Golden Rule vs. The Torah

How does the Golden Rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you summarize the whole Torah?

A rock-climber helping another in an extreme situation. Image © Bigstock

The “Golden Rule”, “treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12), is a paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love one’s neighbor as one’s self? Whatever a person does not want others to do to him, he should not do to others. As you love to be treated yourself, so you should treat others. That principle describes basic empathy, the foundation of human morality. The apocryphal book of Tobit states it as “Do to no man that which you hate.” Another rabbinic source puts it succinctly: “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor” (Avot de Rebbe Natan 26).

Rabbi Yeshua told His disciples that the Golden Rule “is the Torah and the Prophets.” In other words, it expresses the ethical core behind the message of the whole Bible.

Bible teachers sometimes suppose that the Master meant that the Golden Rule replaces the Law. They use Matthew 7:12 as an escape clause from the other commandments of the Torah. That is to say, if a man simply does to others what he would have them do to him, he need not concern himself with the specifics of the commandments. According to this idea, Yeshua abolished the Torah and replaced it with this shorter, easier-to-remember formula.

On the contrary, the Master did not say, “This replaces the Torah and the Prophets.” He said, “This is the Torah and the Prophets.”

The Golden Rule echoes a maxim of Hillel the Elder who lived a generation before the Master. In a famous story in the Talmud, Hillel claimed that the Golden Rule summarized the whole Torah:

On another occasion a certain Gentile came to Shammai and said to him, “Make me into a Jewish convert, but teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Immediately Shammai drove him away with the measuring stick which was in his hand. When the same Gentile went before Hillel with the same proposition, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it. Now go and study it.” (b.Shabbat 31a)

Rabbi Hillel used the Golden Rule to summarize the essence of the Torah, not to replace it. So too with Yeshua who says, “This is the Law and the Prophets.” Paul follows the same teaching when he says, “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Torah” (Romans 13:9-10). Paul did not mean that Leviticus 19:18 replaced the other commandments. The apostolic community transmitted the Golden Rule in direct conjunction with Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, and whatever you would not want to happen to you, do not do to another” (Didache 1:2).

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