Baker Academic

Monday, April 27, 2015

Summation of the Torah - Hillel and Jesus

I have often told my students a story from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabat 31a) to illustrate the complexity of first-century Pharisaic thought. If we just go by the New Testament's portraits of the Pharisees, we walk away with the impression that Jesus was preaching consequentialism amid a sea of deontology. Put another way, Jesus prioritized wellbeing in context over the strict letter of the law. To problematize this caricature of both the Pharisees and Jesus, I've quoted this story:
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, 'Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.' Thereupon he [Shammai] repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.'
This story tells of two competing rabbis that lived in the first century: Hillel and Shammai. Much of their legacy reflects the concerns of rabbinic Judaism of a later period (often favoring Hillel). But the the story works equally well even if it reflects a later date. My purpose has been to point out that we shouldn't think of "the Pharisees" an ideological monolith. Moreover, some rabbis were quite happy to sum the instructions of Moses (for non-Jews) into a simple "golden rule" while others endeavored to protect the complexity and intricacy of Torah.

Presumably a lesson taught while the student balances on one foot is a short lesson. The question becomes, then, can a non-Jew learn what is important about the Torah in one short, simple lesson? Judging from this story Hillel was willing to try; Shammai was not (we might also keep in mind that Shammai's "builder's cubit" might be a metaphor for the Torah itself). Of course, I have pointed to a similar "golden rule" attributed to Jesus: "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 7:12). These "golden rules" aren't exactly the same, but they are similar. And to the point: both Jesus and Hillel are willing to attempt a summative statement. Thus Jesus seems to have more in common with Hillel than he does with Shammai in this case.

But I was rereading this story today and I think that I've missed something important. In attempting to emphasize Jesus' Jewishness via Hillel's liberal tendencies, I missed Hillel's final statement: "...go and learn it." The suggestion here is that the non-Jew can begin with a simple summative statement, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor." Hillel can even make the remarkable claim that this summation is "the whole Torah"! Or it is at least a lens by which to read the whole Torah. But the final exhortation, "go and learn it" can be taken in two ways: (1) The non-Jew should go and practice the simple rule; (2) The non-Jew should go and learn the whole Torah. Traditionally (or at least from my limited study) the first of these interpretations has gotten the most traction. But there is a danger of superseding the Torah with a "Torah-lite" life ethic. If however Hillel is offering a hermeneutical key for unlocking the Torah for non-specialists (and this applies to me) the complexity and intricacy of the Torah is maintained. Indeed, the ethical lens offered by Hillel might heighten the complexity and intricacy of interpretation. This would fit well with what we read of Hillel elsewhere. Rather than reducing the Torah, Hillel might be inviting the non-Jew to use his other foot as he walks away on the right path.

For what it's worth, Jesus' view on Torah was not as simplistic as we make it out to be either: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail" (Luke 16:17).



  1. Good thoughts. I was thinking about this - Hillel's and Jesus' Torah-summations - myself recently when I preached on Jesus' encounters with the Pharisees in Matthew's Gospel. A lot of interesting threads in these stories, especially in comparison. Hadn't considered the final "go and learn it" vis-a-vis the recipient as a non-Jew, though. Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. A long time ago (in a galaxy ... .. .. ) I remember reading that Jesus' answer to the lawyer on the greatest commandment was a reply in line with Hillel's. And I'm struck here with that similarity with Hillel in that Jesus, after telling the story of the good Samaritan, said "Go and do likewise".

  3. Anthony, funny! I've heard this story countless times in my Jewish context, always as a two part answer, with a greater emphasis on part two. The part two, your "go and learn it," I learned as "go and study it." Meaning many things, perhaps the most important being that the lesson taught on one foot was a first step, an entry into a process of learning and doing that is life-long. It also meant that the question was absurd and insulting in the first place, and that the answers of both Rabbis were similar in content (“I can’t teach Torah while standing on one foot”) and different mostly in temperament!

    I would not understand this as a lens a novice would use to read the whole Torah, but instead as a lens through which Torah sees the novice. In other words, a master of Torah like Hillel could see how all of Torah speaks to how we treat each other. The lens does not work in reverse, though: one does not know Torah by knowing its essence. Or: one is not able to obey Hillel's version of the Golden Rule merely by hearing it said; one must study Torah to see how it's done.