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Torah on One Foot
While you’re still standing, if you’re willing and able, please stand on one foot and repeat after me: “What is hateful to me I will not do to another.” You may put your feet down. This is the law and the prophets. All the rest is commentary.
In the name of God who fathered our Redeemer Jesus Christ, Christ our Savior and the Blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.
The story goes that a certain gentile approached two of the famous rabbis teaching in and around Jerusalem in the first century. The person told the first rabbi, Rabbi Shammai, that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot.
Torah is frequently translated as “law,” as in “the Law and the Prophets” and, law is torah but torah is more than law. The word torah comes from one of the words for rain. Torah is everything that God rains down or reveals from heaven. Sometimes torah is translated as teaching orrevelation. The first five books of the bible are called the Torah. The Torah contains law and story and poetry and song and genealogy and more. There is also torah in every part of the scripture and in each testament. I like to say that there is torah in the Torah and more than torahin the Torah and there is torah outside of the Torah. In the Jewish congregation to which I also belong my sermons are called d’vrei torah, words of Torah. And it’s not uncommon for someone to say to me after I have taught, “thank you for sharing your torah with us.”
Back to our story, when the would be convert told the rabbi that he would convert if he taught him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he was asking to be taught the whole revelation of God, everything that God had revealed to humankind. And the second rabbi’s answer, Rabbi Hillel’s answer was, “What is hateful to me I will not do to another. All the rest is commentary.”
Some of you may recognize this as one formulation of the Golden Rule. There are many others:
Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you,
and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings
Treat not others in ways
that you yourself would find hurtful.
- The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18
One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct
. . .loving kindness.
Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.
- Confucius, Analects 15.23
This is the sum of duty:
do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.
- Mahabharata 5:1517
Not one of you truly believes
until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.
- The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith
One should treat all creatures in the world as
one would like to be treated.
- Mahavira, Sutrakritanga
Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.
- Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29
This principle is the essence of good religion and is shared by religious and ethical communities around the world and across time. But all of our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, ashrams, ethical and humanist societies are full of people. And people don’t always agree on religion and ethics. In fact, people are responsible for most of what’s wrong with religion, even and especially when they – we – blame it on God or our scriptures.
For some folk, rules and regulations dominate religion, for others, religion is all about relationship. And depending on your perspective, the Ten Commandments offer proof of one viewpoint or the other.
Let’s take a vote. How many say religion is about rules? How many say religion is about relationships? How many say religion is about rules and relationships? I voted all three times, because I think it’s all of the above and more than all of the above. Let’s see if we can get a little more clarity.
To make a definitive ruling I suggest we ask a Rabbi. Rebbe Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Rabbi Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth – you know, the one with the questionable parentage – is the authoritative Christian Rabbi. Not because he was ever Christian, he was not, and is not – he is for those who believe in his Resurrection, still alive and still Jewish. But he is one of the Rabbis to whom Christians turn for our Torah, arguably the preeminent Rabbi, although there are some who turn to Sha’ul L’Tarsus, Saul or Paul of Tarsus, I’m not one of them.
In order to consult Rabbi Jesus, I’m going to offer another Gospel lesson:
Mark 12:28 One of the torah-teachers, (biblical scholars or scribes) came near and heard Yeshua, Jesus, some Pharisees and some Sadducees interpreting the scripture and debating with one another, and seeing that Yeshua/Jesus answered them beautifully, the torah-teacher asked him, “Which commandment, is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Sovereign our God, the Sovereign is One. 30 And, you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength/substance.’ 31 The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the torah-teacher said to him, “Beautiful, Rabbi! You have truly said that ‘God is One, and besides God there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Yeshua, Jesus, saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask him another question.
The question focused on rules. Jesus offered them an alternative rabbinic opinion, focusing on relationships. In his answer, Jesus changed the rules by changing the Torah. Jesus modifies the “you-shall-love” commandment by adding a category for loving God with one’s mind, understanding or intellect that is not present in the original verse in the Torah. This makes sense in a world in which Greek philosophy is being articulated as the highest of intellectual pursuits. In that context it would be unreasonable to proclaim a religion that does not account for the intellectual capacities of human beings. I argue that today Jesus would add “You shall love the Holy One your God with all of your deoxyribonucleic acid, your DNA,” and perhaps even your quarks, avatars and social media personas.
You might not see “love” in the Ten Commandments as they are presented in the Church’s readings today. If you look closely, verses five and six are missing. That’s because God says in verse 5, “You shall not bow down to or worship idols; for I the Holy One your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” That wasn’t considered very PC, so they cut it out. But God also says in verse 6, “I show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Reflecting on the Ten Commandments and the question, “Is religion about rules or relationships?” The answer is neither “yes” nor “no;” rather the answer is a word that is behind the text, underneath the text and between the lines of the text, and that word is “love.” What is the most important commandment? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with God? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with my neighbors? Love! What about strangers? Love! What about my enemies? Love! What about me? Love! So this religion is about relationships. Yes, based on love. What about the rules? The rule is love!
Whether you’re a “half-empty” or “half-full” person when you see eight ounces of Dr. Pepper in a sixteen ounce glass, whether you believe the commandments, bible, God and religion are about rules or relationship, the answer is still love!
It is the love God that surrounds us in this and every place. It is the love of God that speaks to us through the scriptures and commandments and in our hearts. And it was love that conceived Christ Jesus in the Virgin’s womb, love that raised him to love Jew and Gentile, women and men, whole and broken, guilty and innocent. It was love that suffered, bled and died. And it was love that rose with the sun offering light and life to all in its embrace. And it is love that remains in the broken, hurting world, shining beyond the sin, grief, disease and death. Love.
In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
Christ Memorial Episcopal Church
2 October 2011