Learning about the culture of the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus of history, is the key to understanding his teachings. One of the first things we must understand is this -- “Other people have conversations. Jews have arguments.” Judaism is unusual in that virtually all its canonical texts are woven through with arguments.
● In the Bible, Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, and Job all argue extensively with God.
● In Midrash, rabbis argue with one another on the basis of the principle that there are seventy “faces,” or interpretations, of every text.
● In the Mishnah the rabbis argue about Jewish law.
● In the Gemara they argue about the arguments of the Mishnah.
● Every later text comes with its own commentaries and counter-commentaries.
In the twelfth century, Moses Maimonides did the most daring thing of all: he wrote a code of law with, all the arguments removed. This generated more arguments than any other text for the next eight hundred years until today.
Arguments For The Sake of Heaven
The rabbis came up with a major distinction, between “an argument for the sake of heaven” and other arguments.[i] The classic example was the relationship between the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai. They had been arguing over something for three years when a voice from heaven announced:
“The words of Hillel and Shammai are the words of the living God,
but the law will be in accordance with the school of Hillel.”
Why did the voice from heaven rule in favor of Hillel? “Because Hillel’s words were kindly and modest. He studied his own rulings and those of Shammai too. Hillel was so humble as to mention the teachings of Shammai before his own.” The concept of “argument for the sake of heaven” allowed the sages to reframe disagreement – making it a unifying force, instead of being divisive. This is implicit in a radical new idea:
Two opposing opinions can both represent the words of the living God.
Both sides are doing their best to do God’s will.
When Jesus started teaching, he became part of arguments that had been going on for a long time in Jewish circles. One of those arguments was about how to keep the commandment in Leviticus 19:18:
“You shall love your neighbor, as yourself.”
The focus of the argument was about the meaning of the phrase, “as yourself.” Hillel’s position is found in one of his most famous stories.
“A certain gentile once came to Hillel and said, “I’m ready to become a Jew, but only if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand here on one foot.” Hillel answered him, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellowman; that is the whole Torah, and the rest… is just a commentary. Go then and learn it!” (Shabbat 31a).
Hillel’s interpretation of “as yourself” is the earliest, “Golden Rule” -- “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellowman.” [ii]
“You shall love your neighbor,
what you hate, do not do to him.”
Jesus added his interpretation to the argument – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Keep in mind that implicit in both sides of the argument is that both represent “the words of the living God.” Instead of “either / or” their positions can be “both / and”.
“You shall love your neighbor.
What you hate, do not do to him.
Do unto him as you would have him do unto you.”
Hillel, Jesus and other rabbis taught that love of man is a central pillar of the Torah’s teaching, but behind it there is something even more basic. “Love of neighbor” is itself derived from an even greater principle:
Humans are made in the image of God because God loves humans.
For humans to love God they must do it by loving what God loves.
When we love other people, we are loving God.
This is the only way to love God!
For Jesus, and the other members of the Jewish culture, love is much more than just “feelings and emotions” – love is concrete actions. Those action measure up to the Creator’s TOV Standard – they protect and preserve lives, make lives more functional, and increase the quality of life.
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[i] Morality: Restoring The Common Good In Divided Times By Jonathan Sacks © 2020; Basic Books, New York, NY; pp. 186-188.
[ii] The Life and Teachings of Hillel by Yitzhak Buxbaum © 1994. Jason Aronson Inc. Northvale, NJ; p. 95