Recently, a major U.S. newspaper published an article about three transgender people of faith. The article began with my story, so most of the comments on Facebook were about me, and many were not kind.
The negative comments centered on the premise that I, a transgender person, could not possibly be a Christian, because – the way those commenting understood it – being transgender is specifically forbidden by scripture.
On the other side were people who tried to support me by giving reasons to ignore the scriptures cited by critics, and instead, appealing to God’s love.
I frequently feel like I’m caught in this fight. One side creates a “simple right and wrong issue” – a question of God’s law. The other side rejects scripture as being inapplicable, relying on interpreting God’s love.
With which side do I stand?
My head sees the text, which is often unequivocal. My heart wants to love people even when they violate the law. But perhaps this is not an issue of choosing sides.
In the Talmud – the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, which includes teachings and opinions on the Torah – there is a story of a gentile who said he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi, or teacher, could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot.
The Rabbi, an engineer named Shammai, was strict in his views, and drove the gentile away with a measuring stick. The gentile approached another Rabbi, a woodcutter named Hillel, and made the same proposition.
Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
Hillel’s statement is an example of the ethic of reciprocity, and it’s not unique to Abrahamic faiths. There are variations of it as far back as the ancient societies of Babylon, China, Egypt, Greece, India, and Rome.
In the Christian tradition, we know it as Jesus’ command to “Do to others what you want them to do to you,” found in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31.
It’s likely that Jesus’ statement came to him by way of the teachings of his elder contemporary, Hillel.
It may appear that Shammai was all about the letter of the law, and Hillel had reduced the law to love.
But the beauty of Hillel’s reply is that it’s not an either/or proposition.
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah;” suggests that love is the primary law, while “the rest is commentary” suggests that we have much to learn about how to love our neighbors.
It’s not enough to just say “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as we will miss opportunities to love one another. We’re likely to start loving one another in simple, surface ways of loving, but the Bible teaches us to go deeper.
For example, I might enjoy loud music, and so I would feel free to play music loudly around others—doing to them as I would have done to me. Or I might prohibit people from eating very spicy food—which I don’t care for—not doing to my neighbor what is hateful to me. On the surface, I would be obeying this law.
But if I go deeper, I begin to understand that the point is not the individual things we do and do not want done to us. This law of love teaches us not to evoke in others the feelings of pain, rejection, and other forms of hurt that we ourselves do not want to feel.
The way I understand Hillel’s instruction, and Jesus’ instruction, is the same. The commandment teaches us what to do. But the rest of the Bible teaches us how to love one another. And when our understanding of the Bible leads us to something that feels right, but not loving, it’s time to revisit the scriptures, because we have probably missed the point of the lesson.
That which you would hate to have done to you, do not do it to another.
That is the whole law.
The rest is centuries of stories of people trying to work out how to love one another.
Those stories are found in the Bible. Go and study it.
Cindi Knox holds a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and is in search of her first call as pastor and teacher in the United Church of Christ. In addition to writing for New Sacred, she also writes for RevGalBlogPals, does pulpit supply, and volunteers with a queer youth drop-in. She lives in Joliet with her spouse of over 25 years, Mary. Find her at http://facebook.com/cindik.online