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LostInParadise's avatar

What do you think of this quote?

Asked by LostInParadise (26467points) June 22nd, 2009

I am a non-believer but I find very meaningful these well known lines of the Talmud that came from Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, then when?

The second two lines are particularly interesting. The implication of the second line is that being self-centered goes beyond ethics. The one we hurt most is ourselves by not being fully human.

The third line does not at first appear to relate to the other two, but if you have ever contemplated making changes to your life in accordance with the first two lines then it makes a whole lot of sense.

Hillel is an interesting character. He lived the generation before Jesus and introduced a reformed and more liberal interpretation of the Bible. Given his reputation, it is certain that Jesus knew of him and one can conjecture as to how much of an influence he was on Jesus.

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25 Answers

Darwin's avatar

I would be very surprised if Jesus did not know of Hillel and his writings. Jesus was first and foremost a Jew and wanted to reform the practice of Judaism, not start a new religion.

Ruthi's avatar

Lovely! Absolutely interesting perspective! Thanks so much for sharing it with us =)

janbb's avatar

I am familiar with this quote and find it very meaningful as a personal precept.

Darwin's avatar

@Ruthi – Check out Luke 2:39–52

“After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He was thoroughly educated in the ways of Judaism and apparently even at the age of 12 could hold his own in a discussion with the rabbis.

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

I remember this from childhood, probably because it’s short but also because it encourages the flexibility of self through all stages of life.

fireside's avatar

It would make sense that Jesus was aware of other spiritual teachings of his time. His time studying with the Essenes was quite similar to the time Baha’u’llah spent studying with the Sufi mystics before declaring his divine mission. All spiritual teachings arise from the same source:
I am alike for all! I know not hate,
I know not favour! What is made is Mine!
But them that worship Me with love, I love;
They are in Me, and I in them!
(Hindu, Bhagavad Gita (Edwin Arnold tr))
To those who are good (to me), I am good; and to those who are not
good (to me), I am also good;—and thus (all) get to be good. To
those who are sincere (with me), I am sincere; and to those who are
not sincere (with me), I am also sincere;—and thus (all) get to be
(Tao, Tao Te Ching (J. Legge tr))
And the present also fills him with doubt: “Am I? Or, am I not? What am I? How am I? This being, whence has it come? Whither will it go?”
((The Eightfold Path), Buddha, the Word (The Eightfold Path))
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
(Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 80)

Ruthi's avatar

@Darwin Yup, I’m in complete agreement with you about the fact that Jesus came to reform and not initiate a new religion. Quite the radical, don’t you think?

whitenoise's avatar

Like you, I am a non-believer, or rather an atheist.
The quote you offered is indeed a beautiful quote and it shows that profound wisdom knows no limits throughout time or culture. There are many very beautiful reflections offered in the ancient books.

What I particularly like about this quote is that it kind of asks us to think for ourselves and search within ourselves – the social beings that we are – for an answer on the ever interesting scale of selfishness versus altruism and our position in our world. This saying touches on our essence, I feel.

@fireside: I find your quotes also very interesting, but the one by Rabbi Hilel more open and more provocative.

I also find it very interesting indeed how Hillel may have had an influence on the reshaping of Jewish monotheism into Christianity around the beginning of our calendar. That was indeed quite a shift from the often revengeful and jealous god of the first testament into the more loving and caring God we find in the new testament.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

If you take Objectivism to it’s logical conclusions you get the same thing. You can not be selfish without looking after those who are immediately in your close environment. To not do so would diminish your life. The same thing applies to people who are just acquaintances. They too add to your life. Then you extent your selfishness out to the rest of the world. Even that is important. If people are loosing their battles for their own lives it effects your ability to trade with them and imporve your life with their unique products. So it is ethical under the morality of selfishness to help others. It will do you a lot of good as well as them and it is a lot of fun to.
Forced charity or helping is a very great and immoral evil.

whitenoise's avatar


??Forced charity or helping is a very great and immoral evil.??

I don’t understand how this comes from your reasoning. To be honest, i don’t understand it at all. can you please elaborate a little more?

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@whitenoise You do not think that robery at the point of a gun is evil no mater what the reason.

I do. It is a crime. It also corrupts those who receive the charity. They think that they have a right to stolen goods. It is also not fun at all for anybody and it provides charity to people with no benefit to the person who has been robbed. It also robs all the people that person would have given too of the help he is uniquely qualified to give. Since there are many other ways that he could have helped others even if he chose not to give a dime to them that too is robbed from him.

It also makes the robbers seem to be important and good people. This does untold harm to the young people who follow their example.

Besides it is not charity at all. It is just one group of people wanting to profit by using another groups money without their permission. Those who receive the charity are irrelevant to them. They do make a useful excuse though.

Darwin's avatar

Since when is robbery “forced charity?” It is called robbery because that is what it is.

whitenoise's avatar

sorry @walterallenhaxton, that kind of helping or charity is an oximoron and of course I disagree with that being good in any which possible way.

I however also feel that our nature already forces us to help other people and I see nothing wrong in that.

I still don’t understand your original statement and on closer examination don’t see how that covers robbery. Robbery has nothing to do with charity.

atlantis's avatar

I took the impression that forced charity would mean sacrificing your own wellbeing for the other’s in spirit of charity. Very confusing. How much sacrifice or charity is good? Can you make someone a leech by being too chartitable? Or incur too much harm? How do you know for sure?

whitenoise's avatar

@atlantis It has to with intent as well. And any parent knows that helping a person can sometimes best be done by not interfering.

Any parent also knows that sometimes people just need help. The trick is to work towards independence and not aim for reciprocity.

Helping is in our nature (read “our inner Ape” by Frans de Waal and you will see a great reasoning on the extent to which this is embedded in our biology – It is not based on looking for a reward. That is why people give their lives to rescue a drowning child they haven’t seen before.

atlantis's avatar

I understand the role of good intent but, just wanted to know if there were general rules of thumb. Like a sort of proportion of “me vs. them”.

whitenoise's avatar

Follow your heart…. many cross cultural studies have shown that ethical guidelines are engrained into our species.

We are for instance all willing to throw a witch to make an on-storming train divert from a track full of children onto one that has a single old man on it. We are universally appaled however to take that old man of the street, harvst his organs and save a handful of patients. There is a lot of theory on the how an d why behind that, that goes to far. What is a comforting thought is that man is a social animal and we all share this basic set of ethical predispositions.

LostInParadise's avatar

I think I understand what @whitenoise means by forced charity. This would be the Objectivist view of using tax money to help those in need. I understand the argument, but there are counter-arguments. Many people are willing to help those in need provided the burden is shared with everyone else.

whitenoise's avatar

!!! That wasn’t me, that was @walterallenhaxton.
I am with you on the willingness to help. I am also by the way trying to have to pay as much taxes as possible. Living in the country I live in helps (52% marginal income tax)

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@atlantis I do not consider the charity I do to be forced or obligatory in any way. I just do it because it makes my life better to not have things I do not need and I enjoy figuring out who would most enjoy and benefit from having them. It is not a choice. It is who I am.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

I do not consider it charity at all if it involves sacrifice of any kind.

LostInParadise's avatar

@whitenoise , sorry about the mixup

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@LostInParadise Not shared. Forced on. That one again is theft. It is also forcing your ideas of charity on to another person who has his own. They could easily be far better ideas because he knows who he is helping and you do not. Forcing other people to stop using force on others is moral. Forcing them to accept your ideas and taking their property to support your ideas is just plain evil. Nothing good comes of it.

I don’t need objectivism for that. I can go to religion for those ideas as well. “Thou shalt not steal” is one example.

LostInParadise's avatar

@walterallenhaxton , You may regard representative democracy as tyranny of the majority, where a majority can force its views on the rest, but so far there has not been a form of government that works better.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@LostInParadise Contract government worked quite well in this country until Lincoln destroyed the main enforcement mechanisms. It certainly was no democracy.

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