I’m sure Martin Luther King Day is going to inspire many posts today, and each one will be different, and reflect the writer’s own interests, whether it be race relations, politics, or religion.
Martin Luther King makes me think of morality. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was all about morality, a clear case of right vs. wrong.
Unfortunately, not issue in life is as clear-cut. Morality is a complicated subject.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about religious issues such as morality. When I write about Jewish subjects, I tend to go for the cultural items — the bagels, the Yiddish words, the mother jokes — but I’m actually quite interested in Jewish religious thought. I mean I like to mock it, too, because I figure God wouldn’t have given us a sense of humor if he didn’t want us to make fun of Him.
The Golden Rule is considered the basis for most moral thought.
“Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.”
The Golden Rule is as ancient as it is cross-cultural. The ethic of reciprocity was present in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Judea, and China.
The Golden Rule is certainly a major part of the Torah.
However, there are two competing version of the Golden Rule, or more accurately, there is a Golden Rule and a Silver Rule.
The Golden Rule is frequently attributed to Jesus, even though it was around for centuries before his birth.
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).
Christianity adopted the Golden Rule from two passages in Leviticus in the Old Testament.
Leviticus 19:18 —
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself”
and Leviticus 19:34
“But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
Of course, the Golden Rule is older than both the New Testament AND the Hebrew Bible. It first appears in Ancient Egypt (c. 2040-1650 BCE) and is even spoken about by Confucius (551-479 B.C.)
Early Christianity was eager to distinguish itself from the Judaism of Jesus, so much of the traditional commandments were seen as unnecessary, including the kosher and circumcision laws. This was partly to attract new converts. In order to separate the new religion from the old one, Judaism gets a pretty bad rap in the New Testament, where they are portrayed as a priestly people obsessed with outdated laws and corruption (like a Washington D.C. of the time!), preparing the way for centuries of anti-Semitism.
Since Christianity was presented as a religion of good deeds, it is no surprise that “Do unto others…” became so central to Western culture.
Unfortunately, early Christian leaders, focusing on positive stories like “the Good Samaritan” gave little emphasis to the flip side of the Golden Rule — “The Silver Rule.”
The Silver Rule was already an established part of the teachings of the great rabbis at the time of Jesus. Hillel, an elder contemporary of Jesus, is have said to have written this famous line in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, when asked to sum up the entire Torah concisely, as if it were a Twitter update:
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
—Talmud, Shabbat 31a
In effect, don’t do unto others that you wouldn’t want them to do to you.
This Silver Rule was not unique to the rabbis. It was central to the teachings of Confucius.
“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” (己所不欲，勿施于人）
—Confucius, Analects XV.24
I think I personally follow the Silver Rule more than the Golden Rule. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with years of Hebrew school or just my personal makeup. The Golden Rule doesn’t energize my brain.
If I am walking out of my apartment building, and I see an old woman shuffling behind me, I would hold the door for her. Why? Out of instinct. I don’t need to ponder the Golden Rule.
But let me change the situation:
I am rushing to catch the bus. I open the door to head out when I see the old woman shuffling behind me.
“Hurry up,” I say to myself as she walks, as slow as molasses.
If I keep holding the door for her, I might miss my bus.
NOW is when I need a internal barometer, a belief statement to help me make this split second decision.
“Do Unto Others…” doesn’t help me. I’m not being asked to do something positive. I am wondering if the situation allows me to do something negative. I need to think about the Silver Rule.
“Don’t Do Unto Others…”
Should I slam the door in this old woman’s face because I want to get to the bus? Is it worth it? Would I want this to happen to me, if the situation was reversed? Won’t she think I’m an asshole? What if I tell her that I am in a rush, so then she will understand? Or should I just wait for the next bus?”
A little neurotic? Maybe? But if I were living in the South during the 1960’s, many moral questions would be presented to me every day, almost none of them about “doing unto others.” They would be about “don’t do unto others.”
Why shouldn’t my fellow citizens have the same rights as I do?
The “negative” Silver Rule appeals to me. It seems to me to have a concreteness necessary to make moral decisions in the real world where NOT DOING SOMETHING WRONG comes up as frequently as doing something right. We need to give everyone adequate health care not because I believe you would be kind enough to help me, because knowing you, you’d probably be too busy on Farmville to care, but because I would be outraged if I was in your shoes and couldn’t care for MY family.
Dr. Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, was a big advocate of the Silver Rule.