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Commentary on Tanakh Discussion March 15, 2021

Don Perlmutter

"What is the most important principle in Torah?"

Rabbi Edery posed this question to our group. The following were some of the responses:

“Life above all”
This refers to the doctrine of pikuach nefesh or preservation of an individual life. Because we are created in the image of God and our life is given by God, it is necessary to employ any means to save a life, including breaking other commandments. It is interesting to note that pikuach nefesh only applies to saving an individual Jewish life, according to Maimonides. On the other hand, Nachmanides expanded the application of pikuah nefesh to include gentiles as well, citing Leviticus: “the stranger and the citizen shall live with you.” This second interpretation promotes a general responsibility of Jews to look out for the entire community and perhaps is the inspiration for Jewish involvement in social justice and humanitarian movements. 

“The Golden Rule” or as Rabbi Akiba cited Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself." 
This principle sets a goal for minimum acceptable behavior. It is a low bar in that one is only required to treat others as well as you do yourself. This has a pragmatic or functional aspect to it which does not aspire to a higher level of ethical behavior. However, as with pikuach nefesh, it is a guiding principle that promotes consideration and seeks to avoid a double standard in judging others.  Once again, in the original interpretation of this principle, it was to be applied only to other Jews, but has since been expanded (except in the Orthodox community).  

We next considered the forty-nine ways the Talmud describes for acquiring the Torah. They take the form of questions asked at the time of final judgement. One we discussed in depth:

“Did you deal honestly in business?”
The question, of course, is meant to spur one to examine his own ethics. However, asking this in this context illustrates a fundamental approach of Judaism to life. All interactions with others are subject to the laws of Torah. There should be no artificial separation between business and other areas of behavior. In fact, ethical business behavior is the “high water mark” because it may require self-sacrifice as opposed to the notion of caveat emptor

Finally, we discussed the question: “Did you derive one thing from another?”
This suggests an imperative to be a critical listener and thinker and to draw your own conclusions: A lesson to be applied weekly in our Tanakh discussions!  

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782