Rabbi Akiva says: “‘Love your fellow as yourself'” (Leviticus 19:18), is the greatest principle of the Torah.
Ben Azzai says, “‘When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1) is the greatest principle in the Torah. You should not say: Because I have been dishonored, let my fellow be dishonored along with me…”
Rabbi Tanhuma explained: “If you do so, know whom you are dishonoring – ‘He made him in the likeness of God.'” (Genesis Rabbah 24)
In this classic Midrash, Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai are doing what Talmudic rabbis do best: playing a lively game of spiritual oneupsmanship. In this case, they are debating the central value of Torah: according to Akiba it is the famous verse from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai counters with the insight from this week’s Torah portion: humanity was created in God’s image.
Rabbi Tanhuma’s final statement reinforces the weakness of Akiba’s claim: though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.
I am particularly struck that Akiba’s statement expresses an essentially humanist point of view, while Ben Azzai’s is an inherently theological assertion. In a sense, Ben Azzai raises the moral stakes of the equation. As the saying (often misattributed to Dostoevsky) goes: “where there is no God, all is permitted.” This drives home the radical imperative in Genesis: if all people are made in the divine image, all people are of infinite worth; all people are deserving of dignity, respect and fair treatment.
The Torah thus begins with this foundational principle, which has both interpersonal/ethical as well as global/moral implications. As we start Torah anew yet again, we return to its central question: how can we find the wherewithal to treat everyone we meet as a fellow child of God? How can we, as Americans, as Jews, as global citizens find dignity and respect for all who dwell on earth?
Postscript: One powerful way you can honor Torah’s central principle: consider attending the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights on December 7-9 in Washington DC.
Dostoyevsky is indeed the author of the comment that without God, all is possible. That thesis is one of the main theses of “The Brothers Karamazov,” a book I have read and re-read and hope to read again shortly. Ivan Karamazov is obsessed with this thought, and other characters in the novel refer to it frequently ( For example, in my Modern Library edition,, Father Zossima says (p330),”If you have no God, what is the meaning of crime?” To say that this idea comes from a character created by Dostoyevsky, not from the author himself, is to miss the point of one of the great discussions of theology in literature. I recommend a reading (or re-reading) to you – food for many a sermon or blog.
And perhaps others want to join in this conversation.
I think this is a really fascinating issue. For my part, I still question whether it is fair to attribute this quote to Dostoyevsky if he did not actually write it and if he did not personally believe it. This is what David Cortesi writes in his piece from my link:
“Many people have assumed three things that (it seems to me) are not supported by the text of The Brothers Karamazov:
1. Dostoevsky himself wrote the sentence “If God does not exist, everything is lawful.”
2. Dostoevsky meant by that, that it is impossible to have a moral system without God (in other words, that he himself felt that both the statement and its inverse were true).
3. Dostoevsky believed in God.”
Like Naomi, I encourage others to offer their thoughts on this one!
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