All on one foot

The message behind a famous story, ethics vs. morals and a word about the month of Elul on our doorstep.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple ,

Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple
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ALL ON ONE FOOT

Q. In the famous story, why didn’t Hillel mention God in what he told the heathen who wanted to know all of Judaism whilst he stood on one foot?

A. The story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) points up the different dispositions of Hillel and Shammai.

A heathen said to Shammai, "Teach me the whole Torah whilst I stand on one foot."

Indignant, Shammai chased him away with a builder’s tool.

On receiving the same request, Hillel said, "What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn."

"On one foot" implies, "Give me a quick definition – no complexities, no ifs and buts!"

Shammai seems to say, "Can’t be done; you’re just cheeky". Hillel implies, "Judaism in one sentence? Here goes…"

Hillel is right that proper conduct towards others is basic to Judaism. But how can he omit any mention of God?

The question is made more difficult when we look at the verse on which Hillel relies: "Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18).

Why does Hillel merely quote the first half, albeit in negative terms, without the second?

The clue is in the words, "Go and learn". Anyone who looks further than the quick summary finds that love of neighbour is because your neighbour, like you, is made in the image of God.

Good conduct towards other people is not simply a rule of prudence. It is a Divine command which one must accept, like the Almighty’s laws on every aspect of human life. The law is the law, even if the expedient value of a particular rule is not immediately apparent.


ETHICS VS MORALS

Q. How do ethics and morals differ?

A. The distinction may be that ethics is the art of good conduct as defined by absolute standards, whilst morals are determined by society.

What is moral is not always stable. It depends on what society finds acceptable at a given moment.

What is ethical requires an external criterion, which in the case of religion is God.

Because immorality is not what it used to be; it became possible to speak of the New Morality. The most obvious example is the sexual revolution; society these days endorses or condones many things that were once regarded as unthinkable not only by Judaism.

Judaism wonders how an act or attitude can be wrong yesterday, right today, and possibly wrong again tomorrow. It calls this flexibility "hefker", "out of control" – i.e. anarchy.

The Jewish view prefers fixed points with a fence around them (Avot 1:1) as a guard against infringement.

Thus the rules of impermissible sexual conduct are protected by the notion of "n'gi'ah", which literally means "touching" but in a wider sense warns us not to put ourselves into an erotic situation which could lead one across the line; and by the concept of "tz'ni'ut", "modesty", which denotes a general attitude of dignity in dress, speech and conduct.

None of this implies that sex is in any way "dirty" but that it is holy and must not be cheapened.


ROSH CHODESH ELUL

This week brings the beginning of Elul, a month with a serious and sombre mood as befits the lead-up to Rosh Hashannah.

The High Holyday spirit is apparent from the melody used for the announcement of Rosh Chodesh, and from the recital of Psalm 27, the Penitential Psalm, as well as the daily blowing of the shofar.

It appears strange, however, that at the end of Elul the one Rosh Chodesh we do not announce in the synagogue is Tishri.

Since 1-2 Tishri is Rosh Hashannah, we hardly need to announce it and its approach is all around us. The other months are different, since once, people were unsure about dates without an announcement. Even today, with all our technology, we sometimes wonder what the date is and have to ask a computer or cell phone.

Jewish observance depends on knowing the Hebrew date. Ex. 12 says, "This month (Nisan) is the first of the months", which Rambam sees as a duty to announce the months (Hil’chot Kiddush HaChodesh 1).

Originally this duty needed eye-witness testimony at the Sanhedrin, but later it was governed by calculation. The Rosh Chodesh announcement, asking for a good month, is based on a personal prayer of Rav (Ber. 16b).

Rosh Chodesh is linked with the phases of the moon. As the moon waxes and wanes, so does Jewish history. Our spiritual life also goes through stages, oscillating between greater and lesser faith.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com


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