Around the time of Jesus, a man was thinking about converting to Judaism. So, he sought out the renowned Rabbi Hillel and asked him to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. All the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
Sensing the need for a second opinion, the man posed the same question to another prominent rabbi named Shammai. The seeker said, “Teach me the Torah, that is, teach me all of your traditions, your values, your practices, and your theology, while standing on one foot.” (Shabbat 31a) In answer, Shammai beat the man with a stick.
On another occasion Hillel and Shammai reflected on whether or not Torah allows us to tell a homely bride that she is beautiful. For Shammai, a white lie is still a lie, and Torah prohibits lying. By contrast, Hillel said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day.
Hillel and Shammai founded the two great schools of Jewish thought that permeated the intellectual, moral, and spiritual atmosphere that Jesus breathed. Their discussions and debates about how the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and its application to everyday life shaped a portion of what is called the Oral Torah.
The Talmud preserved the Oral Torah in written form about two centuries after Jesus’s death and resurrection. As you may know, the Talmud remains central to the religious, spiritual, and moral life of Judaism. Even though the Talmud is a printed document, it is still sometimes called Oral Torah. And I think that calling it the Oral Torah helps us understand some of Jesus’s conflicts with the Pharisees.
Frequently Christians read the New Testament’s conflict stories as if Jesus is a theological good guy and the Pharisees are bad guys.
Some interpreters read the text as if Jesus has already started a new faith tradition called Christianity that is clearly delineated from Judaism. So, they hear in the Gospel’s conflict stories a clash of religious traditions. Christianity is cast as all about grace and Judaism is portrayed as crass legalism.
For some people it’s a startling news flash to hear that Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a devout and learned Jew. (He also wasn’t white and hailed from the Middle East, but let’s just deal with one shock to the system at a time.)
So, when Jesus debates the Pharisees, he’s participating as a fellow Jew in what they all recognize as Oral Torah. They all acknowledge that the Hebrew Bible comes alive—means something—only when we wrestle with it together as we try to navigate the messy particulars of our real lives.
To put this another way, Scripture is always a living conversation. Its meaning emerges in the varied, often unpredictable and wildly unique situations and circumstances of real human life. Scripture is not a set of stand-alone instructions that we can memorize and then simply follow without interpretation and application.
We can assess the adequacy of our interpretations of Scripture by what our interpretations have done to our souls. What are our encounters with Scripture making of us as spiritual beings? That’s what Jesus is getting at when he calls some Pharisees “hypocrites.”
This group of Pharisees has criticized Jesus’s disciples for failing to adhere to traditional spiritual cleanliness practices like washing vessels and hands. These traditional practices are themselves part of Oral Torah. They are rabbinic guidance designed to ensure that our outward actions never violate more significant laws found in Hebrew Scripture.
This moral reasoning process is called building a fence around the Torah. If you follow simple regulations about your ordinary routines you’ll never be in danger of breaking God’s moral law. So, wash up!
Good Jew that he was, Jesus probably saw how useful building a Torah fence could be and likely followed many of these practices habitually. But he also recognized that the usefulness of how Torah had been previously interpreted must remain open to question. A key for testing previous interpretations was to ask: what are the interpretations we’ve received doing to us now?
The same can be said about how we Christians engage Scripture today. Jesus challenges us to take our soul’s temperature.
Do we respect the dignity and celebrate the worth of others? Or do we objectify them or condescend to them or harbor contempt for them?
Do we respond with joy—or with resentment—for someone else’s good fortune?
Do we seek the well-being of everyone or are we content with a world divided into winners and losers?
Jesus puts it like this:
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:21-23)
If a potential disciple asked me to summarize what it means to follow Jesus while standing on one foot, I would initially think of how Jesus echoed Hillel. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12)
But this is what I would end up saying. Live your life like God is sloppy in love with you and everyone you meet. Love God back. Love your neighbor like you couldn’t live without her. Because, actually, you can’t.
Then again, maybe I would just leave it at this: Love.