The Great Prin­ci­ple of the Torah

Rab­bi Jack Bieler
  • Review
By – April 13, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions