Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Important Principles

The Talmud records a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai over the relative importance of two principles in Judaism (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4): “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “This is the Book of Generations.”

Rabbi Akiva famously says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is a very important principle. This so-called “Golden Rule” is difficult to reach, yet attainable.

Ben Azai, however, asserts that the phrase introducing the generations from Adam to Noah - "This is the Book of the Generations of Humankind" (Genesis 5:1) - is an even greater principle. Sforno* explains that this verse refers to the human capacity to be a “mentsch.” Nachmanides** says “The Book” refers to the Torah.

Ben Azai’s perspective is that his preferred principle requires a person to understand, first and foremost, the origins of humanity.

Ben Azai never married and chose to devote his life to his Torah studies, and his perception of what is most important in life focuses on self-perfection. We gain the skills to work on self-perfection by studying “The Book,” as identified by Nachmanides. Once we’ve worked on ourselves and strengthened our humanness, our “mentschlichkeit,” we will automatically know how to treat others.

*Sforno-Rabbi Obadiah Sforno (Italy - 1475-1550)

**Nachmanides-R' Moshe ben Nachman, Ramban, (Spain - 1194-1270)

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