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Standing on One Foot

The origin of a famous anecdote shines light on the compromises of Conservative and Reform Judaism

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Eadweard Muybridge via George Eastman House/Flickr)
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Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

While reading Daf Yomi this week, I came with a shock of recognition upon one of the most famous anecdotes in Jewish history—indeed, one of the few Talmudic passages that most Jews are likely to recognize, though they might not know (as I didn’t, until now) that its source is Shabbat 31a. This is the story of how a Gentile came to the great pair of rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, and promised that he would convert to Judaism if they would teach him the Torah while he stood on one foot.

The sages’ answers are given in the Talmud as testimony to their very different personalities. The stern Shammai impatiently “pushed [the Gentile] away with the ruler he was holding in his hand.” To him, the idea that you could learn the Torah—which would have to include the Oral Torah, the whole Mishnah—while standing on one leg was so preposterous that the Gentile’s question could only be mockery. The humble Hillel, on the other hand, returned the answer that has become proverbial: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the entire Torah, all the rest is an elaboration. Now go and learn it.”

It’s no wonder that Jews in the 21st century are so fond of Hillel’s maxim. Many Jews who are not Orthodox long for a connection with Jewish tradition that does not take the form of obeying a plethora of seemingly arbitrary, highly constraining laws. Hillel seems to hold out the promise that we can be good Jews, faithful to the “entire Torah,” by practicing ethics rather than observing law. Being a good Jew, he seems to say, is the same as being a good person.

It is only when you encounter Hillel’s saying in the context of the Talmud that it becomes clear just how nonsensical our modern interpretation of his words would have seemed to him. Yes, the ethical spirit of the Torah is supreme: For Hillel and for many other rabbis quoted in the Talmud, observance of the laws is nothing without genuine piety and goodness. And yes, Hillel puts a greater emphasis on the spirit of the laws than Shammai, with the result that he was able to convert the Gentile who Shammai would have turned away: “The sternness of Shammai sought to banish us from the world,” says a group of proselytes later in the chapter, “but the humble manner of Hillel brought us under the wings of the divine presence.”

But it is crucial, if we are to be true to the moral of the story, not to omit the last words Hillel addresses to the Gentile: “Now go and learn it.” To learn Torah, to study the Mishnah and the Talmud, is for the rabbis the natural result and necessary expression of piety. We have already seen many examples of how the rabbis place Torah study at the center of Jewish life, ranking it even above prayer, considering it the purpose of human existence. And we have seen their contempt for the “am haaretz,” the unlearned, unobservant Jew of their time.

As if to drive the point home, the story about Hillel is immediately followed by an explication of a verse from the book of Isaiah, which reads: “The stability of your time and the strength of salvation is wisdom and knowledge; the fear of God is His storehouse.” In this line, Reish Lakish taught, each word corresponds to one of the six tractates of the Mishnah: “stability refers to the Order of Zeraim, your time refers to the Order of Moed,” and so on. For the rabbis, the laws are the very substance of God’s attributes, and study of the laws is the best way to approach the divine. When they go on to explicate the phrase about “the fear of God,” they place reverence higher than Torah scholarship: “Any person who has acquired for himself Torah, but has not acquired the fear of Heaven, is comparable to a treasurer to whom the keys to the inner chambers have been handed, whereas the keys to the outer changers were not handed to him.” Fear of God, in other words, is the prerequisite to Torah study; but as always, Torah study is the “inner chamber,” the place where we are meant to dwell.

To be faithful to the spirit of the Talmud without being faithful to the laws of the Talmud is, in fact, not to be faithful to the spirit of the Talmud. (These passages of ethical sublimity are followed, without a transition, by a discussion of the technical legal rules about when it is acceptable to extinguish a candle on Shabbat: There is no break between theory and practice.) But then, Hillel’s maxim about doing unto others is not the last word in the Talmud’s ethics.

In fact, this week’s reading also included one of the most troubling passages I have read so far. This came in Shabbat 31b and the following pages, when the rabbis announce that “For three transgressions women die in childbirth: Because they are not careful regarding the laws of niddah (ritual and sexual purity), challah (the tithing of dough to a priest), and the kindling of the Sabbath candle.” Why should failing to light a Sabbath candle deserve the death penalty? Because “The soul that I have placed within you,” God might reply, “is called a candle” (in the Book of Proverbs: “The candle of God is man’s soul”). And why, in particular, should it be death in childbirth that God inflicts? Because, says Rava, “When the ox has fallen, sharpen the knife”: in other words, childbirth is a time when a woman is already vulnerable to death, just as a fallen ox is vulnerable to slaughter.

The idea that God kills women in childbirth because they have been lax about lighting candles and tithing dough is, for me as for most modern people, utterly unacceptable. I, for one, find it simply impossible to believe in such a God. Likewise, I feel revulsion at the attitude toward women expressed in the ensuing discussion, where we are told that God punishes men who sin by killing their wives and children—as though the wife was not a moral agent with her own deserts, but a possession of which a man can be justly deprived.

For me, one of the crucial experiences of reading Daf Yomi has been thinking not just about the text, but about my relationship to the text. I have had to realize quite clearly just how distant my own thinking about God, law, and obligation is from the rabbis’. In a way, reading the Talmud has given me a new respect for what can often seem like the tepid compromises of Reform and Conservative Judaism: There are, I realize, principled reasons why many of today’s Jews seek a new basis for Jewish belief, reasons other than laziness before the Talmud and its laws.

At the same time, I have also tried to avoid the kind of indignation that would dismiss the rabbis’ way of thinking as simply outmoded and reassure me as to my own modern superiority. I always have in mind that I am reading a religious work through secular eyes, that I am reading a work of instruction but not as a student. These contradictions haven’t made me shy away from the Talmud, but they have encouraged me to treat it with respect—even or especially when I recognize its distance from me, or mine from it.

***

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What a marvelous statement; it summarizes very well how I feel about the Orthodox approach: “…reading the Talmud has given me a new respect for what can often seem like the tepid compromises of Reform and Conservative Judaism: There are, I realize, principled reasons why many of today’s Jews seek a new basis for Jewish belief, reasons other than laziness before the Talmud and its laws.” For many of us who would like to be closer to our Judaism, the cruel and arbitrary hair-splitting of current-day Orthodoxy is repellent. Reconstructionist Judaism is an approach that seems to work, as dynamic as it is.

normbnm says:

Of the 613 Mitzvot in Torah practicing the first 612 leads us to do the Greatest one, 613th,”Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself”. This if done in Lishma brings us to Bestowal.

We are creatures that have the will to receive for our own self. If we can reach the state of seeing how inter-connected we all are in this world and practice “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself” we can start to change the world from crisis to co-cooperation. Sadly many especially in America of Jewish Faith have lost the Light of Torah in their daily lives.

If we can use integral education, that includes our relationship with each other, doing good for all not just the few and following Mutual Responsibility we can change the path of pain to the path of following to a better world. http://www.mutualrespondsibility.org

Below is a post From Doctor Laitman:

If a person engages in self-correction in order to develop an
attitude of bestowal to the fellow man, this means that he is performing
all the rules of Torah. This is what the great sage Rabbi Akiva said.
When he was asked to explain all of the Torah while “standing on one
leg” (metaphorically speaking), he cited the general rule of the entire
Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Another sage, named Hillel, who
lived in the times of the Talmud (the beginning of the Common Era)
states this principle as: “Don’t do to another what you don’t want
others to do to you.”

Therefore, the entire institute of religion will definitely go through a big change, as it doesn’t stand by these principles.

gwhepner says:

HILLEL’S GOLDEN RULE

“That which is hateful to you do not do

to any other: that is all the Torah,” Hillel told

a gentile hoping to become a Jew.

“The rest is commentary.” To join our fold

he had to learn just one more thing. “Now go

and study,” Hillel added, indicating that to be

a Jew it’s necessary for one to know

the Torah, which is not a yoke—its study makes Jews free.

Love your neighbor as yourself, the Torah states

Inspired by an insight by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, published
in his book Hillel: If Not Now, When?

In the famous story of the potential convert who wanted to be
converted on condition that someone teach him the entire Torah while he stood
on one foot, he e made the request of Shammai and was rebuffed. But Hillel
obliged and converted him, teaching him: “That which is hateful to you do not
do to another. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go study (bSab 31a).”….According to Rabbi Telushkin, as long as the convert understood
that Judaism requires constant study (hence “Now go out and study”) the convert
would come to see the importance of the ritual commandments of the Torah too.

Interestingly, Telushkin points out that there is nothing in
the texts of the Christian Bible telling us that Jesus encouraged people to
study the Torah. …Jesus’ life and teaching replaces the Torah according to the
gospels, and this is the very basis of supersession.

11/6/12 #10353

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Fat_Man says:

“The idea that God kills women in childbirth
because they have been lax about lighting candles and tithing dough is,
for me as for most modern people, utterly unacceptable.”

And I cannot be orthodox if being orthodox means accepting, as valid, that kind of superstitious nonsense. So being reform or conservative may be tepid, but at least they are not hateful and vicious.

How much Gemora have you studied? And why do you think it;s about you. Maybe it’s all about…”This is Gods world and we serve She/Him so that “Vehaya Bayom Hahu, Yihiye HaShem Echad Ushmo Echad.” Maybe God has a vision greater than your’s and knows things you don’t how the Jewish People can best affect the end?

Kirch’s reading is too shallow to the Talmud justice. First of all, one doesn’t ‘read’ the Talmud. One learns it. Secondly, without an accomplished ability to learn in Aramaic, one cannot know the meaning of the Talmud, let alone Torah in general. Thirdly, study of the Talmud cannot be done in a vacuum without guidance, instruction and a study partner. Fourthly, Kirch is neither erudite nor scholarly enough to represent the Talmud.

Either you brought a pre-conceived notion to your comment or you were duped. In general, to relate to the Infinite in any way, takes truu humility and humbleness. Not American arrogance where there is no truth and that one’s opinion counts for anything other than self-satisfaction.

Mike Spindell says:

I haven’t studied any Gemora, Moshe Geller, and what’s more at my age of 68 I probably never will. Yet I believe my life has been one blessed by God and further that it has been one that makes me a good Jew. My reasoning, no doubt too self-centered from your perspective, is that God has saved my life literally on many occasions, the last being two years ago when my heart failed and I improbably received a last minute heart transplant to save me. One such as yourself might wonder how I, certainly not a Torah scholar might have the effrontery to feel that way and I will explain. I have lived my life by Hillel the Elders simple formulations such as: “”That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; rest is the explanation; go and learn.” in tandem with “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’?” and finally:”Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

For a thoughtful human being, who has the courage to look inside them-self and consider their actions in this world, from those three dictum’s one can see a way of fruitfully living a life that is pleasing to God’s eye. I’ve lived my life informed by these truths both in my career, in my marriage, in my rearing my children and finally towards those I’ve interacted with. In my profession I have literally saved three lives. In my marriage I have always been faithful, loving and respectful. Besides that I married a Jewish woman with the same values as mine. As a parent I’ve always been loving and supportive of my children. They were brought up in a Jewish household where holidays were respected, Shul was attended on Shabbat and an extensive Jewish education was provided. Both of my Children are far more learned than me and one not only is quite observant, but is fluent in Hebrew and has attended a Yeshiva. They are also now adults inculcated with the same values as their parents.

Nevertheless, I am not intolerant of the ways many Jews, who are far more observant than I live. There is much beauty and comfort in the way they live their lives However, I believe that the duty laid upon us by God is too make sense of our environment, to learn his ways as best we can and to act accordingly in a way that is pleasing to our creator and in consonance with our being Jewish. There are more paths towards achieving God’s approval than spending ones life studying Torah. If that were not true, than rather than exalting God, as a creator to be held in an awe, we demean the concept of the meaning of Creation. God should not to be seen as a demanding tyrant setting immutable rule, but as a loving Creator and Teacher, who wants us to live in His/Her image to the extent that such frail beings as we are able.

Mike Spindell says:

“First of all, one doesn’t ‘read’ the Talmud. One learns it. Secondly, without an accomplished ability to learn in Aramaic, one cannot know the meaning of the Talmud, let alone Torah in general. Thirdly, study of the Talmud cannot be done in a vacuum without guidance, instruction and a study partner. Fourthly, Kirch is neither erudite nor scholarly enough to represent the Talmud.”

Moshe,

What a smug, self-satisfied man you must be? I sense no humility in you, but more the personality of a self-righteous scold, unable to examine himself critically, while casting aspersions on others who do not follow your belief system. Since I come from a quite Orthodox family, your attitudes bear little relation to that of my Uncles, who were pious in their study, rigorous in their observance, yet humble, loving and non-judgmental in their relations with others.

Funnily enough, however, Jesus is said in the Gospels to have studied under Pharisaic (i.e., Rabbinic) teachers. His own religion and teaching (so far as we can detect it in the veil of later polemical editing that we have in the New Testament) was that of Judaism. So by making his life and teachings the model and focus, minus the Oral Torah of Rabbinic Judaism and the Written Torah as such, Christianity ironically subverts (and supersedes) Jesus’s own life and teachings too.

Fat Man says:

It is not God that I have a problem with. My problem is with the arrogance of the orthodox as exemplified by your comment.

Still better tepid than angry and snobbish.

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Standing on One Foot

The origin of a famous anecdote shines light on the compromises of Conservative and Reform Judaism

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