Skip to content

The Negative vs the Positive “Golden Rule”

Rabbi Hillel the Elder was a famous sage, scholar and Jewish religious leader, born in Babylon about 110 BC and died in Jerusalem.  He was the founder of the “House of Hillel School of Tannaim, ” and the tannaim were the teachers whose views were important enough to be recorded in the Mishnah, or collection of sayings.

He is popularly known as the author of an expression of an ethic of reciprocity: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”.  This form was copied into their collection of oral sayings and repeated for thousands of years – up till today.

We notice a vague similarity to our own “Golden Rule”, and yet is it not phrased in the opposite form?  Our “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is more of a positive. Almost like the positive pole to Hillel’s negative battery pole.

To treat others or do unto others as one desires to be treated himself; this is found in most religions and cultures, (but sometimes we seem to lose sight of it in today’s tough times.)

But Hillel went even further with this – he explained that “this is the whole Torah, the rest is simply the explanation, go and learn.”  By using the word Torah he indicates the first five Books of the Hebrew Bible, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In other words, to Hillel, if you simply learned not to do hateful things to your fellow man, you would have learned the entire lessons of the first portions of the Bible – and that the rest of the words in those Books were placed there simply to explain this idea.

Hillel died in 10 AD, so he lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod, and of course during part of the early life of Jesus.   It should be mentioned that he lived, like Moses, to the age of 120 years, and spent the last forty years in study.  During the last third of his life he was the spiritual head of the Jewish people.

One has to wonder if, had he lived another twenty years or so, he would have condemned Jesus the way his followers did.   But perhaps he would have, since as we see above, he has turned this Golden Rule completely around – to the Negative side.   It’s something like a “Negative” Golden Rule.

Many say that Jesus used examples from the Hebrew Bible and Jewish scholars, but here is his own teaching:  “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them”, and this is found in both Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31.   He straightened out this common Jewish saying.

My take on this is very simple – the negative form of the rule confines us to the region of justice, of government, of civil rules and punishments, while the positive version of Jesus takes us into the area of generosity, even grace, and thus it embraces both the laws and the prophets.

This post is not too long; just my thoughts on how we might prepare and outfit ourselves, mentally, in order to survive and even thrive in the times that we are now living in.