Two of the greatest Jewish scholars of the mid-first century, Shammai and Hillel, are approached by a proselyte. (A proselyte, by the way, is not a low calorie prosle. A proselyte is a potential convert to Judaism). So, the proselyte says to the great Shammai and Hillel, “Teach me the whole of Torah while standing on one foot.”
Shammai is instantly enraged by the arrogance of this man’s request, being asked to reduce the complexity and beauty of Judaism to a pithy bumper sticker – like “Visualize World Peace” or “Eat More Kale”. Shammai grabs a measuring stick, waving it over his head and chases the man out.
Now, Hillel and Shammai never agreed on anything, as far as we know. Their debates, recorded in the Talmud, are famous, with Shammai consistently taking a more strict and conservative position and Hillel consistently being more lenient and expansive. This moment is no exception.
Hearing the same request, Hillel doesn’t yell. He doesn’t threaten the man. Instead, he replies with an instruction and an invitation. He says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary. Go and study.”
I love this teaching. I think it’s incredibly insightful – but not for the reasons you probably think. It’s true that it’s a great teaching and, as a kernel of Torah, it’s a winner – it’s not dogmatic, it’s ethically engaged, and it’s rooted in conscious relationship. But I love it less because of what it says about Judaism and more for what it says about Jewish learning.
Coming out of this past year of DJC conversations of Wrestling Together, we are shifting from a focus on wrestling to learning together, building a community of life-long learners. We spent a year wrestling with how we make inclusive, informed, and robust decisions about Jewish life, grappling with the diverse voices within our community, and with the diverse voices of Jewish texts and traditions. We learned, we listened, and we wrestled.
Many of you have been skeptical and suspicious about the role and relevance of Jewish study. And at the same time, many of you have jumped in, including the 41 members, Jews and non-Jews, who have already participated in our Ritual Leadership Learning and Training. That means that anyone you see on the bimah doing any kind of Jewish ritual has studied together exploring the context, meanings, and personal significance of the mitzvah they are leading, and growing the knowledge and commitment it takes to be a shali’ach tzubbur, a messenger of the community and of the Jewish people. Incredible! People have felt surprised, moved, and empowered by the process. They are drinking the Torah Kool-Aid with delight.
I want us to look at this story of Hillel and Shammai for the possibilities it might offer us about Jewish learning together– for the skeptics and enthusiasts of all backgrounds and types.
“Teach me the whole of Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary. Go and study.”
Hillel offers the most basic interpersonal mitzvah of self-restraint, not treating others in a way that I myself would find hateful. Rooted in my own experiences of being treated hurtfully, this mitzvah asks me to observe my own pain, to let it teach me to become compassionate, and use it as the guide for how I treat others. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” With one foot wobbling in the air, Hillel has opened a wide and accessible doorway to Torah, a starting point that directs outward behaviour and cultivates inner sensitivity.
The first thing to note is that when it comes to Jewish learning, we all need an accessible way in. Of course no one can teach or learn the whole of Torah on one foot, but we all need openings that buzz with relevance, engage our hearts and minds, and that begin exactly where we are. Walking through the door of Jewish literacy doesn’t ask us to give up on any part of who we are. Atheists and mystics, Shabbat celebrators and bacon eaters, Jews and non-Jews can all gather around the same sources, a shared language, to learning, raising questions and wrestling with meaning.
Of course it’s not that simple. As soon as we talk about a doorway in, we also have to ask what has shut the door to Jewish learning for so many of us in the first place. What gets in the way? Why, in most non-Orthodox congregations do less than 10% of members take part in adult learning opportunities? Why will many of us turn to Buddhist practice, Hindu podcasts, and self-help books before we turn to Jewish wisdom and practices to meet the challenges we face?
I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you in this room have had Shammai experiences – literally or metaphorically being chased out of Jewish learning, receiving the message that you don’t know enough, that you’re not a good enough Jew, that you’re not middle-class academic enough, or that if you’re not Jewish, you’re not wanted or welcome at the table.
Or perhaps you’ve experienced Judaism itself as a Shammai – chasing you out with its patriarchal, heteronormative assumptions or with images of a male God who regularly gets jealous and calls for violence. And if you’ve never been given the tools to translate and interpret our teachings, you’ve been left with sources that seem irrelevant at best and damaging at worst – simplistic stories for children and a list of rules for religious people given by a god you don’t believe in.
This is where my heart breaks – that an inheritance of gems has gotten buried in a lack of creative bravery by many of its teachers, and misunderstanding and hurt by many of its students. My friends, our doorway into Jewish learning does not have to be a narrow passage built with fear and guilt. Judaism and Jewish learning are far more elastic, juicy, and insightful than that and no one can steal your right to discover that and own it!
Hillel is opening the door for all of us. What are the obstacles that deserve to be rolled away and what is a starting point that might make you excited to walk in?
The second aspect to notice is that Hillel doesn’t simply answer the request. He responds to the student. I don’t think Hillel was making a definitive assertion about the essence of Judaism – fixed and for all time. The proselyte treated Hillel in an arrogant, hateful way. Hillel gave this man the teaching that he needed to hear at that moment, cutting right to the heart of the ways he struggles and could use some guidance to shift his awareness and action. If any of us were to approach Hillel, asking for a distillation of Judaism, he would have a different teaching for each and every one of us.
We all need a way in but the entre that is going to ignite our pursuit of Jewish learning might not be based on what we already like and think, but something that speaks intimately to what we don’t yet know or haven’t yet become. Real learning stretches and challenges our ideas about who we are, how we see the world, it destabilizes what we think we know and cracks open possibilities we hadn’t thought of before.
There are tales of great rebbes who could look into a person’s eyes, could read the ache in their souls, and say exactly what it is that they needed to hear and learn. I admit, I do not have that power. But Hillel’s approach to learning makes the question essential. What is it that you need to learn at this moment in your life? Where do you struggle? The purpose of Jewish learning is not merely to teach us how to do Jewish things. Jewish learning is teaching us how to do life – it is a toolkit for living lives that are courageous and just, fiercely loving, wide awake, and responsive. That’s Torah. And in lieu of a rabbi with mystical powers, you are the only person who can discern what good medicine will heal and strengthen your life. Or at least you are the one to go looking for it.
And the third aspect to notice is that the teaching is not simply, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Hillel doesn’t stop there. Still balanced on one foot, his encapsulation of what Judaism is includes two more essential sentences. “The rest is commentary. Go and study.” The first part of the teaching alone isn’t enough, because it matters how you interpret it.
According to Judaism, who is ‘my fellow’? Does this apply even to those who act hatefully toward me? How direct is my culpability if I buy a tomato grown by a company that treats its workers in a way that I find hateful?
How do we define what is hateful? What if I believe I deserve poor treatment and that is my standard for everyone else? Are there teachings that direct active, loving behaviour to balance out this self-restraint? If we are aiming to build a caring and just society together, how do we share a moral framework that is bigger than subjective experience?
And how do I develop the capacity to do this well and wisely? I’m not always aware of what I do. How do I learn to become a keen observer of my actions and the intentions behind them? Are there regular practices that will grow my character to become a more sensitive, compassionate, responsible person?
To say that the rest is commentary sends us from the inspiration of one teaching into a whole palace of learning. When Hillel says, “The rest is commentary,” he’s pointing to the whole of Torah – the entirety of Jewish life and learning – and saying that all of it can be read as commentary on this one mitzvah! Do you get that? Isn’t that stunning! From the biblical journeys of Sarah and Abraham to the way we light Chanukah candles, from the teachings about how we bury the dead and mourn, to mitzvot about poverty, ownership, and equity – it is all a commentary on this one mitzvah. In a holistic system, the range of teachings, practices, ways of thinking all interweave so we develop the tools and muscles, the discernment and character, the community and support, to live this practice of not doing to others what is hateful to me, and removing any obstacles that get in the way. And if Hillel were to give you a different imperative, a different doorway in, all of Torah could read as a commentary on that mitzvah!
We are embarking on a learning revolution this year. This is the invitation and mission to us as a whole community – Let’s go and study. It will enhance and strengthen everything that we do together, from supporting mourners to engaging social justice, from what we get out of a prayer service to how we contribute to the decisions we make.
Let’s go and study because, in all humility, a few thousand years of aggregated thinking, creativity, and experience are just flat out wiser than you or me on our own.
Let’s go and study because, when you have the tools to be part of this ancient and alive conversation, you can bring progressive concerns and challenges to the table, you can hold your own in the school yard of Jewish interpretation, and ensure that preserving the treasure of Judaism is not at odds with evolving it’s moral and social commitments.
Let’s go and study because our lives and the world are in need of healing and waking. We’ve inherited a map through the chaos and a guide through the wonder, and we need each other to read it.
May we be blessed this year with the Torah of two feet, grounded and embarking on a great journey.