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On One Foot

A new Nextbook Press biography of Hillel makes clear that the rabbi’s words and thoughts—though millennia old—resonate today

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According to rabbinic tradition, Hillel the Elder, one of the great sages in Jewish history, died 2,000 years ago, in the year 10. But even after two millennia, there is a contemporary urgency to his life and thought, particularly at this moment of debate not simply over the mechanics of conversion but over the very essence of Judaism itself. Hillel was, as the Talmud describes him, a poor man so desperate for an education that he nearly froze to death as he lay in a snowstorm on the roof of a study house, listening in on the study of Torah below. That sense of being the outsider never left him and lights up many of the stories told about him in the Talmud. He emerges, in Joseph Telushkin’s new book, Hillel: If Not Now, When?—the prologue of which appears below—as a sort of once and future rabbi, a teacher whose fearless openness to Gentiles seeking conversion, and whose insistence on morality as the core of Judaism, make him as relevant today as he was 2,000 years ago.

I was sitting with a rabbinic friend swapping stories about our lives and our work. He started talking about an encounter he had recently had: “A Jewish man, probably in his early thirties, and his non-Jewish girlfriend came to speak with me. They want to marry, but his parents are dead-set against their only son marrying a Gentile. I asked the woman what she thought about the parents’ attitude, and she was honest. She said it seemed primitive and ridiculous. But she also said that, if necessary, she’d be willing to convert. After all, she wants to be a good person, and Judaism, she assumes, wants people to be good and might well have something to teach her about goodness. That’s how she put it, ‘might well have something to teach her about goodness.’ ”

“And what did you tell her?” I asked.

My friend, a rather traditional rabbi, answered: “I told her that we’re in no rush to bring people in, that conversion to Judaism is a not a quick business: ‘Presto, you’re a Jew.’ There’s a lot to study, a lot of rituals to learn, and I certainly can’t convert you before you do all that studying, and commit yourself to practicing all that you study.”

“And what did she say to that?”

“It was the boyfriend who spoke up. He seemed really annoyed. ‘I told you this was pointless,’ he said to the girl, and then he turned to me. ‘We’re getting married in six weeks, rabbi. With or without your help.’”

My friend shrugged. “I told them that even if the two of them had come in with a more open attitude, six weeks was way too quick to do a conversion. Six months would be a stretch. They walked out with a book I gave them, but they’re not coming back, I can tell.” My friend shook his head back and forth a few times, his expression a mixture of sadness and annoyance. “What I was really thinking was that they’d be better off going to City Hall, and just getting their license. We don’t need converts like that. One day, if she’s interested in becoming a real Jew, she can come see me.” He shrugged his shoulders, and regarded my skeptical face. “I know, I know, that day’s never going to come.”

I was quiet a minute, thinking about, of all things, a 2,000-year-old talmudic sage named Hillel, and about an American-Jewish community that’s been getting smaller and smaller and whose members have now been intermarrying at rates of 40 percent for over 30 years.

“What about that comment she made to you?” I finally asked him.

He looked puzzled. “Which comment?”

“That Judaism might well have something to teach her about being a good person.”

“Nice words,” he conceded. “But I would have been a little more encouraged if she had actually said something about religion. Like maybe she had read about Shabbat and wanted to observe it. Or was willing to keep kosher. At least then I would have felt that I had something to work with. But this couple gave me nothing to work with.”

Nothing to work with. His words reverberated in my head.

At the time, I had already begun thinking that I would like to write a book about Hillel, and this encounter only stiffened my resolve. For Hillel, I am convinced, would have found absolutely wrong-headed my friend’s all-too-common and reflexively discouraging approach to conversion. Just as I find it hard to imagine Hillel approving of the strange limbo in which 300,000 Russians of dubious Jewish—and sometimes non-Jewish—parentage are presently living in Israel, many of whom want to become Jews. I thought of Hillel because he is not only, arguably, Judaism’s greatest rabbinic sage, but also its most fearlessly inclusive.

He is also the rabbinic figure most willing to give ethical behavior equal—even greater—weight, along with strict adherence to the ritual laws. The story for which Hillel is best known involves a non-Jew who is open to converting to Judaism but who wishes to learn about Judaism not in six weeks, but while “standing on one foot”—that is, in a single sound bite. Having literally been driven away with a stick by another rabbi who is affronted by his request, the non-Jew comes to Hillel, who is open to converting him, and who offers the man a single precept which mentions only the decent treatment of one’s fellow man—“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” —along with the admonition to keep studying. If there is an essence of Hillel, it is in this story in which he himself dares to offer an essence of Judaism.

Hillel, perhaps the greatest rabbi of the Talmud, lived some 1,200 years after Moses and about 900 after David, and presumably we should possess considerably more biographical information about him and his background than about theirs. But we don’t. A talmudic passage refers to him as “Hillel the Babylonian,” from which we deduce that he was born in Babylon and subsequently came to Israel. The Talmud informs us that he went on to serve as Nasi, the foremost religious leader of the community. Elsewhere, the Talmud traces his descent to King David, a touch of royalty that befits a man whose descendants would hold positions of religious leadership within the Jewish community for more than 400 years. However, we don’t know the names of his father or mother or, for that matter, his wife (though the rabbis tell a story that reveals her to have been a highly sensitive practitioner of charity). We know the name of one son, Shimon—we don’t know whether or not he had other children—and of his brother Shebna, who is identified as a merchant. And because of the leadership roles many of Hillel’s descendants assume, we know their names, among them, four Gamliels, two additional Shimons, three Yehudahs, and the final leader, known as Hillel the Second. We also know of the contemporaneous rabbi, Shammai, founder of his own school—and the man who drove the would-be convert away—with whom Hillel and his disciples had numerous legal disputes; surprisingly, however, there is only one story in which the two men actually appear together. Nevertheless, they are a famous emblematic pair of adversaries who each uphold principles essential to Jewish tradition.

We also know that Hillel was a disciple of two rabbis, Shmaya and Avtalion, who were the religious leaders of their age, and who were both descended from converts to Judaism. We know that Hillel assumed his position of leadership during a period of great instability and ignorance in Jewish life, in all likelihood related to the megomaniacal kingship of Herod, who persecuted many of the era’s religious teachers. While the Talmud ascribes to Hillel a lifespan of 120 years (as was the case with Moses), it would seem that his years of religious leadership ranged from approximately 30 BCE to 10 CE, which would mean this book is being published, coincidentally, on what is possibly the 2,000th anniversary of his passing.

What we do possess about Hillel are stories, many many stories. Stories scattered throughout the Talmud and Midrash, along with numerous legal rulings of his and of his disciples (Beit Hillel, the School of Hillel) that are recorded in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and both the Jerusalem and Babylonian editions of the Talmud. It is from these stories and rulings that Hillel enters the Jewish mind as so great a rabbinic sage, a man beloved for his legal daring, passion for learning, remarkable openness to converts, and imaginative acts of kindness.

It is both in stories and in legal discussions that we encounter Hillel’s willingness to define—in one extended sentence, no less—Judaism’s essence, his openness to determining Jewish law not only on the basis of tradition but also on the basis of his keen understanding of the Torah’s intention, and his loving confidence in the instincts of the common man.

Yet, as much as Hillel’s teachings are familiar in the Jewish world and were repeatedly affirmed (by a heavenly voice no less) as valid and fundamental, many of his most important ideas have been ignored, sometimes profoundly so. Who was this man who can feel as radical today as he must have felt in his own time, and yet who sits, or ought to sit, squarely at the center of normative Judaism? And how have we moved so far from his vision?

Joseph Telushkin, rabbi at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, is the author of 16 books, including Jewish Literacy, The Book of Jewish Values, and A Code of Jewish Ethics This excerpt is taken from his book Hillel: If Not Now, When? out this month in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series, published with Schocken Books.

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With all due respect to Rabbi Telushkin, I beg to differ with him. Hillel did not merely “offer the man a single precept which mentions only the decent treatment of one’s fellow man—’That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow’ —along with the admonition to keep studying.”

He told him “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow”, and added that the rest of the Torah explains this statement. And *then* told him to go and learn. In other words, far from Hillel’s “Golden Rule” being intended as a stand-alone principle, Hillel was characterizing the Torah and rebuking the rude man who had approached him. “Idach perusha” does not mean “the rest is [only] commentary”. It means “the rest is the explanation.”

Lisa, an absolutely wonderful addition to Rabbi Telushkin’s interpretation.
We can look at Hillel as attempting to figure out why the candidate is asking the question, and giving him answers that fit the possible motivations.
The student may be ignorant of the scope of Judaism, but genuinely interested, in which case, Hillel offered a good teaching, and the notion that the continuation of study is important as well.
On the other hand, the student could have been mocking Hillel and Judaism, in which case Hillel started off with an admonition about how to treat people.
In either case, Rabbi Telushkin’s point is important – here is a sage, arguable one of our most important, placing the inclusion of a non-Jew as an vital value in contrast to our strange reluctance in contemporary Judaism to endeavor to be welcoming.

Hillel was prescient. Our times demand a new openness to seekers, whether they are non-Jews already in or contemplating committed relationships. I am planning, coincidentally, to propose to our Board of Rabbis in Palm Beach County, FL, for next year at this season of turning and returning, a fast-track program for would-be converts who have already decided to convert, but for whom the lengthy classes and waiting periods are too daunting. The 10-day program, coinciding with the 10 days of Teshuvah, (consider it an open-enrollment period ;-) would present a Hillel-style and substance “one-foot” summary of some essential mitzvot, Jewish history, theology, life-cycle and observances, and culminate with a mikvah ceremony erev Yom Kippur, and a formal declaration and acceptance into the kahal as the congregation and new Jews all proclaim the Sh’ma together and the last blast of the shofar calls us to look ahead to next year in Jerusalem. This will not be a watered-down program. Far from it. it will be an intensely concentrated program leading to consecration and conversion. I’m calling it “Ten Days to a Jewish You.” Hillel would be ecstatic. The rest of their lives will be a continuation of Jewish learning and living, but from within the fold, not as outsiders looking in. Kol haKavod, Joe. Shanah Tovah umetukah.

Jeff Carpenter says:

“Where to begin?” is not reductionism; the beginning suggests that the foot that is held up off the ground will now take the first step of a long journey of faith. The origin, the root, the source is in place—the rest is seeing how love God/love your neighbor gets played out.
Thank you, Rabbi Telushkin; may you be blessed/be a blessing this holiday.

The differences betweeen Hillel and Shammai continue to this day.

There were so many opportunities for discussion that the rabbi in your story seems to have missed. “What does it mean to you to be a good person?” “Why do you think that G-d would care whether we are “good”?” “What do you think the Torah and the sages have to say about it?”, and so on. On a similar note, it was wise to tell her that converting to Judaism is a long process, but it would have been better to explain it in a more positive way, which could have led to an opportunity for the rabbi to suggest that the wedding be postponed to allow time for study, and perhaps conversion.

If the wedding was to go on as planned, building rapport with the couple would have allowed for the possibility for the discussion to continue, not just with the woman, who seemed open to learning more, but with the man, who appears to have left Judaism, quite possibly after previous encounters that were much like the one in the story. The saddest part of the story is that neither of them are likely to be back, nor will their children.

Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule is paramount in the practice of humanistic Judaism. I am so grateful that the Society for Humanistic Judaism exists, not only because this is the only form of Judaism that works for an agnostic like myself, but also because we are absolutely accepting of all who want to join the Jewish people and do not believe that to be a Jew requires that your mother, or even your father be Jewish or that official rabbinic conversion is necessary. For us, a Jew is a person who identifies with the culture and history of the Jewish people, period. I get tired of hearing about so many people who are turned away from the Jewish people because their future spouse isn’t considered acceptable by the community – as represented by a rabbi who refuses to officiate at the wedding.

Jay A Friedman says:

With all respect to Rabbi Telushkin, there is an innuendo in his article that the girl’s interests in Judaism stems from her desire to “learn how to be good.”

As is well known, Judaism does not claim to be the sole well of goodness. We believe that non Jews need only observe the “seven commandments of the Sons of Noah”. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we ask Hashem to look favorably upon all mankind.

Rabbi Telushkin also misquotes Hillel’s statement. The entire answer was: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

The last few words tell us that the Roman was instructed to learn about Judaism – not merely to enjoy a particular phrase.

Judaism consists of ceremony, belief, acts, relationship with Hashem and relationship with one’s fellows. It is not a feely goody once a year or once a month experience. It is ongoing and total. The young lady did not appear to be interested in being a Jew every day and every hour and every minute

Once again you have written a book that is sure to inspire, motivate, educate and change the
discussion on Hillel, Judaism and conversion. Mazel tov.
I would like to invite you to Napa Valley if you are doing a book tour in the west. We have a dynamic community here and I would love it if you could take a day to come up here. I can guarantee a private wine tour of your choice, a delicious lunch and an intelligent audience for your book presentation.
I will invite my son, Cary Rosenzweig, to Napa Valley. You will love your day here surrounded by admirers!
Best wishes for a kind 5771.

Zoe Kahn

Ra'anan says:

I recall another incident when Hillel was confronted by followers of Beith Shammai over the type of sacrifice he was bringing. He avoided being confrontational w/them. Our rabbi taught us the difference between Hillel & Shammai was that Hillel is giving us the easier way out because that’s the level we are currently at, but in the future we’ll be able to handle the more stringent level of Shammai whose very name means “shamayim” which is “of the perfection of the heavens.” I tend to agree w/R. Telushkin that articulating truths in a meaningful way sweetly helps the medicine go down & this applies in EVERY facet of life, but is probably most important regarding Judaism which probably has the most to say about relationships which is what humanity is most suffering from today.

Rabbi Weiss writes with regards to his “quicky conversion” program that “Hillel would be ecstatic”. I beg to differ. I think Hillel would weep.

Leslie Ribnik says:

Regarding initial receptivity to would be converts, is there not an advisory tradition of engaging the interested person in dialogue about their reasons and motivations for, as well as their expectations of conversion; and initiating discussion with a question of the form,”What, are you crazy that you want to be a Jew?” Once past that question, Hillel’s aphorisms — “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when? — are an excellent starting point for leading one into Judaism as living and contemplating Life, Existence and Everything.

SACnPhilly says:

The rabbi dismayed by the presumptuousness of the young couple not only missed an opportunity to gain good will but also in eliciting anger from the intended groom in all likelihood alienated a member of the tribe. While I agree that Judaism must never be reduced to a mere numbers game, it is vital that we learn to speak the language of contemporary society and its dilemmas. As a culture of study and interpretation we need ever be mindful of the tension between tradition and newness. How sad that in our narrowness we so often fail to engage even those who would be positively inclined toward us.

Who ever said that Hillel converted that man before he really learned. The man requested Hillel to teach him all about Judaism in 20 bytes of TV time. Hillel responded saying “Don’t do to me what you wouldn’t accept for yourself”, i.e. you wouldn’t like to explain your Paganism (or whatever) in such a short time. The solution is go, spend time studying, learning, consider seriously your moves. Conversion is not an easy, rapid process. We never learned whether that man ever came back to Hillel, and maybe he came back after many years. There was no Drive-In Conversion. Las Vegas, gambling and rapid food, speedy religion was not invented before Columbus. Gmar Chatima Tova!

While the rest of Tora ‘explains’ what is ‘hateful’, the baseline summary by Hilel still stands on its own. It is the touchstone that reveals the authenticity of halakhi actions. If a Jew tries to do Tora in a way that is hateful to another Jew, then that offense can NEVER satisfy the requirements of Tora. It is a violation of Tora itself to use Tora to offend, harm, or alienate other Jews. Haredim do wrong if they become intolerant. Likewise, radical seculars do wrong if they become intolerant.

Hilel and Rambam are my heroes. Rambam made it absolutely clear, conversions must be easy. A conversion can happen in the VERY SAME DAY as the request. There is no need to study before a conversion. Because. All Jews must be studying Tora all the time. A Nonjew promises a Jewish life of study, immediately does a mikva, becomes a Jew, then joins the rest of the Jewish kinship in our lives of perpetual Tora study. It is that simple.

Arthur Gr eenberg says:

There is no good reason for Judaism to constitute a small minority. We’re too good and valuable to the whole world that we should not become a large people – maybe 100 million instead of 12-14 million.

My thought is to do a pilot to convert in ONE day students in college – starting with former Christians. Once a Christian no longer believes in the virgin birth of Jesus, he is no longer a christian and I would consider him ripe for joining the tribe which allows for great divergence of belief and practice. I’d like to do a program in my home for not-yet-Jewish UCLA students. Let them spend a day participating in Jewish joy and education; offer conversion at end of day and for those who do convert let an on site Bet Din give them a Jewish “passport” and immediately connect them to a mentor on site who will connect them to further Jewish education and Jewish experiences including holiday celebrations and Shabbat dinners. I believe we’ll get a high % becoming better and more active than our larger disconnected Jewish population.

If any Rabbi likes my idea, call me and LET US GET INTO ACTION.

ARTHUR GREENBERG 310-476-8478

PS THIS PROGRAM, IF SUCCESSFUL, COULD RUN IN ALMOST EVERY AMERICAN COLLEGE

How cheap Mr. Greenberg thinks conversion is. How cheap he must think the Jewish soul is. How sad that so many Jews have fallen away from tradition. How sad that people who call themselves rabbis think that we need to pump up our numbers by ridiculous conversions. How sad that the same false theories of life propounded by egotistical leaders and which bamboozled so many Jews, are now being used yet again to try to re-define Judaism.

And as for Susan’s humanistic Judaism. Judaism is humanistic when it is seen for what it is: divine. Man is most human when s/he is not the measure of all things.

Peace on earth and goodness are based on truth. The Torah says that non-Jews can access truth through observing the Seven Noahide Commandments, which are brought by Moses. They do not need to convert, and we do not need to encourage conversion for the sake of increasing synagogue memberships, marriage or otherwise. See http://www.asknoah.org for more information.

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On One Foot

A new Nextbook Press biography of Hillel makes clear that the rabbi’s words and thoughts—though millennia old—resonate today

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