The Book of Esther doesn’t mention God. Robert Alter’s new translation shows that’s just one way the biblical text is unique.
“What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.” This is the most famous teaching of Hillel. What makes this teaching so extraordinary is that it was offered to a Gentile seeking an on-the-spot conversion. Teachings, stories, and legal rulings of Hillel can be found throughout the Talmud; what many of them share is his emphasis on ethical and moral living as an essential element in Jewish religious practice. After offering that concise summation of the Torah’s contents, Hillel adds the injunction to “now go and study,” and then converts the seeker to Judaism. For Joseph Telushkin, this is not a metaphor but a model. Faced with unprecedented levels of intermarriage and assimilation, and with the interest of so many unchurched non-Jews in Jewish teachings, Judaism today is in need of the sort of openness that Hillel championed 2,000 years ago. The most prominent religious leader in the Land of Israel during the reign of Herod, Hillel may well have influenced Jesus, his junior by several decades. In a provocative analysis of the evolution of both Christianity and Judaism, Telushkin reveals why, over the ensuing centuries, Hillel’s teachings began to be ignored in favor of the stricter and less inclusive teachings of his rabbinic adversary, Shammai. This bold new look at an iconic religious leader—the first to cite the ethical concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as a basis for making modifications to Jewish law—is certain to generate passionate discussion and debate.
Hillel was one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmudic era, an extraordinarily compassionate sage whose thoughts on inclusiveness, openness, and “repairing the world,” as well as his legal interpretations, have shaped rabbinical thought and inspired Jews for two millennia. In his examination of Hillel’s life, however, author Joseph Telushkin finds that many of Hillel’s boldest teachings have been ignored in modern times. With his look at this ancient sage from a 21st century perspective, Telushkin explains why it’s important, now more than ever, to remember Hillel’s teachings and adapt them for contemporary times. The essence of Judaism In a now-famous story, a gentile comes to Hillel and asks to be converted to Judaism, on the condition that Hillel teach him the entire Torah while the gentile “stands on one foot,” a figure of speech meaning “immediately.” Hillel obliges, encapsulating Judaism’s essence in just a few sentences: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah! All the rest is commentary! Now, go and study.” (Shabbat 31a) • Telushkin writes: “Hillel’s response is in effect a negative formulation of the Torah’s most famous commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Why did Hillel rephrase the original? How does the meaning of the phrase shift when it is formulated this way? • If this is truly the essence of Judaism, is Hillel implying that other religions don’t also share this basic tenet? How does it differ from the essence of other religions before and after Hillel’s time – from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism? • According to Hillel’s formulation, the essence of Judaism is not centered on belief, or ritual observance, or even on God, but rather in ethics – people’s interactions with each other (Jewish or not). Are ethics really the core of Judaism, and the Torah? • If you had to sum up the essence of Judaism in one or two sentences, what would you say? • What does the word “commentary” mean in this context? In contemporary language, it might carry a connotation that everything else is only commentary, less important information that is interesting but not essential, relevant only insofar as it amplifies or expounds on the main point. What did Hillel mean by “commentary”? • If Jewish scholars have spent centuries creating and discussing such “commentary,” and “commentary” is what sets Jews apart from other religions that rely on some of the same central texts, what is the place of commentary within Judaism? Two sages Hillel had a rival named Shammai, and the two sages and their respective followers often argued. Broadly speaking, Shammai was the stricter of the two (asked to teach the gentile “standing on one foot,” Shammai drives him away with a stick), and Hillel the more moderate and more flexible, although this was not always true. Hillel’s opinions seem to carry the day most of the time, but again, not always. So it’s difficult to study Hillel without studying his theological sparring partner. “Hillel and Shammai are not merely the Ali and Frazier of rabbinic Judaism,” Telushkin writes. “Their interpretive styles – and disputations – lived on through their statements and through the schools of thought they founded.” • Followers of Hillel and Shammai disagreed about wedding etiquette: Shammai’s disciples argued that the bride should be described exactly as she is – even if this is hurtful – because the Torah commands us to “stay far away from falsehood.” Hillel’s disciples argued that the bride should be described as “beautiful and graceful” even if it’s not accurate, in the interest of keeping a pleasant disposition. When is it acceptable to lie? Out of kindness, as long as nobody gets hurt? In the interest of avoiding confrontation? In the interest of protecting a loved one? • Followers of Hillel and Shammai disagreed about whether it would have been better for humankind if humans had never been created: Shammai’s disciples argued that it would have been better if humans had never been created – and while most of Hillel’s disciples disagreed, enough sided with Shammai’s school to create a majority opinion among the sages: “It is better for man not to have been created.” Today, does this opinion seem surprising? Pessimistic? How might the rest of the world have fared without humankind? • Hillel and Shammai – and their followers, long after their deaths – remained in dialogue, even when their opinions regularly conflicted. Telushkin relates this to modern times: “We should not read only books and publications that agree with and reinforce what we already believe.” Where do you hear “the other side” about important issues – friends, relatives, the media? What is the most important part of engaging people with other viewpoints: keeping your own mind open to new ideas, or trying to convince others about the rightness of your views? Is argument part of dialogue, or a way to prevent dialogue? Conversion Telushkin recounts three instances of gentiles seeking to convert to Judaism, all of whom are turned away by Shammai but welcomed and converted by Hillel. “Hillel is so open to non-Jews becoming Jewish,” Telushkin writes, “that when someone approaches him with an interest in Judaism, his inclination is to convert the person, or certainly to ease and speed the process for doing so.” • Why was Hillel so open to converts – and with relative ease and speed – while other sages disagreed? Do these arguments still resonate today? Is Hillel’s embrace of converts a popular stance today? • Hillel was open to converting anyone with an interest in Judaism. Is this still sufficient for most contemporary rabbis? What else might be required of a prospective convert before conversion is even considered today? • If conversion were faster and easier, how might that change the Jewish community? What’s the potential upside, and downside, of making such a change? Do you think more people would seek to convert to Judaism if it were faster and easier? • Telushkin, citing high intermarriage rates, warns that “unless Jews find ways to bring the non-Jewish spouses of Jews, and the children of unmarried couples, into the Jewish community, the Jewish population will decline precipitously.” While he notes that there is “little risk” of Jewish Diaspora communities disappearing completely, he does worry about declining numbers, and the resulting lessening of Jewish influence on society at large. What kind of influence is Telushkin talking about? In the U.S., Jews represent less than 2% of the population; what kind of numbers would represent a crisis point where influence becomes insignificant? Does it depend on absolute numbers, numbers of observant vs. non-observant Jews, numbers relative to other religious minorities, or other factors? • Where is the line between being welcoming to converts and proselytizing? If Judaism faces a population crisis, why not cross that line, and actively seek out potential converts? What might Hillel say to that idea? Jesus Telushkin writes: “Jesus was raised as a Jew and grew up among Jews, and Hillel was the most significant figure in the Jewish community during Jesus’ youth. That Jesus would have been familiar with Hillel – and with some of his more famous teachings – can be assumed.” • How did Hillel’s ideas later shape Jesus’ philosophy and teachings? Are elements of Hillel’s thinking still evident in mainstream Christian theology today? • Hillel emphasized the importance of study, while Jesus placed greater emphasis on faith. If the centrality of study to Judaism has become legendary since Hillel’s time, what is the role of faith in Judaism? What does “faith” mean – belief in God, deference to religious authorities, belief in the literal words of the Torah? Is faith necessary in Judaism? • While Jesus is often represented as an ardent, even radical pacifist, Telushkin notes that “Judaism demands that the wicked be offered powerful resistance.” What does “powerful resistance” entail in the modern world? Must it be violent? Where does nonviolent social or political resistance fall (think the Civil Rights movement, or Gandhi)? And what role does opposition with arms play, as in the fight against Hitler or the creation of an Israeli army? Tikkun Olam “There is a concept first identified with Hillel that offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might almost be called his theological philosophy,” Telushkin writes. “That concept is tikkun olam, a phrase that literally means ‘repairing the world,’ although it is sometimes translated as ‘perfecting the world’ or ‘bettering the world.’” • Hillel relied on tikkun olam in several instances to modify the letter of a law in the Torah in the interest of maintaining the spirit of the law – and making the law more compassionate – “to create a safeguard against the dangers of legalism,” as Telushkin explains. Is there a limit to how much the Torah’s exact words can be modified, however benevolent the intention? What would an Orthodox rabbi say about this notion today? A Reform rabbi? • Telushkin writes about tikkun olam as it relates to how much ransom should be paid for a kidnapped person: “But just how much should be paid? Any sum necessary, one might argue, because human life is of infinite value. In actuality, because of the values of tikkun olam, limits are placed on how much should be spent. The Mishnah rules: ‘One does not ransom captives for more than their value because of tikkun olam.’ (Mishnah Gittin 4:6)” But what is the value of a person? Does it depend on strategic value – in the case of a captive Israeli soldier, for instance? (And if so, is a general worth more than a captain?) Is it a financial question – as in the case of a captive who supports several other people? (And if so, is a parent worth more than a child?) Is it based on community connections, age, gender, status, net worth? • Telushkin applies Hillel’s famous quote – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” – to the notion of tikkun olam through charity. He suggests that Jews should disproportionately support Jewish causes, but also be sure to support causes outside the Jewish community. Are there charities that should be considered out of bounds for Jewish giving – even if they do, in part, help people? How about Christian organizations that proselytize? Organizations that are anti-Israel? • Patience is one of Hillel’s defining traits, according to Telushkin. Yet Hillel is also famously quoted as asking, “If not now, when?” Are these the words of a patient man? How do these two traits – patience and a sense of urgency, particularly when it comes to “repairing the world” – play out in Hillel’s teachings? How do they play out in this biography of Hillel?
“Telushkin not only describes Hillel, but joins him, beckoning to a new generation of Jews to discover the magnificence of the tradition that Hillel helped both to shape and to bequeath to all.” --Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel Continue reading
Rabbi, lecturer, ethicist, novelist, playwright, and author, Telushkin demonstrates his unusual versatility in this 15th entry in the Jewish Encounters series. This new book about Hillel, “perhaps the greatest rabbi of the Talmud,” is not a conventional biography, since little is known about Hillel’s life. What is known comes as maxims and teachings based on stories in the Talmud and the Midrash; speculation places the period of Hillel’s religious leadership from about 30 B.C.E. to 10 C.E. During that time, he and his followers, the School of Hillel, frequently had disputes with the School of Shammai, led by Hillel’s adversary. One argument they had dealt with was the attitude to be taken toward a potential convert. Hillel offered this instruction: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah! All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.” Telushkin points out that this response is about ethics, not about rituals nor even about God, thereby underlining Judaism’s ethical essence. Telushkin’s lucid explanations are a model of clarity, enabling readers to better understand and appreciate the significant contributions of Hillel and their contemporary applications. Continue reading
“Joseph Telushkin’s portrait of the ancient Jewish leader Hillel jumps off the page with its contemporary resonances. Hillel’s lessons and sayings as a Talmud scholar have universal application for anyone interested in bringing dignity and peace to the world. In Hillel we find a master educator and a person of profound learning, spiritual depth, humility, and tolerance.” Continue reading
“The venerable and much-quoted Rabbi Hillel has a lot to teach us twenty-first-century Jews. Thanks to Joseph Telushkin’s book, we experience Hillel at his most optimistic, succinct, and radical, insisting on the primacy of righteous behavior, an arms-wide welcome for converts, the challenge and blessing of lifelong Jewish learning, and the importance of Jewish educators who love their students and studies in equal measure.” Continue reading
"Though he's one of the great sages of the Jewish people, save for an often misquoted aphorism or two, Hillel's true significance is a mystery to many Jews and members of other faiths. In this brief but rich intellectual biography addressed to a non-scholarly audience, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin attempts to fill that gap, offering a thoughtful exploration of this remarkable rabbi's teachings." Continue reading
"Joseph Telushkin, a scholar and Orthodox rabbi who has made Jewish literacy his mission in earlier books, has composed a compact, thoughtful biography of the sage." Continue reading
"If you have something worth teaching, and it's principles of how to behave, then presumably, those principles will be helpful to people from any group." Continue reading
"It is not a convention biography of the Talmudic Sage, Hillel. Instead, what Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has done in this book is raise the question: What would Hillel say if he could speak to us today? His answer, according to Rabbi Telushkin, would be two-fold. He would say that ethics has priority over ritual in the Jewish system. And he would say that Judaism should be an open and a welcoming religion to those who wish to join us." Continue reading
If you’re a Jewish scholar, a recent convert...pick this book up. You won’t be disappointed. Continue reading
“We had a pretty full house, and I think people are looking for different ways of thinking about the world — a Jewish lens that was remarkably universal,” David Cohen said. Continue reading
"...the paper trail in the Talmud and Midrash gives many clues as to the kind of man he was, and that’s what Telushkin focused on during his five years of research and writing." Continue reading
Telushkin offered this piece of wisdom as a frequently ignored aphorism from Hillel: An ill-tempered person can’t be a teacher. “We don’t learn well when we’re afraid,” Telushkin said, his voice rising as he punched the air for emphasis. “You want to make people love the material. When you teach with love, the love suffuses the people who are learning it. So he lived 2,000 years ago? What he taught is still relevant. These aren’t clichés; these are life lessons that can still affect the way we live.” Continue reading
"Telushkin's reader-friendly style acquaints us with the different approaches of Hillel and Shammai which continue to resonate today...This book should provoke many interesting discussions." Continue reading
"We need more people like Hillel. This is the central theme of R. Joseph Telushkin’s eloquent and thoughtful Hillel: If Not Now, When? and I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it. " Continue reading
JOSEPH TELUSHKIN is the author of sixteen books, including Jewish Literacy, The Book of Jewish Values, and A Code of Jewish Ethics, the first volume of which received a National Jewish Book Award in 2006. He is the rabbi of the Synagogue for … Continue reading
The Book of Esther doesn’t mention God. Robert Alter’s new translation shows that’s just one way the biblical text is unique.