Fred A Levy Haskell (fredcritter) wrote,
Fred A Levy Haskell

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What's in a translation?

An interesting thing happened to me the other day (IMHO). Now, I've been familiar with Hillel's famous summary for quite some time.

It appears in A History of God by Karen Armstrong, for example, as follows:

    There is a story that one day a pagan had approached Hillel and told him that he would be willing to convert to Judaism if the Master could recite the whole of the Torah to him while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: "Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the whole of the Torah: go and learn it."
    —Karen Armstrong, A History of God, Ballantine, New York, 1993, page 72.

I'm pretty sure that when I read it there a while back, I had what was pretty much my usual reaction, which was, essentially, nodding to myself and thinking that I much prefer this "do not do" formulation over the "do" formulation of the "Golden Rule." For one thing, it seems to me that the more active stance of the latter can more easily lead to well-intentioned but unwarranted and unwelcome interference in how folks conduct their affairs.

So. I was reading Jewish Wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and came across this translation/telling of the same event:

    It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai [he and Hillel were the two leading rabbis of their age] and said to him, "Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai chased him away with the builder's rod in his hand. When he came before Hillel, Hillel converted him and said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; now go and study."
    —Babylonian Talmud,
    Shabbat 31a (shortly before the beginning of the Common Era)
    —Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, William Morrow, New York, 1994, page 5.

I suddenly (and finally!) realized that the whole quotation, not just the first part, is important and relevant. "Now go and study." That, too, is what it's about.

Okay, I'm a little slow. You all figured this one out a long time ago. Okay. But I just noticed it, and reckoned I'd pass along how tickled I am to have had this epiphanette.


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