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The Jewish Golden Rule

Every “ethical” society seems to have a Golden Rule, some variation on Luke and Matthew’s “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” Confucius stated it as a negative: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others,” which is functionally identical to Hillel’s, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

And yet there is a gaping chasm between all of these forms (the Wiki link contains dozens of other examples), and the formulation which is the middle topic of the middlemost text (Leviticus) of the Torah (Lev. 19:18). In other words, the Torah formulation makes the Jewish version of the Golden Rule at the heart of the text. And it is, upon reflection, very different from the Golden Rule of Confucius and Luke and Matthew and Hillel. The Torah says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

How is this different? Consider firstly that the negative construction of Confucious and Hillel do not require any engagement – you can fulfill the Golden Rule by simply leaving other people alone. No relationship is required or even encouraged; people who separate from each other have followed the rule. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But this version of the Golden Rule does nothing to build relationships, to build families and communities and societies. It enables and condones solitude and isolation.

The positive constructions are better, in that one should treat others as you wish to be treated. But that in itself does not necessarily entail a relationship. Instead, it suggests a quid pro quo, doing to others as you want them to do to you. If you want to be left alone, then you can fulfill this rule merely by leaving others alone as well!

Perhaps most importantly, the distinction of “loving others” is that love is an ongoing investment, not a mere thing or product. To truly love others means that one needs to empathize with them, to care about them in ways that are not readily measured by keeping score of who was nice to whom. Love is a lifelong process, not just the sharing of rations or the kind of polite courtesy with which decent people greet one another on the street.

So while people all-too-often “keep score” in their lives about whether they have received their due share, whether they have given more than they have received, etc., loving them as you love yourself means caring about someone else, about learning to see through their eyes, hear through the ears, and feel as they feel.

In this sense, then, the Torah is quite distinct from other ancient documents and texts. The existence of the non-Torah Golden Rule can readily be used as a defense of a godless moral society– after all, the Golden Rule surely suggests that civil societies can logically deduce an ethical social structure and body politic.

But for Judaism, the idea of loving someone else like yourself is much richer in religious overtones. Each person, we are told by the ensoulment of Adam, contains the very spirit of G-d within them. So when we love other people, truly love them, then we are drawing closer to G-d, by connecting with and empathizing with His spirit as it is found in each person. This is a positive commandment: we cannot fulfill it by leaving them alone as we want to be left alone or even by treating them as we want to be treated. In order to be holy, we have to connect with others in love, to try to see things their way, and seek to make them feel the love that we in turn want to enjoy ourselves.

Golden Rules are necessary for any ethical society. “Do/Don’t do unto others” represents a baseline in human rights. But “Love your neighbor as yourself” is one step up: love is a prerequisite for holiness.

For Judaism, this Golden Rule cannot be separated from religious faith. Loving other people is a way to love G-d.

Comments are welcome!

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