Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai’s Great Debate

The Sages of the first two centuries wondered: What is the most important principle of the Torah? Rabbi Akiba argued that it is the precept of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  Akiba’s brilliant student, Ben Azzai, differed: “You must not say: ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor also be put to shame, for if you do so, know that you are shaming someone who is made in the likeness of God.’”

Put in simple and more contemporary terms: If you cannot respect the Divine image that you are made in, the odds are that you will not be able to respect the Divine image in others.  Even if one were shamed, such disparaging treatment does not entitle the victim to reciprocate in kind—not even in the face of provocation. To insult or harm the divine image in any of its forms is to deny the essential brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.

This is why Ben Azzai felt that the verse affirming the Divine image is by far the most comprehensive principle of the entire Torah—the bedrock of all biblical morality.[1] For R. Akiba, love is the supreme value for interpersonal relationships. However, for Ben Azzai, the most supreme ethical principle in the Torah is the teaching of Divine equality. Respecting the godly image in oneself and in others ensures that society will be just and moral.

In summary, Ben Azzai’s attitude about the uniqueness of the human individual expresses the same ethical concept in a slightly different context. As we find in another Mishnah, Ben Azzai says: “Do not despise any human being and do not consider anything as improbable—for there is not a man who does not have his hour, and there is not a thing which does not have its place.” [2] There is no human being in this world that cannot leave a positive mark in the world.

[1] Sifra, Kedoshim 4:12. In Genesis Rabba 24:7, the order is reversed, but there can be little doubt that the Sifra represents the older of the two traditions.

[2] Mishnah Aboth 4:3

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