The Rest of ‘The Rest Is Commentary’

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 24, 2008, issue of October 03, 2008.
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In the September 10 issue of The New York Times, the well-known journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (whose career got its start in these pages) published a long and grim op-ed column about the dangers of a terrorist nuclear attack on American soil. Compared with such a prospect, he wrote, “Everything else — Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence, the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska — is commentary.”

The phrase “everything else is commentary,” or, as it is more frequently encountered, “the rest is commentary,” has in recent years become such a part of the English language that many people are unaware of its Jewish roots. Yet these origins are indisputable and are clearly traceable to the talmudic story about the two first-century-BCE rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, contemporaries paired together by Jewish tradition as archetypical opposites: Hillel the tolerant and liberal “loose constructionist” of the Law, Shammai the exacting and inflexible “strict constructionist.” In one story about them, a gentile comes to both and asks, with the obvious intention of provoking them, to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai is indeed provoked and gives the man an angry whack with a measuring rod. Hillel replies, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”

It is interesting to see how “the rest is commentary” has taken on an English meaning of its own that is subtly different from Hillel’s and sometimes even opposed to it. In the Aramaic of the Talmud, “The rest is commentary – go study” (ve’idakh perusha hu, zil g’mor) is a single statement whose first half cannot be separated from its second half. Calling the rest of the Torah “commentary” has nothing dismissive about it. On the contrary, Hillel is clearly saying that commentary is crucial and that ultimate wisdom lies in it. Although not doing to others what is hateful to yourself may be the Torah’s overarching message, it is not one that can be treated in isolation from the vast body of practice and learning that surrounds it.

Yet, in our current American usage, “the rest is commentary” often means “the rest is trivial,” or at least, as Jeffrey Goldberg appears to intend it, “the rest is less important.” This isn’t just a matter of the second half of Hillel’s statement being forgotten; it is also one of its being deliberately disregarded. This disregard goes all the way back to the New Testament, in which Jesus is asked to name “the greatest commandment in the law” and replies:

“‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’: This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

There is no “go study” here, even though Jesus surely knew what Hillel had said. For Jesus — and for Christianity — “the rest is commentary” really does mean that the rest is unimportant. Commentary — the Mishnah, the Talmud, rabbinical exegesis — is for the nitpicking Jew. Loving one’s neighbor is for the spiritual Christian.

This is not, of course, what Hillel had in mind. And yet one might ask why he, too, did not cite the verse from Leviticus “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” in his answer to his gentile questioner, though he knew it as well as Jesus did, preferring instead the more negatively phrased, “What is hateful unto yourself, do not unto your neighbor” — words that do not come from the Bible at all. What made him do this?

Here, I think, lies the true cunning of the talmudic tale. For what Hillel really is doing is, at one and the same time, tactfully rebuking Shammai while letting the gentile know that, provocateur though he is, the insult he has received is inexcusable in Jewish terms. Had Hillel said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself: This is the whole Torah,” the point would not have been made. Shammai, after all, cannot be expected to love a gentile who is making fun of him, nor can the gentile expect to be loved by him. But the gentile can expect Shammai, who would not like to be struck by a measuring rod, to know better than to strike someone else, even a mocker, and it is a mark of Hillel’s sensitivity that he addresses himself, without saying so explicitly, to this precise issue.

The story in the Talmud ends with the gentile’s converting to Judaism, which at first glance may seem strange. What, after all, has Hillel said to win him over so quickly? On second thought, however, we realize that he has said the most appropriate thing that could have been said, and that in doing so he has made the gentile feel that Judaism is a religion that can speak to his own situation.

This, too, of course, is commentary — in this case, my own — but of commentary we can never get enough. “Go study” is what Judaism is all about.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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