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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Judaism's Anti-Golden Rule

Daf Yomi Gittin 24

A fellow once came to the great Shamai and asked to be converted while standing on one leg.  He chased him out of his study, telling him that he only accepts serious conversion candidates.  He then came to the great Hillel who agreed to do the conversion.
“That which is offensive to you,” Hillel said to the man, “do not do to your friend.  The rest is commentary.”

At first blush, Hillel’s response sounds wonderful.  Don’t do anything to anyone else that you wouldn’t want them to do to you!   But then you think about his attitude and you wonder:  Why did he have to be so negative?  Why couldn’t he convey his message positively, as in, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?’

Rav said: A woman may not appoint an agent to accept her gett (bill of divorce) from her husband’s agent.  But Rabbi Chanina taught: A woman may appoint an agent to accept her gett from her husband’s agent.
What is Rav’s reason?  Due to the dishonour felt by the husband.
Rashi explains: He feels slighted by the fact that his wife won’t accept the gett personally and would therefore effectively annul the divorce.

No wonder this fellow is getting divorced!  Could you imagine someone who is such a ‘control freak’ that not only does he dictate to his wife how he wants her to act while they’re married, but even when they’re getting divorced?!  What is most bemusing is the fact that it is okay for him to send the divorce papers via his lawyer, but when she wants to send her lawyer to pick up the papers, he feels disrespected and cancels the deal!  Talk about double standards!

Avoiding double standards is ‘Marriage 101.’  In other words, how should you treat your spouse?  At the very least, don’t treat them in such a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated!  And that’s Hillel’s message: How should you treat people generally?  At the very least, don’t do to them what you would not want them to do you.

So why doesn’t he phrase it in terms of a positive message?  Do unto others what you want done back to you!?   The reason he doesn’t say it that way around is because it creates the potential of unrealistic expectations.   If I treat people the way I want to be treated and they don’t treat me that way in return, I might then get upset.

Let’s go back to our marriage example.  Let’s say I decide to wash my wife’s feet, give her a massage, and bring her breakfast in bed every morning.  The positive adage says, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.’  So if I’m doing all that for my wife, I would expect her to do the same for me.  And if she doesn’t, I feel gipped in the relationship.   That formula is a recipe for disaster.

What’s more, what might be valuable to me, she might not even care for.  She may hate massages.  And so who am I really trying to give a massage to if she doesn’t like massages?  Essentially, I am just looking for a way to get a massage from her!  So is this an act of love for her or for myself?!

That’s why Hillel’s formula makes much more sense.  The baseline expectation in a relationship should be: do not do something to the other person you wouldn’t want done to you.  Anything beyond that is a bonus.  And, more importantly it means that you need to figure out what makes the other person happy, not what you like for yourself.  She doesn’t like massages?  Well, figure out what she does like.  Maybe she likes romantic sunset walks on the beach.  True love means taking her on the walk, even if you couldn’t care less for it.

And of course, the same is true of all our relationships.  Whether it’s your spouse, your child, your parent, your sibling, your friend, neighbour, or colleague, doing wonderful things for them and then assuming they will act in kind with you is a recipe for disaster.  Instead, start by focusing on avoiding doing or saying things that you would not want them to say or do to you and there will be no unrealistic expectations in the relationship.   Now, everything you do for the other person is completely selfless.  You are demonstrating true love towards them, because you don’t expect anything in return.

Judaism’s formula for the perfect relationship might sound negative; but in reality, it leads to the deepest, most meaningful relationships.  It is no longer about you; a relationship is purely about serving and loving the other person.  May you serve those you love with complete and utter devotion without any expectation or thought about what is in it for you!