I met a man at the dog park this week who very loudly told me three things about himself, in this order: He is Jewish, he is an atheist, and he is a doctor.
And then one more thing: he has no use for religion but believes in the Jewish golden rule. What he meant by the Jewish golden rule is a statement by Hillel, who is quoted in the Talmud as saying, “do not do unto others that which is hateful to you.”
I wasn’t sure why he was so anxious to tell me all this, and then realized that someone had told him that I’m a rabbi. Knowing that, he wanted to confront my beliefs. He wanted to prove that religion isn’t important. And he wanted to do it loudly and publicly.
But all he proved is that religion isn’t important to him. He had found a way to create his own understanding of how to live without engaging with any religious practice or belief….but I think he forgot that the first thing he told me about himself was that he is Jewish.
He was struggling, and that’s why he wanted to talk to me, why he wanted me to admit to him that religion is about worshiping God, so he could tell me that there is no God. I disappointed him. But maybe he wasn’t disappointed, maybe I told him exactly what he wanted to hear, or at least what he needed to hear.
Because I said that for me, religion is much more than worship. Religion gives us a framework for living, a way to engage with ourselves, with others in the community, and with the Divine. It helps us find meaning in a world that can seem chaotic and confused. Religion is indeed about inaction – not doing that which is hateful to another. And it also is about action – doing good in the world, making the world a better place.
Unbeknownst to himself, in a very real way he was re-enacting the Talmudic tale about Hillel. In it, a prospective convert went to a rabbi named Shammai and asked that he teach him all of Judaism while standing on one foot. Shammai hit him with a stick and drove him away.
So the prospective convert went to Hillel and made the same request. Hillel replied: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” According to the Talmud, the man took Hillel’s advice and went on to become a rabbi himself.
Hillel did much more than simply espouse a golden rule. He taught about inclusion and kindness, about the gifts that religion can give us. Shammai beat someone with a stick and embarrassed him, but Hillel did what was silly (stand on one foot) and boil all of Torah to one principle (a seeming absurdity) rather than embarrass his questioner.
My dog-owning Jewish-atheist-doctor wanted to challenge and perhaps even embarrass me. In that moment, by the grace of God, the warm sunlight, and the dog by my side, I was able to emulate Hillel and respond with kindness and inclusion.
As Rabbi David Markus said when I told him this story, “It turns out that the doctor’s “golden rule” example was spot on, though not for the reason he imagined.”
Religion gives us the tools to find meaning in every day activities, and elevate those simple acts – waking, eating, going to the dog park – by doing them with intentionality, with kindness and with humor. Our task is to treat each other with kindness and patience, to go forth and study, and use what we have learned to make the world a better place.