No, I’m not joking. True religion boils down to this one question. But before I demonstrate this, I’d like to point to something the literary critic Adam Kirsch recently wrote. He has been reading one page a day from the Talmud, and in discussing Sabbath keeping, he responds to some grotesque moral reasoning:
When it comes to saving gentile lives, the rabbis are far less lenient [about breaking the Sabbath to do so], as we can see in the troubling discussion in Yoma 84b. Say a building collapses on Shabbat and someone is trapped in the rubble. Now imagine that, before the building fell, there had been 10 people inside. If even just one of those people was a Jew and nine were gentiles, the rabbis say that it is permitted to violate Shabbat and dig for the survivor in the rubble. But if all 10 were gentiles, the implication is that one should not violate Shabbat to save them.
Naturally, this distinction now strikes us as abhorrent. Indeed, one might say that to refuse to violate Shabbat to save a non-Jewish life would constitute what in Yoma 86a is described as the worst sin of all: chillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name.
In other words, contrary to the Talmud, Adam Kirsch is saying that your neighbor is everybody.
It recalls for me a moment in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ in which he has Jesus say to the chief rabbis in the temple, “Do you think God belongs only to you? God is not an Israelite!”
But let’s get to the great question of religion: Who’s on first?
To answer this, it must be acknowledged that there are many things clamoring to be on first, and this means there are lots of forms of idolatry in the world. God prefers your group to others, your land to others, your temple to others. These are all forms of idolatry. There are lots and lots of ways to set up idols and render others (and even God, if God exists) unsacred, unimportant, invisible to your life. The idols we choose to focus on are our armor.
Jesus tried to bring down the armor a little bit. He had it right when he told us to love those who don’t share our idols–that is, all outsiders. But few really heard him when he said it, and we still don’t hear it now. But this is from Matthew 5 (KJV), Jesus speaking:
43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; […]
Later, Matthew’s gospel drips with hatred and aggression for the Jewish temple leaders and the mass of Jews who did not follow Jesus–turning them, by the end of his gospel, into diabolical devils (Matt. 28: 11-15) with a multi-generational blood curse (Matt. 27:24-25). Historically, such passages as those in Matthew 27 and 28 fueled Christian antisemitism in Europe–which ultimately set up the conditions for the Holocaust. So Matthew, even as he records what Jesus said about loving one’s enemies, didn’t really hear what Jesus was saying (if Jesus even said it).
But we need to hear it. If we hear nothing else Jesus is purported to have said, we need to hear at least this part. Do good to those who hate you; return hate with love. And stop erecting hate on others. Whether it comes from Jesus in the past or Adam Kirsch today, we need to hear it. We need to hear it from whoever will say it. Love. Everybody. Break the escalation of hatred and sectarian idolatry. Find something to value in your neighbor and your enemy–and move towards that. There’s a chance it will start a cascade of reciprocation. Peace begins with you. Somebody has to go first. You go first. You’re on first.