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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dr. Benji Levy

Hillel and Aristotle, Shammai and Plato

(First published on on the 19th of July 2022).

There are always two ways to approach life - top down and bottom up. Which one is better?

What would you say if I asked you to summarize the entire Torah on one foot, to provide a pithy soundbite or an "Idiot's Guide" of sorts to the totality of Judaism? Well, a prospective convert once had this exact question. He approached the Talmudic sage Shammai, who was insulted and rejected him outright. His sagely colleague Hillel on the other hand had a famous reply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” It's an intriguing claim that this simple moral maxim is, in fact, the entirety of Torah hiding in plain sight. But maybe it's not so simple.

Raphael in the Vatican Around 15 centuries after Hillel walked through the cobblestoned streets of Babylon, the great Renaissance painter Raphael produced The School of Athens. This fresco is considered a masterpiece for its deft use of color and perspective, and it is an enduring tribute to the history of humanist thought and features the Renaissance version of a meme. In the center of the painting stand two figures. Both are clutching books, but one is pointing at the heavens, and the other gestures in front. In an all-star line-up of philosophers, these would be the MVPs: Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, ultimate reality is 'up there,' abstract and eternal. Aristotle is more grounded in the here and now; the truth is in front of your nose if you pay enough attention. Is the most profound meaning here on Earth, or is the good life one that shuns the coarse material demands of mundane existence? Through this tension, Jewish tradition shines some light on what it means to be a good person.

Two paradigms Hillel and Shammai are not just two of the most significant teachers in Jewish history. The two schools of interpretation that follow in their wake stand for two approaches to life and paradigmatic ways of understanding. Things became more contentious amongst their disciples, with more and more disagreements emerging over time. What was created first, the heavens or the Earth, for example? According to the School of Shammai, the heavens were created first. No, insisted Hillel's followers, first Earth was created and then the heavens. At first glance, this may seem like a dry debate about a question we could never really answer, and it hardly seems to warrant such heated disagreement. What would it mean that the spiritual dimension, presumably a realm beyond time and space, was made 'before' the material world? Why must the Talmud record such hair-splitting for posterity? The question is not so much which chronologically came prior, the spiritual or the physical, but rather what ultimately demands our focus as a matter of priority. In fact, the two schools of thought pose a profound question about ethics and the meaning of existence. The question is not so much which chronologically came prior, the spiritual or the physical, but rather what ultimately demands our focus as a matter of priority. To appreciate the stakes, let's quickly refresh ourselves on some basic concepts in the Jewish mystical tradition.

The give and take of existence The School of Hillel is often associated with "Chesed" - the attributes of loving-kindness and benevolence, openness, abundance, and expansiveness. The School of Shammai is oft-associated with "Gevurah" - strict judgment, restriction, and rigorous discipline. We can see these attributes at play in the way each school makes decisions. While this is a simplification, many have framed the disciples of Shammai as tending toward viewing life through the strict letter of the law, while those of Hillel towards viewing the law through the everyday demands of the real world. These attributes are even embodied in the very personalities of the sages themselves – and vividly brought to life in the well-known story that began this piece regarding reducing the whole Torah to that which one could share on one foot.

Thought meets action We should recognize that each rabbi's answers and actions were in complete harmony with those of the other rabbi. Hillel was practicing what he preached, and Shammai was, too, in a different way. So who was right? Certainly, Hillel's statement resonates with the Jewish values of kindness and mutual respect. You may not be too surprised to learn that, in practice, we follow the way of Hillel and not Shammai the vast majority of the time. But what if we follow the path of Chesed not because it is more true (who amongst us could second-guess either Shammai or Hillel) but because it is necessary? After all, we are imperfect beings, made of flesh and blood and driven by desires and instincts. That's not all we are, of course. But we are sufficiently unlike the angels that if the strict standards preferred by Shammai judged us, we could never justify our existence. On the mystical level, we simply do not meet the standards of pure judgment.

"Chesed", kindness, must, of necessity, be the measure of our relations with others. All we need is love? The injunction to love one's neighbor as oneself is of biblical origin. Hillel, of course, wasn't the only great sage who promoted "Chesed" as the central tenet of the Torah. The first Century Sage Rabbi Akiva called it a great principle, and its essence is invoked in many other texts and traditions. Perhaps John Lennon had a flash of Divine insight when he penned, “All you need is love.” And yet. Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest sages of all time. He was the man who interpreted even the crowns above the letters of the Torah, devoting his energy and genius to the finest of fine details of law. That may seem like unusual behavior if we take his message simply and superficially. Because while it's true that "Chesed" makes the world possible, maybe "Gevurah" makes "Chesed" possible? After all, kindness without a standard of truth can become indulgence, and indiscriminate giving makes meaningful kindness almost impossible to achieve practically. It would be best if you judged where and how to direct your kindness at the most basic practical level. Truth without compassion may not be a possible state. But unfettered compassion is no less realizable.

How do we want to be treated? Practically speaking, most of us can train our spiritual focus on one paradigm or the other. We can be the best imperfect beings we can in our imperfect circumstances, appreciating that our work and lives are in the here and now, as we usually decide according to Hillel: 'The Earth takes priority.' Or we can keep our eye on the prize of our ultimate redemption when tradition says we will decide according to Shammai: 'The heavens were created first.' I want you to bear those heady concepts in mind when I raise this final thought about what it means to judge others (and ourselves). What does it actually mean to treat others as you would want to be treated? There's a crucial question here. How do you want to be treated? Think about that seriously. If you commit a crime, do you want to go unpunished? What if you cause real harm to innocent people? On some level, sure, we don't really want to face the consequences of our actions. But is that truly the ethical standard to which we know we ought to hold ourselves and, by extension, those around us? In one sense, the demand to treat others as we would want to be treated forces us to confront our own ethical code. How do we truly want to be treated? What is the ethical standard by which we ultimately judge ourselves? Only once we know the answer to that question can we authentically apply the same standard to other people. And that, in turn, raises a more profound question. What ought to be the standard we hold ourselves to? What does it mean to be a good person? This is one of the most fundamental questions of all. And I'm afraid there's no snappy one-liner that instantly resolves the mystery. The whole Torah may well be contained in Hillel's single principle. But determining the contours of that principle is perhaps the work of a lifetime, grappling with the rest of the Torah and the real world. When Hillel claimed that the rest of the Torah is an explanation of the central tenet, he wasn't diminishing the significance of the rest of the Torah but encouraging us to live further and study to truly understand.

One final question. Rabbi Akiva highlights the Torah's injunction to love your neighbor as you do yourself. Well, how do we relate to our own selves? Do we love ourselves? If the world depends on "Chesed," perhaps we should start by practicing it on ourselves.

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