Everything Centers Around This – (Kedoshim, 1st May 2020) May 1, 2020 22:12:40 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on May 1, 2020 22:12:40 GMT
Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud tells a well-known story. In it, a student came to Shammai and asked him to teach the student the entirety of Judaism, the whole of Torah, while standing on one leg, Shammai took a stick and beat him for making such a stupid request. When he went to Hillel and asked the same thing, Hillel replied, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to another – that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary… now go and study” (Shabbat 31a). In that statement, he rephrases the central verse of the central chapter of the central book of Torah – Leviticus 19:18 – which says v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha – show love to your neighbor as you would have it shown to you or, to use the more popular phraseology, love your neighbor as yourself. This is literally the center of Torah, and Hillel says that this is it – the rest is commentary. Everything centers around this.
I’ve never questioned this verse before today, but now I do. I used to think that political differences, for example, were simply a matter of differing perspective on the world, but now it’s become clear that they are often a matter of totally differing moral codes. If that’s the case, what is hateful to me may not be hateful to my neighbor. Or what is not hateful to me may be received by my neighbor as being deeply hurtful. Indeed, acting according to my own moral compass and not my neighbor’s could easily be a hateful act. Both Torah and Hillel assume a shared moral code. They assume that we all view differing people in essentially the same way. Everything centers around this one verse, but what if that one verse actually assumes a uniformity of humanity that isn’t real?
The essence of Judaism is, and has always been, pluralism. Diverse opinions have always been part of the Jewish narrative, leading to the formation of diverse communities. The Essenes, the Samaritans, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Mystics, the Chasidim, the Mitnagdim, the Crypto-Jews, all these differing groups form a larger tapestry of diverse thought and Jewish expression. To some, love your neighbor as yourself means to show them love regardless of who they are and the ethical choices they make. To others, love your neighbor means to rebuke them, a commandment we find only two verses before our central verse. Diversity in Jewish thought has, and will always be, the seed from which the Jewish community grows. If we all think the same and act the same, there is no growth unless it is imposed by external circumstances. The Mishnah, the first attempt to codify the law from Torah, specifically records majority and minority opinions in the understanding that one day in the future the minority opinion may become the majority opinion.
With that in mind, looking back at the Talmudic story, we need to take seriously both the response of Hillel and of Shammai to this Biblical verse as expressed in the question by the student. It’s very easy to just focus on Hillel’s response but to do so would be a mistake. We start with one verse, and then two great Sages respond to it. Had Shammai wanted to, he could have said the same as Hillel. He would have known that Love your Neighbor as Yourself was the central verse of Torah and could have said something very similar to Hillel, but he chose not to. Why? Because while it may be central, it has to be the center of something. “Go and study” works for some students but for the student who asks for the whole of Torah on one foot, it is probably totally meaningless! This is not a student who’s interested in long-term study! For Shammai, while this verse is central, it’s not sufficient. It needs context. In fact, where Hillel focused on ethical human behavior, there’s another clause in that verse, which actually says V’ahavta l’re’acha c’mocha, ani Adonai. It doesn’t just say Love your neighbor – it also includes a strong theological element which Hillel totally omits! Apparently, God is commentary for Hillel! That doesn’t make any sense given the context of his other statements which are obviously deeply theological. So, it’s a mistake to just focus on one response, we need to focus on both.
From one verse come two commentaries. One says this verse is central to Judaism, the other does not. Diversity of opinion is created and thus the Jewish community thrives. It doesn’t just thrive through the generally liberal teachings of Hillel but, rather, it thrives through the interplay of Hillel and Shammai. That interplay was never acrimonious – indeed the children of Hillel’s students married the children of Shammai’s students. Difference in opinion does not need to mean resentment. From those two opinions come more, and thus Jewish thought grows. I used to be totally Hillel here but then started empathizing with Shammai, too. I wouldn’t hit a student with a stick who asked me to teach them the whole of Torah on one foot, but I might question their motives. Now, though, I question Hillel’s statement even more. Yes, this is the central verse of the central chapter or the central book of Torah, but I’m not convinced that the moral position in it is tenable without an unrealistic level of uniformity.
What is needed is not a moral position based on our own morality, but based on shared morality. What you and your neighbor agree together is hateful should not be done. Show love to your neighbor as both you and they would agree that love needs to be shown. We have to assume differing moral positions because all people are different. Therefore, we need dialogue, and for dialogue, we need relationship.
That is where community is so essential. Without community, we can live by our own moral code, believing that everything that we do is correct because it is not hateful to us. Humanity can never improve if our own moral codes do not intersect and if we do not form a shared moral code. More than that, love is not just based on morality but on need. Where one person may need love to be shown with company, another may need love to be shown by creating a space where they can be by themselves, and those needs change constantly from person to person. That is why dialogue is so essential, and that is why community is so essential.
In extraordinary times like these, the one place where we can constantly find love, through dialogue, is in community. Even if we cannot physically be together, we pray together, we learn together and we talk together, all the time negotiating a balance of love. We call, text and email each other to show love by checking on the welfare of others, and we lovingly offer them support according to what expression of love they need. Show love to your neighbor as you would have it shown to you is not a call for personal morality, it’s a call for dialogue. It’s a call for the appreciation of difference and for a genuine assessment of the needs of the other person, and whether or not we are able to help them with their needs. And if we are not able to help them, we can lovingly ensure that others help them instead. Temple Beth Shalom is bound together by love. It is a place where loving people come together to forge loving relationships through some form of identification with an evolving, religious tradition. Though we may be apart physically, we are very strongly connected together by love not because we are all the same but specifically because we are all different.
This Shabbat, and this week, then, may we continue to feel the love of others and to express our own love. May we continue in our journey of love that connects us to all members of Temple Beth Shalom and also those outside membership of our community. May we feel Divine love, and express Divine love, to our neighbor, both near and far. And let us say, Amen.