Hillel was a great Jewish scholar who was born in Babylon in 110 BCE. At the age of 40, he moved to Jerusalem, then under Roman rule, where he later became the spiritual head of the Jewish people.
To this day, Hillel is known for many biblically derived maxims of wisdom such as “Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.”
Shammai was a contemporary biblical scholar and sometimes rival to Hillel. The relationship between them was known for occasional disagreements, such as the proper ritual of lighting Channukah candles.
The story is told of a gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside. Then, the same person went to Hillel with the same challenge. Hillel successfully converted him by saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary, go and learn it.” To this day, this maxim of ethics (Golden Rule) is widely held by people of all religious faiths and indeed even by atheists. In fact, belief in God is not required to live one’s life according to the golden rule as an isolated core value.
Hillel drew his words from Leviticus 19:18 where we are told to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
While that is certainly one important biblical law, it fails to summarize the core belief of Judaism in the brief time that the gentile in question could stand on one foot. Hillel was wrong about this biblical passage as being the essential essence of the Torah. How do we know that Hillel was wrong? Leviticus 19:18 is not the bible passage written on tiny scrolls on the door posts of your house and on your gates. Leviticus 19:18 is not the biblical passage that we bind as a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead. Leviticus 19:18 is not the biblical passage that we recite three times a day when we daven Shachrit, Mincha, and Maariv.
So what is?
It is the words of Deuteronomy Chapter 6 and the Shma that summarize the core value of the Torah, and our raison d’etre as Jews.
This is the fundamental core message of the Torah, which can be taught to anyone while they stand on one foot:
Deuteronomy 6:5-9: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The rest of the laws of the Torah, including the Golden Rule, can be considered to be secondary and emerge from a fundamental love of God and His laws.