By DONNIEL HARTMAN
We welcomed you to the world this week. With your birth something strange happened to me, which I did not experience with the birth of my children. As I looked at you I began to calculate how old I would be when you get married, or whether I would be alive to celebrate with you your children’s bar or bat mitzvah.
At 52, I am a young grandfather, and God willing, have much life ahead of me. Yet I experienced your birth as the beginning of a new era, which I recognized will continue beyond me. An era whose nature you will shape and will be shaped by. I don’t want to burden you now unnecessarily, as from your perspective your major challenge right now is to master the art of feeding. But I write this in the hope that one day you will master that task and others, and be able to read and understand what I am writing to you today.
You have been born into a great tradition and a great people. One of the challenges of a 3,500-year-old tradition is that with each generation it becomes increasingly weighty with details, laws, and ideas. In our tradition it is often difficult to identify the trees from the forest, to figure out what within the seemingly endless myriad of traditions is the core, the essence. Each generation obviously has to identify and answer this question for itself. But there is one answer which was given 2,000 years ago by one of our great rabbis which has moved me throughout my life, and which I hope will guide you as well. Hillel the Elder said, "What is hateful unto you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study."
I love our tradition. But very often it, like other religions, suffers from an autoimmune disease in which part of the tradition attacks itself and undermines its own goals and values. Religion is supposed to be a force for good, and a religious identity a foundation for greatness. Yet all too often it seems to work in the reverse. In the name of God, and out of fidelity to the law, we often become blind to what is truly important. All too often, religion and religious commitment become catalysts for underachieving, both morally and spiritually.
Hillel tried to offer us some guidance through this maze. He said, let’s get back to basics. First, to be a Jew is to recognize that you must treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Moral failure is rarely the result of the rejection of moral principles, but rather the narrowing of their applicability. It’s not that we don’t know what the good is; we are never in doubt as to what we believe others’ obligations are to us. The source of our failure is when we anesthetize our conscience through rationalizations which allow us to treat others differently.
Here, religion will not serve you well, for it itself is often the wellspring from which such rationalizations are born. If someone belongs to another religion, doesn’t observe to your standards, has in your eyes angered God: these and others have been used over and again to constrict moral decency in the name of religious piety.
I pray that Hillel’s teaching will always be your compass. While people are obviously different, and your responsibilities to them will vary, you will rarely go wrong if you treat them by the same standards that you, yourself, would so desire if the roles were reversed. Kant called it "universalizability
." In our tradition, it is founded on the principle that all human beings are equal, for we were all created in the image of God.
The second part of Hillel’s teaching is that this rule is the whole Torah. Now, Hillel knows this is not true. Judaism cannot be reduced to the ethical. A life of depth and greatness will inevitably contain spirituality, rituals, and culture. "This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary" is not a descriptive statement, but a prescriptive one, by which Hillel is teaching that in the end all features of our tradition must comply with this basic rule. If at any point one’s fidelity to the faith and practices of our tradition result in or even advocate for moral mediocrity, one’s duties toward the basic moral rule must prevail. "This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary" means that in the end, any feature of our tradition which does not live up to this standard must be abolished. In so doing, one is not violating the tradition, but healing it.
"Go and study." The obligation placed upon everyone to study is the great equalizer. The task of building a decent life and a religion of decency can never be the responsibility of a few. Religion often creates an elite caste of the anointed, those who "know" the law, those who "know" what God truly wants. Without checks and balances the anointed often become the source of moral corruption. "Go and study" – you don’t need anyone besides yourself to teach you about what is hateful to you. You don’t need anything else besides your moral convictions to ensure that everything else is but commentary.
The future of our religion and our people is going to belong to you. I hope to be there for a while, so that we can walk together. Once you figure out how to eat, and master a few other basic skills, I would like to invite you to help shape our people’s future. Our tradition teaches us that it is not for you to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it. We are all part of a multi-generational chain. Each one of us has a responsibility for our time, to make sure that our people and our tradition live up to the noblest and highest of standards. Even though you don’t know this yet, your time has begun.