keep kosher.” Instead, he focused on right behavior. Judaism is not a rulebook but a guidebook to decency. In Hillel’s assessment, God’s principal wish is that we behave morally toward others.
That last point is important. Hillel’s focus is not, as students of Judaism might think it would be, on the relationships between God and human. Hillel doesn’t say, “Obey all that God tells you to do.” Instead, the focus is on the relationships between each of us and other human beings. We are being faithful to God by being good to other people. We should not spend our time exclusively thinking about how we relate to God, but the main focus should be on how we relate to other humans.
The next lesson we learn from Hillel’s response is that study is important. Hillel doesn’t say it is enough to be kind to others. He emphasizes as well the need to study. . He doesn’t rely on an individual’s sense of what is right and wrong. Hillel is not ready to abandon traditional study for personal feelings and intuitions. The needed knowledge from that tradition, in part at least, is cultivated by studying what Judaism has so brilliantly produced as a corpus of religious teachings. Clearly, he means in his world to study the Bible and the Talmud and all the sacred texts that Judaism has produced. But since his focus was on human behavior, it seems fair to understand his words in a wider way as well. Going forth and studying should be done by including religious texts but that studying should not be limited to them. To understand other humans, people who study need also to study literature and history, the social sciences that study humans and the natural sciences that shape the world in which humans live. That is, Hillel’s mandate to study means to study as much of the world as we are capable of doing.
The next lesson we learn from Hillel comes from his reaction to the mockery about Judaism, about Hillel as a potential teacher, and about the Torah. We might ordinarily get angry if others make fun of our beliefs, if they mock us for what we think true. But if we learn from Hillel, we will be secure enough in our own beliefs that we need not fear hearing from or being confronted by those who do not believe as we do. Hillel’s lesson to us is to accept mocking criticism and be ready to meet it not in anger but armed with serenity and knowledge.
Finally, consider how Hillel’s phrasing of the essence of Judaism differs from the Golden Rule to which it is often compared. The Golden Rule is put in a positive way: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. At first glance it seems that all Hillel has done is re-stated the Golden Rule in negative form. But his way is more subtle. Consider, for example, a masochist, someone who feels pleasure if he receives pain. According to the Golden Rule, since he derives great pleasure from pain he should inflict pain on others. But he can’t do that following Hillel’s dictum.
Hillel was one of the greatest ethical teachers ever. His words deserve to be among those studied to avoid not acting in a despicable way toward others.