Ben Azzai said: "'This is the record of Adam's line. [-When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God . . . ] (Gen. 5:1)'-this is a great principle of the Torah."
R. Akiva said: "'You shall love your fellow as yourself: [I am the Lord.] (Lev. 19:18)' - this is an even greater principle, for you must not say, 'Since I have been shamed, let my neighbor be shamed with me; since I have been cursed, let my neighbor be cursed with me.'"
R. Tanhuma said: "If you do so, know Whom you [ultimately] shame: '[When God created man,] He made him in the likeness of God . . . '"
At numerous points in Jewish history, rabbis and scholars have addressed the question of what tenet or observance represents the heart of Judaism. Seldom, however, have our teachers argued the converse about a biblical text that ought to be eliminated from the canon. One such instance highlights the significance of the midrash above and the Torah verses it interprets.
In Jane Isay's collection, You are My Witness: The Living Words of Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, an excerpted interview with Rabbi Meyer includes an anecdote about his beloved teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Meyer recounts Professor Heschel provocatively asking a group of his students at JTS if they wished they could remove any commandments from the Torah. Following a pause, Heschel then shared that he himself would uproot Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your fellow as yourself." After a few moments of his students' stunned silence, Heschel explained that this commandment is "simply impossible to fulfill, and it's so important, it's the basis of all civilization." This statement presents the paradox of a commandment that undergirds our entire system of ethics, yet whose performance, in essence, eludes completion.
Heschel's conundrum helps us to understand what is at stake in the dispute between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva over which verse is most fundamental to understanding the Torah. Ben Azzai focuses on the passage that establishes the creation of humanity in God's image and the equality of humankind as descendants of that shared lineage. Rabbi Akiva chooses the biblical version of the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) and then explains his selection with the logic of the Silver Rule (do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you). While Rabbi Tanhuma explicitly synthesizes these two approaches, Rabbi Akiva implicitly incorporates Ben Azzai's position within his own in the conclusion to Leviticus 19:18—"I am the Lord." Since this phrase names God as both Creator of humanity and as our Commander, Teacher of Torah law, upholding that commandment expresses one's love of God, Torah, and humanity all at once.
Rabbi Meyer made these precepts the core of his rabbinate in spite of tremendous challenges. After founding both a Conservative seminary and a synagogue in 1960s Buenos Aires, he openly criticized and resisted the military regime that brutally violated Argentines' human rights. His work in Argentina and, later, his work in transforming Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan exemplified Rabbi Heschel's theology. I am proud to count his students as my teachers, and am humbled as I continually learn how to love God's image in my fellows and in myself through acts of compassion and justice.