The complexity of Jewish thought and practice have prompted many to consider the underlying goal of living a Jewish life. In the Talmudic period, several rabbis selected a biblical quote or crafted their own statement to provide an overarching principle for Judaism. The most famous of these is likely Hillel’s “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor,” found in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a). However, as with all things Jewish, there is a significant debate around which rabbinic thinker selected the most salient statement, and why.
In The Great Principle of the Torah, Rabbi Jack Bieler considers seven possible defining principles of Judaism, each one a statement by a Talmudic authority that is meant to encapsulate the “entire Torah enterprise.” In the introduction, Rabbi Bieler outlines his methodology as “an attempt to define the concept, test its veracity with respect to the Torah as a whole, suggest reasons behind why this individual was drawn to the proposed idea, and speculate how the rule ought to impact on our present day Jewish experience.” He includes verses from the Torah such as “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), prophetic verses such as “but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4), and quotes from Talmudic sages such as “the entire Torah is based upon justice” (Exodus Rabbah 30:19).
In each chapter, Rabbi Bieler provides the reader with the source text for the rabbinic claim; an explanation of the claim through commentary by post-Talmudic, modern, and contemporary Jewish thinkers; and his own interpretation of the text. While the author writes in an accessible style, a reader will benefit from a familiarity with the methodology of Jewish textual interpretation in order to fully appreciate this book’s thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation. For example, in chapter 5, Rabbi Bieler assesses Rabbi Joseph’s claim (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 59a‑b) that “the whole of the Law is also for the purpose of promoting peace, as it is written ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace’ (Proverbs 3:17).” The evaluation includes an exploration of how Rabbi Joseph’s personal life may have led him to understand this verse as the central idea of Judaism. More broadly, this chapter considers whether Judaism’s legal character is an obstacle to pleasantness and peace, and how this verse has been used to mitigate this challenge. The chapter concludes by cautioning that “it is necessary for Jewish leaders to make absolutely certain that before they make a pronouncement that could have negative social consequences, they have exhausted all legitimate options to render a more inclusive or humane decision.”
Rabbi Bieler ends his book with a summation of the value of exploring these seven principles, particularly when “at least some, if not all of them, are antithetical to one another.” He concludes that the value of the exercise is more in the reflection involved in the process than in determining the defining principle itself. The Great Principle of the Torah may leave the reader with more questions than answers, but ultimately he or she will be satisfied with Rabbi Bieler’s search for Judaism’s highest principles.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.