Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Golden Rule and the meaning of life and Judaism (3 approaches)

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes

“And you should love to your friend like yourself[1]” is a literal translation of the “golden rule” as it appears in the Torah. I suggest that the way one understands this verse relates to how one thinks about the meaning of life or at least Jewish life.

Three approaches to Judaism and life

1 Essentially about God & Doing His will. All that the Holy One Blessed Be He created he did not create (for any other purpose except) only for His glory[2]”. I describe this approach as seeing Judaism and life itself as being all about God[3] or faith[4]. For Chasidim one of the great ideals is “Bitul”, cancelling or nullifying oneself. The action is the main thing[5], not the way we feel about it.

2 Essentially about Man & Being complete. Alternatively, we can see all the commandments as being essentially about people and their spiritual and personal development. “The Mitzvot (commandments were not given (for any other purpose) but to refine people by them[6].  The Person was not created for anything but delighting in God, in the world to come…if a person is victorious in his struggle.. he will be the completed man[7]. Among some “Litvak or Yeshivish” Jews the ideal is to become a “Gadol”, a big or great one. In one sense this is almost the opposite of Bittul, of cancelling the self, instead there is an ambition to be the greatest person one can be. I think in certain respects approaches 1 and 2 compliment each other, yet it is at least a question of greater emphasis on one or the other and seeing the other as perhaps secondary and included in the primary purpose.
3 Not essentially about any one thing A third way is to reject the notion of one essential concept or meaning, instead seeing Judaism as a series of laws and practices. This is expressed in the first half of a well known story. 

“On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before (the sage) Shammai and said to him, "Make me a convert, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon Shamai chased him away with the builder's cubit that was in his hand[8].

While Shamai seems just impatient, there is a deeper meaning to the exchange. The Heathen was seeking “one leg and foundation for the whole Torah. It says that Shamai uses a builders cubit to chase him away to hint to him that just as a building cannot stand on just one foundation, so the Torah is broad it its commandments (and) it is impossible for it to be given one foundation[9]”.

A second opinion
The same Heathen then went to the sage Hillel who said “What is hateful[10] to you do not do to your friend this is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn it”. At least according to Hillel, the empathy requirement is central to the rest of Judaism, but how can 613 commandments that deal with not just ethics but also rituals and celebrations all essentially be about empathy?  

A mystical view of the commandment
R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi addresses this problem. He sees the commandment as applying only to Jews and discusses this as part of a general spiritual approach in which the “body is despised in his eyes[11] and his only joy is the joy of his soul…[12]”. The Soul is taught to be a part of God that is different to our normal self that is thought of as the animal soul. The person, having downgraded the importance of the body and the (known “animal soul”) self in favour of the unconscious Godly soul, arrives at a perspective in which there is no difference between oneself or the other person. The only part of either that matters is the unknown soul. This is supported by the idea that “there is one Father to all of us, and for this reason all Jews are called brothers … It is only the bodies that are separate”[13] love of another should follow.

This way of looking at the commandment can justify Hillel’s statement about the centrality of this commandment, because to obey it properly requires a complete transformation of the way one sees oneself from being a physical person to primarily being a spirit with a strong focus on the divine.

Adaptation of the approach to a more Man-centred approach
I have always thought R. Shneur Zalman’s approach to this commandment could be combined with a more man centred approach. I think that to reach the point where one “despises” his own body and ego is one that few will pursue, and fewer still will achieve. Still I think a parallel process can be pursued in which one becomes more sensitive, God conscious, tuned into spirituality, beauty, and love. This transformation is achieved by obeying the other 612 commandments and the Torah as a whole.

The context of the commandments is in a section that begins with being commanded “you should be holy[14]”. This is explained as a requirement to become a disciplined, refined human being. While the Torah permitted intercourse within marriage, eating meat and drinking wine, there is a risk that a person can be come a hedonist glutton and a drunk, “a degenerate with permission of the Torah[15]. In practicing moderation and restraint a person is refined and better prepared for empathy.  
Parallel in Modern Research
According to R. Sheneur Zalman’s approach, however applied, we need to experience a shift in our self concept which results in the other person no longer being seen as an “other” but as part of the new concept of the self as spirit. I think this has some similarity to a shift discussed in anti-prejudice literature. “Many (anti-prejudice) interventions designed to reduce stereotyping, prejudice, and racism produce limited effects, if any, that do not persist across time and do not generalise across situations and groups… Part of the problem here stems from the fact that such interventions usually try to change views of a particular outgroup. A more effective route to change is by changing views of the ingroup. If the ingroup is redefined psychologically and socially to be tolerant, inclusive, and diverse, then changes in intergroup relationships are inevitable and will more likely be persistent and generalisable”[16].

Universal application
This links back to the question of whether the commandment applies only between Jews or toward all people. There are sources that suggest it is a limited commandment[17]. Some do not state any distinction[18], although they do not give any indication that it includes non Jews. A more recent commentary explicitly states that this “something which is expected from us toward all our fellow men in the name of God”[19].

Reality Check and Limited application
The commandment seems to be simply to love others as we love ourselves, but is this possible? It is even right? We know that one’s own life comes first[20]. In Talmudic sources, the response is to apply the command to practical and manageable situations. “Choosing a nice death” for someone deserving capital punishment[21], a prohibition for a man to marry a woman (presumably through an agent) until he sees her, lest he see something disgusting in her and she will be despised to him[22].  For a similar reason, marital relations are forbidden during the day[23]. Other sources, highlight the use of the letter ל (Lamed) which is a prefix meaning the word “to” in the word לרעך (literally, you shall Love to your friend). If the commandments was to love your fellow, it should not say “to”. Instead, this suggests acting in a loving way[24] to your friend.

Being vs. Doing
I wonder if there is a link between the limited application of this soaring commandment to the first and third approaches to Judaism, (all about God’s will, or a series of non-intrinsically connected instructions). If Judaism is not just about doing God commands, but also about each of us becoming a finer, gentler, more sensitive, noble and even holy person than surely the command should mean what is says in its simplest sense, truly loving others as we love ourselves!

Regardless of how the different approaches influence this commandment, I acknowledge that some of the most accomplished refined people I know have been schooled in the path that never encouraged people to try to be anything. On balance other altruistic people I know are Atheists, Muslims and Christians. For less accomplished people, each approach can be abused, the God centred becoming insensitive seeing the experiential as meaningless, treating the commandments like a giant celestial ‘donkey kong’ game with each act just being a point to score. The man-centred can become arrogant and self-centred, those of the 3rd orientation, mechanical. Personally, I find the man centred approach resonates most strongly for me.

Regardless of approach, here is a final piece of guidance, “if you wish to attach yourself to love of your friend, deal with matters that are for his benefit… as it is written Love to your fellow like yourself (and in a play of words this is reinterpreted to mean), because you acted lovingly toward your friend, he became just like you[25], you will love him[26]. Through “doing”, we can truly “be” what we were meant to be.

[1] Leviticus 19:18
[2] Pirkey Avot 6:11
[3] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in the Tanya expresses this as follows, “and this is the whole of man, and the ultimate purpose of his creation and the creation of all the worlds, the higher and the lower, for there to be a dwelling place for Him, in the lower realms” (Chapter 33)
[4] “Habakuk came and stood (all the commandments) on one, as it states and the righteous will live by his faith” Talmud Makot 24a
[5] Pirkey Avot 1:17
[6] Beraishit Rabba 44:1, or “all the commandments of the Torah whether positive or negative are a means to the attainment of human perfection” – R. Yosef Albo, Sefer Haikarim III, chapter 27, cited in Insights: A Talmudic Treasury, (1990), Weiss, S, Feldheim, Jerusalem, Spring Valley NY, p.235
[7] Mesilat Yesharim, the Path of the Just, by Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzato, chapter 1
[8] Talmud, Sabbat 31a
[9] Maharsha commentary to Sabbat 31a, similar approach to the question is taken by Klei Yakar
[10] One reason suggested for why Hillel states this principle in the negative is that there are “some things that are good for you but bad for your friend-  R. Yisroel Salanter, cited in Insights: A Talmudic Treasury, (1990), Weiss, S, Feldheim, Jerusalem, Spring Valley NY, p.96
[11] This is not advocating fasting or self flagellation, one must care for the body as a “kindness to the embarrassed one”, it is about identifying with the soul and dis-identifying with the body and the ego
[12] Tanya chapter 32
[13] ibid
[14] Leviticus 19:2
[15] Ramban
[16] Pedersen, A (2005), Walker I, Wise M, ‘‘Talk does not cook rice’’: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action”, Australian Psychologist,  p24 citing Pettigrew, 1998, and Wright, Aron, McLaughlin-Volpe, & Ropp, 1997,
[17] Mimonedes, laws of mourning, 14:1 “ to your brother in Torah and commandments”, also Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim 18:4, and Mayan Ganim, cited in Kasher, R. Menachem (1980) Torah Shlaima, Vol 32, p 69-71, of course Tanya’s argument is based on it being just Jews
[18] Kala Rabati chapter 4, (cited in Torah Shelaima), Bchor Shor, p 214, Chizkuni, Ramban, Ibn Ezra
[19] R. Samson Raphael Hirsch on this verse
[20] Talmud Bava Metzia 62b
[21] Talmud Sanhedrin 45a, 52a, and 52b, Ketubot 37b
[22] Talmud Kidushin 41a
[23] Talmud Nidda 17a
[24] Bchor Shor, Mosad Harav Kook Edition p. 214, Chizkuni, Mosad Harav Kook Edition p. 390,
[25] Kala Rabati chapter 4, Derech Eretz Zuta chapter 2, cited in Torah Shelaima, p 71
[26] Chizkuni, p.389


  1. Fantastic post, Zalman. A lot of great ideas in this to chew on for a while. I totally agree that empathy is not a straight-forward matter, but rather requires constant refining to keep it authentic.

  2. thanks a lot Benji. Great to hear from you.

  3. From Facebook discussion on jihadi Jew group:
    I really liked what you wrote Zalman, especially: " The context of the commandments is in a section that begins with being commanded “you should be holy[14]”. This is explained as a requirement to become a disciplined, refined human being. ...While the Torah permitted intercourse within marriage, eating meat and drinking wine, there is a risk that a person can be come a hedonist glutton and a drunk, “a degenerate with permission of the Torah[15]”. In practicing moderation and restraint a person is refined and better prepared for empathy. " A degenerate with permission of the Torah, lol! How often this happens in Islaam with Muslims, too! For example, the Qur'an permits the Muslim man to marry up to four wives with certain strings attached. But how many men cannot fulfill the attached strings?! When criticized by others - before OR after - marrying an additional wife, they'll respond that Allaah t'ala allows it, or "after all, it IS the Sunnah" (meaning the way of the Prophet Muhammad, saw). Or the often criticized Qur'anic permission to "beat" a wife ... is the discipline you speak of, Zalman, is NOT doing things even though one has permission to?

  4. Yes, the concept is to "sanctify yourself in that which is permitted to you". This is going further than the fools who take a conditional permission and ignore the conditions. Chasidim would say 'what is forbidden, is FORBIDDEN!, that which is allowed, is not always the best' or something along these lines.

  5. (From Facebook)
    Zalman, I love your writings and refrences. I wish to question you on the comments about the Litvakand Yeshivash Jews. It says they are ambitious and wish to become great. One can become great and remain anoonymous. Do chessed and and g...ive tzedaka but do not tell people. go about it quietly. Also do what you think you were put on the earth to do but noone has to know you are performing the mitzvot except you and Hashem. this will make one great (silently )See more

  6. thanks for commenting and thinking about what I wrote. When I wrote about greatness, I did not mean to be seen as a 'big person', but real greatness, which includes humility and refined character and doing chesed (kindness) without anyone knowing.