Q. In the famous story, why didn’t Hillel mention God in what he told the heathen who wanted to know all of Judaism whilst he stood on one foot?
A heathen said to Shammai, “Teach me the whole Torah whilst I stand on one foot”. Indignant, Shammai chased him away with a builder’s tool. On receiving the same request, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
“On one foot” implies, “Give me a quick definition – no complexities, no ifs and buts!” Shammai seems to say, “Can’t be done; you’re just cheeky”. Hillel implies, “Judaism in one sentence? Here goes…”
Hillel is right that proper conduct towards others is basic to Judaism. But how can he omit any mention of God?
The question is made more difficult when we look at the verse on which Hillel relies: “Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Why does Hillel merely quote the first half, albeit in negative terms, without the second?
The clue is in the words, “Go and learn”. Anyone who looks further than the quick summary finds that love of neighbour is because your neighbour, like you, is made in the image of God.
Good conduct towards other people is not simply a rule of prudence. It is a Divine command which one must accept, like the Almighty’s laws on every aspect of human life. The law is the law, even if the expedient value of particular rule is not immediately apparent.