If I were to stand on one foot and ask you to teach me all of Torah, what would you say?
One of the first things I learned when I was becoming religious was the Talmudic passage in which a man goes to Hillel and asks him to teach him all of Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel replies, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary– now go and study it!” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a.)
As someone who knew very little about Judaism before this, I was surprised by Hillel’s response. I thought the answer would be some of the more tangible things, like keeping Shabbat, not eating pork, or having sidelocks. Instead, the answer was something I had already learned, not through a Jewish context, but in my public school in kindergarten.
I was coming to Orthodox Judaism from a family that is not religiously affiliated. I went to public school my entire life—not the most common path for a student of Yeshiva University and much of the Orthodox world. In tenth grade, someone approached me about attending an NCSY Shabbaton, and for some inexplicable reason, I agreed. After going once, I was hooked and I started becoming more and more involved in NCSY, and in turn, more and more involved in Judaism. Finally, upon graduation, I went to seminary for a year and a half in Israel. I am now in Stern College and am a dedicated, Torah observant Jew.
One of the Jewish concepts I learned when first becoming religious was Hashgacha Pratis, or Divine Providence, which states that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes we don’t know why something is happening in the moment, but often when we look back, it all makes sense. There are two big pieces of my life that didn’t make sense at the time, but looking back, it’s clear to me that they were supposed to happen.
In my freshman year of high school, I joined the Gay Straight Alliance, or Alliance for Equality. I identify as straight and cisgendered, so seemingly, this club didn’t affect me. Nevertheless, I became more and more involved in equality at my high school. I presented at faculty meetings where I spoke to all of the teachers at my school about sensitivity, and also to eighth grade classes and told them about what it truly means to be an LGBT ally.
By senior year, I had become the president of the Gay Straight Alliance. Initially, I felt like I was a fraud. How could a straight person be the president of this club? However, my faculty advisor explained to me that if I was the president, since I identified as straight, closeted people would feel comfortable coming to meetings, because showing up wouldn’t be outing them.
This club had become something that was very important to me. One day, my mom was driving me home from school and we pulled into the garage and she turned to me and said “JJ, I have an important question for you. It is totally fine if you are, but are you gay?” I laughed. She then said, “No for real, I’m okay with it! Just tell me!” So I told her, “No, I am not gay.” And then she looked at me and asked, “Then why does it matter so much to you? Why do you fight so hard to be an ally?” And I told her the truth—that I didn’t really know. I was not quite sure when and how, but it had become something that mattered. And then, my mom broke down in tears. Through her tears, she just managed to say that there was something important she needed to tell me.
I was named after my uncle Jordan who died about a year before I was born, but I never heard his story until that moment. My uncle Jordan was gay, and he died of AIDS. Sitting in the car, my mother said to me,“If there had been more people like you, more allies fighting for the LGBT community, they might have cared enough to find a cure for AIDS, and my brother might still be with us.”
When people find out both of these parts of me—the Orthodox Jew and the LGBT ally—they often ask me how I reconcile everything I have learned about Torah with this community that I care so deeply about. People assume it is extremely difficult to rationalize being a continuous ally as I have become more and more religious, but I always tell those people that it’s actually really easy. The two fit together quite perfectly.
When I learned this source of Hillel summarizing the entire Torah as “what is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor,” I realized that, by being an ally to the LGBT community, I was following this exact ideal. I was respecting people, and giving them the amount of respect I want for myself. It all began to make sense and fall perfectly into place.
If that wasn’t enough, I soon learned about the Omer. Between Pesach and Shavuot, we have forty-nine days that we spend mourning the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Forty-nine days is a huge chunk of our year. I can’t think of anything else that we consistently set aside that much of our year for. If you were to ask anyone in the time of Rabbi Akiva what his students were like, they would tell you that his students were following all the tangible Halachot I mentioned before. They were amazing Torah scholars, learning more than I could ever dream of in my lifetime. So why did they die?
The Talmud Tractate Yevamot answers this troubling question: “It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples… and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect.” (Yevamot 62b)
Rabbi Akiva’s students were exemplary in every way, but they died because they weren’t treating each other with respect. Not only that, but we now set aside a huge chunk of our year to remind ourselves just how important it is to respect people. That’s a really big deal. For forty-nine days we change the way we live and the prayers we say as a reminder of how high we hold the value of respect.
Rabbi Moshe Benovitz of NCSY Kollel and Reshit gave a lecture in which he discussed that it’s not only our halachic responsibility to be kind to people, but that we also have a responsibility to go out of our way to make people feel comfortable. In his lecture, he asks why God created this universe where we all live together. Surely God has enough power that He could have created separate universes for each of us: that way we could have just focused on our own interactions and relationships with God.
Rabbi Benovitz said, “The reason why we are together is necessarily the ultimate test of our humanity. God is saying by the very fact that He creates the entire universe and world together that this is the ultimate testing ground of how human we are, how successful we are as people, and that this is a necessary aspect of our growth and our avodah in life.” Benovitz continues, “The way we treat people determines how successful we are going to be. That is not a reality that we are always comfortable with.”
Benovitz ends by saying, “That is not a reality that we are always comfortable with,” and this is important. I don’t want you to think I write this as a hypocrite. I didn’t care about Torah or Judaism when I was becoming an ally to the LGBT community, but that doesn’t mean it was easy for me. As a little ninth grader, I was bullied by students older than me, I got threatened on the bus and during extra-curriculars, and I even had teachers bullying me, which is hard to believe, but it happens. But I kept fighting for it because I knew how important it was. I knew that just because something gets difficult, it didn’t mean I should stop fighting for what was right or what I believed in. What Rabbi Benovitz is saying is that respecting people is the ultimate test of our humanity—and any ultimate test is not going to be easy. It’s difficult, and Rabbi Benovitz is acknowledging that, but it’s difficult because it is so crucial.
There are people who consider themselves Torah dedicated Jews who poke fun at, ridicule, bully, and excommunicate people in the LGBT community, Jewish or not. Some of these people even confidently align this behavior with being a mensch based on Torah values. But the message is simply and clearly illustrated in the verses of Torah; if you would not want these things done to you, do not do them to others.
We as Jews are supposed to be “a light unto the nations,” a responsibility many struggle with. Does that mean we are better than others, or that Jews are superior? Of course not. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said it most succinctly: “God chose the Jewish people to teach the whole world that we are all chosen.”
If we keep living our lives as Hillel tells us to, with as much respect for human life as we believe we deserve, then eventually everyone will appreciate how important they are and will rise to fill their potential, and the world will be filled with light.
Now, wherever you are, stand up. Stand on one foot, and ask yourself this: how are you going to internalize the most important message of the Torah?