“Love your friend as yourself, I am G-d” (Vayikra 19:18). Immediately following this (19:19), we are commanded to keep all the “chukim,” the laws that, at least at first glance, do not seem rational. (The specific “chok” mentioned is “k’layim,” forbidden mixtures, such as crossbreeding animals or vegetation, and wearing garments made of both wool and linen.) Why did the Torah place a completely understandable commandment—treating others as you would want to be treated by them (the “golden rule,” the epitome of laws between people that we would have realized should be observed even if they weren’t commanded) next to “chukim,” laws between man and G-d, specifically those we would not have considered observing had G-d not commanded them?
The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) relates the story of a non-Jew who approached Hillel asking to be converted, provided he could be taught the entire Torah “while standing on one foot.” Hillel converted him, and told him, “what you dislike, do not do to your friend—that is the entire Torah, the rest is only a subset of it—go study it.” While we can understand how this “klal” (general rule) of treating others well can include all the laws that pertain to dealing with people (mitzvos bein adam la’chaveiro), how can it also include laws that are between man and G-d? How does treating everyone else as well as I want to be treated by them have any relevance to keeping kosher (or any other “mitzvah bein adam la’Makom”)?
Rav Elchonon Wasserman z”l (Kovaitz He’aros, Explanations of Aggados 1) asks how the Rambam can include believing in G-d as one of the 613 commandments (positive commandment #1). After all, if one already believes, there is no need for the commandment, and if one does not (yet) believe, there is no impetus to follow any commandment! Either one believes or does not; how can belief be dictated?
Rav Elchonon answers that it is obvious to anyone who is intellectually honest that there must be a Creator. Just as the mere existence of a watch indicates that there must be a watchmaker, a building must have a builder, and a painting must have been made by an artist, creation, with all of its intricacies, must have a Creator. The cause for denying the existence of the Creator, despite His being easily perceptible, is the desire to not be obligated to follow His rules (or to acknowledge a Superior being). This bias can blind an individual to what should be obvious. It is for this reason, he explains, that our sages (Sifre and B’rachos 12b) understand the verse “do not follow your hearts” (Bamidbar 15:39) as referring to heresy. It is not the brain that causes one to not believe, but the heart and its biases. The commandment to believe, is, in essence, a commandment to be intellectually honest—to remove any and all biases that might prevent realizing that, just as the existence of software is evidence of a programmer, the world we live in testifies that there is a Creator.
[I have been told that Rav Zelig Epstein, z”l, disagreed with Rav Elchonon, and was of the opinion that rather than it being obvious that there is a Creator, with our biases being able to cloud our ability to acknowledge Him, we are hard-wired to believe in a Creator. Nevertheless, it would still be our biases that can short-circuit the belief we would have otherwise had. Therefore, the mitzvah to believe could still be described as a mitzvah to remove our biases. I will add that we can only work on our own personal biases, we cannot judge others and what biases they may have. This is especially true when we take into account Rav Dessler‘s “N’kudas Ha’bchirah,” see https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/parashas-nitzavim-vayeilech-5773/.]
That this commandment is phrased as “believing in G-d” rather than “being objective,” as well the fact that in order for there to be an impetus to fulfill this (or any) mitzvah, there must be a pre-existing belief in the Being that commanded it, indicates that the point of the mitzvah is that we shouldn’t just rely on blind faith, but work on stripping away as many of our biases as we can (and as much of them as we can), and use our more-objective brains to come to the most-likely-to-be-correct conclusions. [According to Rav Zelig’s model, the mitzvah would seem to be allowing ourselves to connect with the beliefs we are naturally inclined to have, although this seems even more dangerous than trusting our own judgment. It is more likely that Rav Zelig would have a different approach to answer Rav Elchonon’s question, but the issue of getting in touch with our theological starting point still seems more hazardous than trying to be as intellectually honest as we can.] By putting this mitzvah in a context of “belief in G-d,” we are being taught that belief is not automatic, but must be worked on, that there will be questions that come up, which we can work through if we approach them with genuine intellectual honesty. (This would apply to all issues of faith, not just to the existence of the Creator.)
In order to treat another person as we would want them to treat us, we must be able to put ourselves in that person’s shoes. [It is not enough to do what we personally want done for us, or avoid doing what we personally do not want done to us; we have to figure out what the other person wants and/or doesn’t want.] The ability to understand what the other person would not want, and thereby avoid doing it, can only come about after a certain level of objectivity has been attained. If we are selfish, we won’t be able to see beyond our own needs and wants. Once we remove the “self” from the equation, and can see things from a purely objective standpoint (i.e. be intellectually honest), not only will we be able to treat others properly, but, since our biases have been stripped away, it will become obvious that there is a Creator. As the verse continues, “love your friend as yourself, I am G-d.” After attaining objectivity by being able to treat your friend as you’d want him to treat you, it will become clear that “I am G-d.” And once it is clear that G-d created us (and must have a plan for us), His laws, even the “chukim,” will be readily followed.
[Although there are many steps between realizing that there must be a Creator and realizing that He gave us the Torah and expects us to follow its commandments (even its “chukim”), if we can successfully remove our biases, including accepting that we won’t necessarily be able to fully understand everything (certainly not right away), and that we have to reexamine concepts we were taught when we were younger — this time through a more mature perspective, anything we are expected to “believe” must also be within reach of being “realized” through intellectually honest inquiry.]
This not only explains what Hillel said to the convert, but it also explains Rabbi Akivah’s statement that “loving your friend as yourself” is an “overarching principle of the Torah” (Sifra and Y’rushalmi N’darim 9:4; see Targum Yonasan and Midrash Lekach Tov, who explicitly equate the two), as objectivity is a character trait that encompasses the entire Torah. Since one must be objective in order to take heed not to do anything to others that they don’t want done to them, this is precisely what Hillel told the potential convert, and what Rabbi Akivah reiterated. Be objective enough to treat others as you would have others treat you; everything else in the Torah is a subset of being intellectually honest.