On the Similarities and Differences Among Seven Great Leaders:
Moses, Hillel, Jesus, Gamaliel, Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King

Barry Kort

© 1985


This paper discusses seven great men -- leaders, philosophers, teachers, and courageous political activists. Each of them came to discover the laws of human interaction, and the rules of conduct which those laws implied. They variously codified those rules as Law, taught them to others, demonstrated their validity, and applied them to bring about positive social change.

I will show that these seven great men were similar in their understanding of the Law, but they differed in what they chose to do with that knowledge. I will conclude with some thoughts about how the ideas of these great men can be applied in our everyday lives to lessen the tensions inherent in human interactions.

The Difference Between Error and Sin

A sin is a wrongful act that one knows is wrongful at the time of its commission. In most cases the knowledge comes from law or parental teaching. The person may or may not know why the wrongful act is forbidden.

An error is a wrongful act that is committed at a time when the person does not yet know (or has not yet realized) that such an act should not be committed.

This distinction is important in understanding how each of the seven men came to know the Law, and how they treated others who were yet unenlightened.


Moses was the first to come to discover the Law, and he learned some of it the hard way -- through error.

Moses' first important error was smiting an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. Moses' act of vengeance was driven by his passion (anger): he met violence with (an even greater) act of violence. After this act, Moses fled into the desert where he remained for many years before returning to Egypt to lead his people to freedom. Moses discovered that his act was an error, but it is unclear to me if he was able to determine a better alternative. Perhaps he only knew for sure that one should not kill or visit a greater hurt on one who has transgressed.

Moses' second important error was striking the rock when God had commanded him to speak to it. (I should call this one a sin because Moses knew he was acting wrongfully, but he didn't know why.) The choice of speaking (asking) versus striking (coercing) appeared to be unimportant, because it led to the same outcome (the rock gave water). What Moses had not considered was the rock's point of view. By striking the rock, Moses forced it to give water. Had he spoken to it, he would have created an opportunity for the rock to do a Mitzvah, a good deed. Moses' error was in depriving the rock of an opportunity to choose to be helpful.

Moses went on to write down the Law. Mostly he wrote it down as rules -- magic recipes if you will -- but there was little explanation of the theory behind the rules.


Hillel discovered the fundamental rule of human conduct: "That which is hateful to you do not unto your fellow man." I believe Hillel understood why adherence to this rule would lead to social stability, but Hillel probably did not know what action to take when the law was being violated in an important way. In other words, Hillel stated the conditions that had to be met for mankind to live in peace; but he did not have a plan for bringing the nonconforming members of society into compliance.

Hillel remained a scholar, elucidating the Laws of Moses and organizing them, but he did so largely within the confines of his academic universe.


Jesus was the first man to solve the problem of what to do when Hillel's Law was being violated. He publicized the acts that caused one man to hurt another, and he made clear that the victim (himself included) was being hurt. However, he scrupulously avoided the act of vengeance, and he taught his disciples to do the same ("turn the other cheek").

Jesus was able to "save" (i.e. redeem) his followers from their sins through repentance (coming to know that one's conduct is wrong). He did this through love ("I will not punish you for your sins.") and absolution ("I will forgive you for your sins."). Jesus knew that a key step in redeeming the wayward was the purging of the guilt that follows after one comes to know that he has done wrong. Jesus did not have a good solution for how one can make amends after an irreparable act of wrongdoing (a sin for which one will surely go to Hell). Jesus' solution -- personally absolving the repenter -- was an effective solution, but it put him in the position of becoming God (which he did). For this act, Jesus paid with his life.

Unlike Hillel, Jesus was a political activist, using Hillel's Law as a guide, and introducing the use of nonviolence as a tool to effect social change. Consistent with his activism, Jesus restated Hillel's Law from the negative form ("Do not do unto another that which you would not want done to you.") to the positive form ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."). In this regard, Jesus also became a role model for correct behavior in the presence of pernicious misbehavior. His message was: Do not copy the bad behavior of others; do copy the good behavior which I and my disciples demonstrate before you.


Gamaliel, who was a contemporary of Jesus, also understood Hillel's Law and it's relationship to the Mosaic Code. Gamaliel also understood why Jesus should not be punished for his teachings. Gamaliel could not resolve the question of whether Jesus' work was the work of man or the work of God. But Gamaliel knew that Jesus' work would succeed or fail on its merits, and not on the issue of whether he was God.


Thoreau addressed the problem of Moses' rock: What to do if you are struck instead of spoken to. Thoreau recognized two kinds of civil laws -- those of the form, "Thou shalt not," and those of the form, "Thou shalt do." The proscriptive laws were not a particular problem; mostly they followed the Mosaic Code and forbade wrongdoing. However the prescriptive laws were more troublesome to Thoreau, requiring him to act in ways hateful to him. Thoreau introduced the notion of civil disobedience, which forced the government to punish him for not doing as he was told (by the civil law). Thoreau was courageous, but not foolhardy; he limited his civil disobedience to offenses for which his punishment was no more than a night in jail. This allowed him to make his point without becoming a (dead) martyr.


Gandhi was a modern day Jesus. He understood how to use nonviolence as a tool for social change, and he certainly understood both Hillel's Law and Jesus' Golden Rule. Like, Jesus, Gandhi cared very much about his people. Like Jesus, Gandhi also cared about the "enemy" (the British, in this case). Time and again, Gandhi caught the British in the act of governing. He publicized what the British did, and he made everyone aware of how much the governed were suffering and being hurt, despite the evident good intentions of the British.

When civil war broke out in India, and Hindu fought Muslim, Gandhi demonstrated how much it hurt him to see his people violate Hillel's Law: he fasted to dramatize how distressed he was by the fighting and killing. Each time violence broke out, Gandhi fasted nearly unto his death before his people came back to their senses and stopped killing each other.

But Gandhi also contributed one more idea that had eluded Jesus. Gandhi solved the problem of absolution for irreparable past wrongdoing without playing God. Like Jesus, Gandhi knew that the wrongdoer could repent and change his ways, provided the sinner could purge the guilt for his past behavior. Towards the end of his last fast, a Muslim came to Gandhi to confess his sins: he had slain a Hindu child (an irreparable wrong). The Muslim man was in tears, for he had acted in passion (like Moses), and he knew he was now condemned to go to Hell. In one of the most powerful and dramatic moments of Gandhi's life, he rose from his sickbed and said to the Muslim, "I know a way out. Find a child whose parents were killed in the fighting, and raise him in your family. But...," and Gandhi paused here for dramatic effect, "...but make sure the child is a Hindu, and raise him as a Hindu." Gandhi found a way for the Muslim man to make amends, without the arbitrary act of human absolution. Gandhi's method of absolution was to suggest a good deed, a Mitzvah, that was "equal and opposite" to the man's wrongdoing. This is comparable to the Judaic notion that one atones for one's wrongful acts by choosing to do Mitzvot or good deeds.

In some ways, I think that Moses' acceptance of the awesome task of leading his people out of slavery was Moses' way of making amends for his crime of passion in killing the Egyptian.

Martin Luther King

King was the last of the seven great leaders to put the above principles to work. King studied both Thoreau and Gandhi, and, as a Baptist minister, he was certainly a disciple of Jesus' teachings. Like Jesus and Gandhi, King was a political activist who with great courage and determination forced the oppressor (in this case the American establishment) to carry out its oppression publicly and with great visibility. He made the American public aware of its treatment of Blacks, with the help of the print and electronic media. Through nonviolent civil disobedience (such as boycotts and sit-ins), King caught the White establishment in the act of oppression. The wisest of American leaders, especially the Executive Branch under the Kennedy Administration, understood well that King was to the Blacks as Moses was to his people, as Jesus was to his followers, and as Gandhi was to his nation. And they knew he was right and that he would prevail in the end.

Implications for Everyday Life

Although we are all aware of the Fundamental Law (Hillel's Law or the Golden Rule), it is a fact of life that we all too often forget to apply it. When someone does something we don't like ("that which is hateful to us"), we often forget what Hillel taught and angrily "do unto them that which they just did unto us." That is, we copy people's bad behavior instead of their good behavior. This all too common practice estranges people from each other and turns friends into enemies. That is why Jesus taught, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." For if you maltreat your neighbor, you will likely receive maltreatment in return.

It is clear that failure to follow the Fundamental Law leads to a breakdown of trust with consequential insecurity (not knowing when the next counterblow is going to come). What is less obvious is how to drive a relationship toward the desirable equilibrium point that Hillel envisioned when it is not already there. Here, the techniques of Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King come into play.

  • Rule 1
    Nonviolence -- do not hurt someone back who has just hurt you. This Rule is the most important, but is also the hardest one of all to follow. Like Moses' smiting of the Egyptian, we all too often let our passions rule our behavior. In order to apply Rule 1, one needs enormous self-discipline -- the discipline to decouple our actions from our feelings.

  • Rule 2
    Awareness -- make the offender aware of the act committed (simply tell him or her exactly what he/she did).

  • Rule 3
    Exhibit the Damage -- show the offender the harmful consequences of the act just committed. If the hurt is to one's feelings, tell the offender how you feel about what they did.

    (Remember especially Rule 1 -- do not "show" them how you were hurt by deliberately hurting them back. One reason this doesn't work is because not everybody gets the same feeling as a result of a given action.) Another reason is that the offender is usually unaware of the precise behavior that constitutes the offense.

  • Rule 4
    Free Choice -- If you want someone to do something, ask them if they would be willing. Give them free choice to acquiesce or refuse, but do not tell them what they have to do. Failure to ask is the most common way we violate Rule 1, for we typically want free choice for ourselves but obedience from others.

    What should one do if he finds himself on the receiving end of a violation of Rule 4? If an order should have been a request ("Are you asking me or telling me?"), consider refusal. The consequences may be anger and retribution, but then one can proceed from Rule 1 to handle that. Keep in mind that to correct a bad situation, one has to catch the offender in the act of offending, which means enduring some unjust treatment.

  • Rule 5
    Teach Rules 1-4 to your family, your friends, and especially to those who seek to harm you or others. Teach the Rules by using them.

    Why it Works

    We have a very strong sense of Justice, and when someone hurts us, we naturally want to "even the score." There are two ways to do this. If you hurt someone back, the score is now -1 to -1. Of course, the other person thinks the score is -1 to 0, because they are unaware that they did anything to hurt you. So they even the score with a counter-hurt. It is easy to see how this can escalate into open hostilities and broken relationships.

    The other way to respond to a hurt is to simply tell the other person what they did, then tell them how you feel. The other person then can legitimately feel bad about his or her behavior and can express sorrow, make amends, and restore balance. (Feel bad about what you did, apologize and make amends, then feel good about yourself.) Now the score is +1 to +1 (it's still even but everybody feels good instead of bad). The key is to make the other person feel bad about his behavior (something he can change) rather than trying to make him feel bad about what he is (something he can't change). The key psychological concept is to continue to love the person, even as you express your distress about their misbehavior.

    For this process to work, a person has to be completely honest. If you hide the fact that you are hurt, the other person will very likely not become aware of your hurt.

    Protection and Oppression

    The Romans occupied Palestine with the intention of maintaining order. They were there to protect the people. Jesus demonstrated how the act of protection became an act of oppression toward those being protected. The British occupied India in order to protect it from civil disorder. Gandhi showed that the act of protection was an act of oppression upon those being protected.

    It appears to me that the only sound way to provide protection is to allow the protected to learn how to protect themselves (protect themselves not from the enemy without, but from the enemy within). This conclusion follows from Rule 4: The protector inevitably violates Rule 4 (telling the protected what they have to do), thereby turning the act of protection into the act of oppression. Hence Rule 5 -- replace the protector (a person or governmental authority) by a system of self-protection based on Rules 1-4.

    This last principle applies to society at all levels from the mightiest empire down to the single family unit, and even to one person's treatment of himself. To avoid turning the act of protection into an act of oppression, teach all the Rules to those who you would protect. And as they mature and begin to assume the role of protector in their own right, be sure they learn Rule 5.