The Distilled Wisdom of the Human Race

Hillel was a great rabbi of ancient Judaism. Scholars believe he lived sometime between 110 BC and 10 AD. He founded a school, and his name was well-known to Jews then and even today. One story says a Gentile came to Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the entire Torah; the rest is its interpretation. Go study” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

Can’t you see him stand on one foot, and a few seconds later, he’s like, “What just happened?” For Hillel, this is a mike drop moment, because he’s won a convert. Then eight days later, a moyle shows up to the Gentile’s house and says, “I’m here to perform your circumcision.”


Poor guy just had no idea who he was messing with when he challenged Hillel.

Don’t Do Bad = Do Good?

If you’re familiar with Hillel’s teachings, it’s obvious Jesus learned a thing or two from him. It may have influenced him when he said this: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

You probably heard this called the Golden Rule. Some people might say Jesus stole this from Hillel, but they are not exactly the same. One is stated negatively, and the other positively. One says, “Don’t do anything bad,” and the other says, “Only do good.” To not do bad, you can just stay at home watching TV. You’re not doing anything hateful to anybody. But to do good, you have to, you know, do something. It requires you to be active, not passive. Unless we’re in a pandemic. Then, staying home and not spreading it is doing good.

I’m not knocking Hillel’s way of saying it. It is likely a distillation of commandments like, “Do not kill; do not steal; do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Is it hateful to you if someone steals from you or lies about you (especially in court) or kills you? Then don’t do it to another. If you manage to get through life without doing anything harmful to anyone, you have done very well.

But in my view, you really can’t say anyone stole this idea, because it shows up in every major religion. Some express it negatively, and some express it positively, but all of them have this concept of treating others the way you want to be treated.

Golden Rule Poster by Paul McKenna of Scarboro Missions.jpg
By <a href=”//” title=”User:Boyd Reimer”>Boyd Reimer</a> – <span class=”int-own-work” lang=”en”>Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Many Religions, One Golden Rule

Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you (Mahabharata 5:1517).

Buddhism: Do not offend others, as you would not want to be offended (Udana Varga 5.18).

Taoism: The successes of your neighbor and their losses will be to you as if they were your own (T’ai Shan Kan Ying P’ien 13:18).

Confucianism: Is there any rule that one should follow all of one’s life? Yes. The rule of the Gentle Goodness: That which we do not wish to be done to us, we do not do to others (Analects 15:24).

Islam: None of you shall be true believers unless you wish for your brother the same that you wish for yourself (An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13).

Sikhism: I am a stranger to no one, and no one is a stranger to me. I am a friend to all (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1299).

Baha’i: Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid on you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself (Baha’ullah, Gleanings 66:8).

Zoroastrianism: Do not unto others whatever is injurious to yourself (Shayast na-Shayast 13:29).

Jainism: One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated (Mahavira, Sutrakritanga 1.11.33).

Unitarian Universalism: [We affirm and promote] the inherent worth and dignity of every person (First Principle; cf. Second through Fourth Principles).

Stoicism: “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you” (Seneca, Letter 47).

Native American: We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive (Chief Dan George).

One Rule to Follow

I want you to notice not just that this idea appears in every religion but how important they say it is. Confucius said it is the one rule you should always follow. The Hadith says you are not a true believer unless you follow this rule. The Mahabharata says it is the sum of duty. Hillel said it is the entire Torah, and Jesus said it is the Law and the Prophets.

You might be thinking it can’t really be that simple. All of these religious texts have a lot more commands than just “treat others the way you want to be treated.” But do they assign the same importance to the other commands as this one? Hillel said, this is the Torah. Everything else is interpretation. In other words, everything else in the sacred texts is there to teach you how to treat others the way we want to be treated.

Why do we need to be taught? This rule is as simple as it gets. Yes, it’s simple but not easy. If everyone followed that rule, we wouldn’t need 99% of the rules and laws we have, religious or secular. But as Paul said, laws increased because transgressions increased. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not commit adultery. Do not covet what is your neighbor’s. Do not take a bribe. Do not commit fraud. Do not take away food, clothing, shelter, water, medical care, or any basic necessity someone needs to live. If we all just treated everyone else the way we want to be treated, we wouldn’t need any of those laws, because we wouldn’t do those things.

But people’s selfish desires compete with the Golden Rule. So every society and every religion creates more laws to identify transgressions. But it all starts with the Golden Rule. Every major religion or philosophy has recognized that is the one rule everyone needs to follow, regardless of religion, nationality, race, or politics.

Can We Start Over?

Huston Smith, a renowned scholar of world religions, once said, “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”

Is this not the distilled wisdom of the human race? The Golden Rule? The rule of Gentle Goodness? The sum of duty? The entire Torah and the prophets? The one rule that makes you a true believer? Treat others the way you want to be treated. You don’t even have to be part of any religion to do that. What if instead of arguing about which religion is right or wrong, we started with that?

Think about how all these different people—Buddha, Mohamed, Hillel, Moses, Zoroaster, Confucius, Jesus, and others, separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, most of whom did not know of each other—dedicated their lives to finding the best way for humans to live, and all came to the same conclusion. They may not have agreed on everything, but they did agree on this: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

What if we all worked on getting that right first? Then and only then will we talk about what makes us different. I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of world I would like to live in.

Now at the risk of contradicting myself, I believe Jesus did something with this rule that no one else did, at least as far as I can tell. That will be my next post.

2 thoughts on “The Distilled Wisdom of the Human Race

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