Mutual Love and Respect - How Rabbi Akiva and Ben-Azzai understand the ultimate lesson of the Torah


Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b

Translation Original
Rabbi Akiva (second century CE) taught: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus, 19) This is the most important rule in the Torah." Ben Azzai says: "This is the book of chronologies of Adam" (Genesis, 5) [Translation by Hillel and Panim]
ואהבת לרעך כמוך ר' עקיבה או' זהו כלל גדול בתורה בן עזאי אומ' זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה

Suggested Discussion Questions


Basic questions to get participants thinking about the texts:

1. What are these two sages are arguing over? What values does each argument reflect?
2. What social tendency does each position attempt to override?
3. What is the societal impact of each position?
More in-depth questions to stimulate further conversation: 
1. Akiva and Ben Azzai, two contemporaries who often challenged each others’ claims, were trying to reduce the Torah to one compact principle that could guide a person throughout his or her life. Akiva uses self, and therefore self-interest, as the key principle: “love your neighbor,” is to mean that we behave toward our neighbors as we would want them to behave to us. It is pragmatic and realistic, yielding laudable outcomes. But inspiring? It is a form of a social contract, an “I-scratch your-back-and-you-scratch-mine” approach to life. It gets a good job done but keeps its adherents planted firmly, and only, on the ground.
Ben Azzai, on the other hand, uses the image of God as the key principle of human existence. We tend to the needs of others, not in the hope that others will tend to our needs, but because it is the sacred thing to do. Self interest plays no role here. We create and fashion and serve as stewards because that is what God does.
Which principle do you prefer?
There are no right answers here—sharing that with students may help to open up the discussion. The benefits of adopting Ben Azzai’s view is that one is lifted beyond the mundane bounds of earthly existence through acts of human imagination and kindness. The benefits of adopting Rabbi Akiva’s view is that it is more accessible and more utilitarian. I know what I want, and I hardly know what being in the image of God means. If I live this way, and others do too, we just might all get along.

2. The impulse to reduce all spiritual teachings into one bite-sized saying has parallels in other religions as well. Jainism is a religion that originated in India in the 6th century. It is practiced by about 5 million people today and teaches that charity and good works help a believer accumulate merit. Jainism has a teaching that echos the Biblical phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jainists say, “One should treat all beings as he himself would want to be treated.” (Agamas Sutrakritanga 1.10.13) Is there significance to the fact taht parallel principles are present in multiple religions?

3. Is there any value to the concept of “in the image of God” (Tzelem Elohim) if you do not believe in God?


Questions by Hillel and Panim