Elevator Speeches ~ On One Foot — Rosh Hashanah Day 2 — 22 September 2017 / 2 Tishrei 5778
Oct 11th 2017

Shana tovah. Josette and I hope you will be have a year of good health, much love and many blessings.

Building Faith in Canada

I’m still a little tender. Last week, I was building affordable housing in Scarborough with other faith leaders. Buddhists and Bahai, Muslims and Mormons, Protestatnts and Catholics, Jews and First Nations - we were all working hard to construct walls, install floors, and frame windows. I’m still a bit sore.

This project of Faith in Canada 150 and Habitat for Humanity is intended to enable people to turn faith into action, to demonstrate that the diverse religious traditions of Canada are engaged in efforts to improve life here.

If you want to get involved, Communities of Faith will build on October 25 and Women of Faith on October 26.

An important aspect of this project is the opportunity to learn from each other about each other. During a lunch conversation, I was discussing with a Mormon leader how a religion based in 19th century America could missionize around the globe. A Protestant minister pointed out that he and I have a more challenging task, seeking to bridge a religious message from the ancient Near East to Canadian society.

In these encounters, we learn much about others and about ourselves. I hope you occasionally have these types of discussions at work or with non-Jewish friends. Perhaps you have been asked to explain what Judaism is all about. What have you said?

The Creed Must be Sung

This is not a new question. In the medieval world, there was tremendous competition between religions. In 8th century Baghdad, one observer wrote that he wandered from hall to hall in the same building to hear the sermons and teachings of various religions, each one vying for believers and adherents. In that context, being able to provide a summary of your religious beliefs was essential.

That competition for truth — and market share — may have been what eventually led the great halakhic, medical and philosophic authority, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, Rambam, to seek to summarise the basic beliefs of Judaism. His 13 principles were attacked.  Some felt that they were overly intellectual, that his choices were flawed, that Judaism couldn’t be boiled down to dogma, or that Judaism depended on the 613 action mitzvot.

But his idea must have been popular, because there are over 90 poems summarising the thirteen principles. You may be familiar with the most popular of them. Yigdal, attributed tothe Italian lyricist Daniel ben Yehudah, has been set to many different musical compositions.

A different effort to summarise Judaism is found in another popular poem-song. Adon Olam has been attributed to the great Spanish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol. It also includes theological affirmations. But it has an intimate quality. It speaks of turning our souls over to God. Some people recite it along with a bedtime Sh’ma, others sing it at bed of someone dying.

If you want to provide a short summary of Judaism, these two poem-songs are still too long. What would you use as an elevator speech for Judaism?

This was actually a subject of eight distinct discussions in the Talmud. Despite the mitzvah to recite the Sh’ma twice each day and before we die, it doesn’t figure in the debate.  I share them to encourage you to reflect on what you hold dear. Each is considered a klal gadol — a great principle of Torah.

What is Hateful to You, Do Not Do to Your Neighbour

The first is from Hillel and it is part of a well-known vignette:

A non-Jew came before Shammai and said he would convert to Judaism on condition that you teach me the entire Torah al regel ahat. Usually this is translated “while on one foot.” But it may mean “based on one rule.” Shammai brushes him off. Hillel says: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Now, go learn it.” (Shabbat 31a)

Hillel’s dictum differs from what others call the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.” Hillel is concerned that we not assume what would be good for others. Isaiah Berlin warned that in the pursuit of what one ideology identifies as an ideal, much harm can be caused to others. We have to be careful not to hurt others.

I recently received a blessing: “That which you wish for yourselves, we hope you attain, and that which you don't want, we hope you never encounter.” The sender must have been channeling Hillel. What an important message for Rosh Hashanah and the entire year!

Love your Neighbour

A few generations later, the Talmud describes a debate between Rabbi Akiva, the great mystic and legal scholar, and his colleague Ben Azzai. Akiva identifies a verse from Leviticus as the great principle of the Torah. “Love your neighbour as yourself,” זהוכללגדולבתורה..  Ben Azzai disagreed. He cited Genesis: “This is the account of the generations of Adam from the day when God created the human, in the image of God the human was made.” This is a greater principle than the other.זהספרתולדותהאדם. זהוכללגדולמזה. (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b).  With which rabbi do you agree?

Akiva seems to be saying that the Torah considers relationships to be essential and that we have to be concerned about the welfare of others. When acting for ourselves, we must be mindful of how what we do will affect others. Our actions can inadvertently bring blessing or blight to family, friends and strangers.

In the Image of God

In distinction, Ben Azzai sees the idea that all humanity is created in the image of God as the basis for Torah. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists believe in a human hierarchy. Ben Azzai says that each human is sacred. This has implications not only for politics, but also for medical care and the importance of not treating a person based on utility and cost.

The Righteous Shall Live by Faith

The fourth suggestion for a central teaching, klal gadol, comes from Rabbi Simla. He says that there are a specific number of mitzvah-commandments. Do you know how many?

He sub-divides the 613 mitzvot into 365 “you shall nots” - comparable to the days of the solar year - and 248 “you should” commandments - which he suggests are analogous to the bones of the human body. I take his count to be metaphorical: the commandments cover the totality of the calendar and the whole of our bodies.

The Talmud then seeks to pare down the 613 to principles. Initially the suggestion is that the Psalms identify eleven core concepts, then different prophets are cited to reduce the list even more.

  Micah (3): do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

  Isaiah (2): keep justice and do what is right.

  Amos (1): seek me and live.

The last word is given to Habakuk: “The righteous shall live by faith ~וצדיקבאמונתויחיה.”  (Makkot 23b)

Rabbi Simla’i starts with deeds and the discussion ends with faith, perhaps suggesting that a relationship of faith and fidelity is what really counts. When you identify someone as a “good Jew,” what do you mean?

Know God in All Your Ways

In the Talmudic volume Berakhot (63a), Bar Kapparah introduces us to another concept. “What short text is there on which all the essential elements of Torah depend? איזוהיפרשהקטנהשכלגופיתורהתלויןבה?

He responds to his rhetorical question citing Proverbs: In all your ways, know God and God will direct your paths.” בכלדרכיךדעהווהואיישרארחותיך

Bar Kappara is suffused with the spiritual. Be spiritually attuned and you will know what to do. The mitzvot are not ends in themselves. They are intended to lead us into the Presence of God and introduce God into all that we do. My teacher, Rabbi Heschel, once observed that by “doing the finite, we perceive the infinite.” I find this challenging, but I know some people who live this way.

Pleasantness and Peace

Ironically, in a Mishnah dealing with Gittin (63a), Divorces, there is discussion about peace. In explaining the order of aliyot (kohen- levi - plain vanilla), we are told that the order is to maintain peace and reduce conflict. In the Talmudic interplay, Rabbi Yosef offers the sixth big principle. “The entirety of the Torah is to promote peace, for the Bible teaches: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” כלהתורהכולהמפנידרכישלום


Rabbi Yosef believes that the Torah intends to transform us — individuals and society — directing us toward pleasantness and peace. Notwithstanding this orientation, we must know when to step forward in opposition to those who would divide our society. Sometimes we must not give ground, when we must persist and resist.

That is why, after the hateful weekend in Charlottesville and the response of the President of the United States,  I went on CBC and wrote in Maclean’s magazine. Similarly, it is essential, even while defending Israel from its ideological or political enemies, to articulate opposition to specific governmental policies that divide the Jewish people and rob non-Orthodox Jews of religious dignity.

Hesed/Lovingkindness is Primary

In a midrashic commentary on Kohelet (7:1), Rabbi Yehudah brings the seventh great principle:  “One who denies the priority of acts of kindness is considered to have denied a central principle of Torah” ~~ כלהכופרבגמילותחסדכאילוכופרבעיקר [שלהתורה] Rabbi Yehudah recommends making hesed work part of our daily life, not as an afterthought or only when an opportunity comes along, but as a constituent element of life. Join our Hesed committee , train to visit people who are frail, housebound or ill. Identify a need in the community and crowdsource to make a difference.

Rabbi Yehudah offers this principle in the context of a discussion about how to behave when another person has not acted properly. Take the high road. Whether in a period of deep disagreement or low-level conflict with a relative, invite her to the simhah. Frustrated with a co-worker? Maintain your poise and dignity; don’t freeze him out.

This approach to life challenges us to move from judgment to mercy, just as we want God to do during these Days of Awe. I think of the poem of Yehudah Amichai, “The Place Where We Are Right.”

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

The Torah is Based on Justice

The last principle is provided by Rabbi Elazar. He says, “The entire Torah is based on mishpat, justice ~ כלהתורהתלויהעלמשפט (Shemot Rabbah on Exodus 30:15). The rules of justice — both procedural and aspirational — frame the Sinai covenant and are not specific to ritual law. The references in the discussion are to corruption and immorality among leaders, to acknowledging personal responsibility, and to the residents of Sodom, who turned away strangers. The creation of a just society is a meta-principle. As Jews, we have obligations to be concerned for the welfare of others.

The rabbis imagine the sin of Sodom being a rejection of strangers. This has real implications for refugees. I am grateful for your welcome of Thanaa’s Syrian Ismaili family. This has led to the reunification, through JIAS, of three sisters and their families. The adults are working and the kids are in school. This has been a mitzvah of both hesed and justice.

Welcoming a Stanger

Another story. Twenty years ago, I made a request on Rosh Hashanah to aid a 19 year old Persian Jew from Great Neck, who had a minor visa problem. The family wanted him to be near the States for what was expected to be an imminent resolution of the issue. I requested housing assistance for two weeks. Harold and Ruth Margles came forward to offer Mickey a place to stay. But the simple visa problem became a complicated immigration issue. Recently, Mickey sent them this letter.


20 years ago this month I found out I had to leave home. One month later I was at your home [near] Bathurst Street thinking a 2 week stint and I would be back home. And, as your Rabbi said when I was finally going home, “After 9 months I gave birth to a green card!”

Not only did your family take me in, feed me, help me find work, deal with my “teenage crankiness” (sorry Sarah!), but you also helped me to get my green card.

I just want to say thank you for all the ways your positive influence has made a difference. I will always be indebted to your family for your unconditional kindness and love. The world needs more people like you all. Thank you for everything. I will always appreciate not just your help and support, but also knowing such great people. You’re always in my thoughts and prayers.

Love, Mickey.


Elevator Speeches for All Jews

What would you offer as an elevator speech about the essence of Judaism?

  Don’t do what is hurtful to your neighbour.

  Love your neighbour as yourself.

  Treat each person as being in the image of God.

  Live with and by your faith.

  In all your ways, seek to know God.

  Follow the paths of pleasantness and peace.

  Actively seek out acts of kindness.

  Strive for a just society.

These great principles guide the specifics of Jewish law and practice. They apply to Conservative and Orthodox, Reform, Renewal and Reconstructionist. They also guide those who are not involved in the details of halakhah and even those who have sincere doubts about God.

These great principles remind us that Judaism has something to say about life outside of synagogue and beyond ritual. For anyone who wants to know more about the Torah tradition — whether in a work conversation, a dating discussion, or an inquiry from a prospective Jew by choice, you now have an elevator speech that you can offer — even on one foot!


The Great Principle of the Torah: Examining Seven Talmudic Claims to the Defining Principles of Judaism, Jack (Yaakov) Bieler  (2