As my teacher Rabbi Art Green tells the story, two rabbis were having an argument some nineteen hundred years ago. The topic: What is Judaism's most important teaching? Rabbi Akiva, perhaps most famously, had a ready answer which just so happens to have come from this week's parsha: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is the basic rule of Torah. This teaching is at the core of what our tradition describes as the Holiness Code, which is read this week and again on Yom Kippur afternoon in my many synagogues.
Not surprisingly, his friend Simeon ben Azzai lovingly disagreed. "I know a more basic rule than that and he quoted from the book of Genesis, "This is the book of human generations: On the day that the Holy One created humans, they were created in the image of the Divine (b'tzelem elohim)..." (Gen. 5:1).
This debate is both ancient and ever relevant. And in truth it didn't begin with Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai. Almost two hundred years earlier Hillel famously taught, when asked to summarize Judaism on one foot for a potential convert, "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; now go and learn" (B.T. Shabbat 31a). Akiva transforms Hillel's wisdom into the affirmative and roots it in biblical language.
I don't need to split hairs and choose the more righteous essence of Judaism. It is however worth noting that Ben Azzai has two worthwhile concerns. The first is about love. How can I be commanded to love someone? In these political times it does not take much imagination to conjure a person we consider so hateful that we cannot authentically muster love for them. Is that a violation of the essence of Judaism? To which Ben Azzai responds, no, love is not required as the most basic rule of Torah. But remember that they are still human beings, created in the image of God. That they are worthy of compassion and dignity. Treat them that way.
His second problem with Akiva's teaching hinges on the word "neighbor." Who does that include? Is that people with whom we live in proximity? Is that people like us? Is that only Jews? Or only Jews like us? Does Judaism not call us to extend our circles of concern to nishmat kol hai, the breath of all of creation?
Rabbi Green concludes, "The faith that every human being is created in God's image is the part of Judaism that has taken the deepest root in what may be culturally characterized as the 'Jewish soul.' Ironically it continues to exist even in Jews who are not sure if they can still use the word God or soul in any other part of their vocabulary. But they still affirm the lesson of tzelem elohim, the truth that every human life is sacred. It calls us to boundless respect for each human life, a valuing of human difference and individuality, and a commitment to fair and decent treatment for each person" (Judaisms 10 Best Ideas, p. 15).
Personally the question is still alive in my mind, what is the essence of Judaism? And I hope it always is.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.