Many of us are familiar with the striking answer given by the great Jewish sage, Hillel the Elder, to the presumptuous and shockingly impatient proselyte who agreed to convert to Judaism only on condition that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one leg (Shabbat 31a):
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” responded Hillel. “That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
This is certainly a nice idea, but after giving it a moments’ thought, we are left to wonder: How can Hillel’s reply encapsulate the Torah as we know it? What about kashrut? What about Shabbat? What about the minute detail of the Temple sacrifices listed in the book of Vayikra? How exactly has Hillel summarized the whole Torah?
In the Analects, the seminal collection of the sayings of Confucius, the venerable Chinese philosopher (who died in 491 BCE, well before the time of Hillel, who lived circa 100 BCE) included the following in his definition of virtue (Book 12, Chapter 2):
“Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.”
Confucius’s lesson is nearly identical to the statement of Hillel, even to the extent that both sages carefully chose to phrase this moral imperative in the negative (rather than the positive: ‘Do to others as you would wish done to yourself’).
This principle mentioned by Hillel and in the Analects would also come to form a central axiom in the thought of Immanuel Kant, one of history’s foremost philosophers:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it [the maxim] should become a universal law.” (the ‘categorical imperative’)
Is the above demonstrated overlap a coincidence? Or, on the other hand, did Hillel the Elder recycle an old Confucian maxim, only to have his conversation with the proselyte further recycled by none other than Immanuel Kant?
An Underlying Truth
In my opinion, Confucius, Kant and Hillel were certainly each subjected to entirely different sources of knowledge. Still, the overlap in their thought is easily explained.
In fact, overlaps between unconnected thinkers and systems of thought are quite common, the reason being, that there really aren’t more than a handful of fundamental truths that underlie the world as we know it. I would even go so far as to say that these few fundamental truths ultimately merge into one monolithic truth. Therefore, each system of thought, whether religious or secular, is simply an attempt to materialize this truth into words and principles; they can be seen as a finger of sorts pointing us in the way of this truth.
Let me explain this idea further:
I am an Orthodox Jew. The way I understand the details and traditions of my religion, and of the universe as a whole, is a direct result of my own independent study of books and other materials at my disposal, of the instruction I have received from those whom I cared to learn from, from my exposure to the wisdom of Western institutions and culture and through good old-fashioned osmosis.
I am sure that all of you have your own multifaceted sources of information and learning as well.
What I am proposing is that there is a truth that lurks behind everything that we are exposed to. We wake up in the morning and we feel it in our gut and each of us wants to get to it, to hold it in our hand, even though we may not know how to put “it” into words.
The Truth as Understood by Hillel, Confucius and Kant
What sets gifted, inspired personalities such as Confucius, Hillel and Kant apart from others is that they were able to wade into its depths of all they were exposed to and emerge to tell the world: “This is the heart of things. This is the truth embedded at the core of all I have learned.” In the case that I have described above, the way these three individuals understood the truth underlying the world was similar in a significant way.
This is the lesson that Hillel imparted to the proselyte. He was not implying that the contents of the Torah could be summarized by one principle. He was saying as follows:
“I agree with you that: While our Torah is made up of endless details and traditions that set it apart from other systems of thought, at its heart it contains a fundamental truth. I can best explain this truth to you as: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor’. This is the underlying truth that the Torah is pointing to, in my opinion. The rest is commentary. Get to it.”