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Modern Lessons From Hillel

Not much is known about the life of the rabbi and Talmudic scholar Hillel, who lived 2,000 years ago, but his teachings have shaped Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's forthcoming book Hillel: If Not Now, When? argues that Hillel has as much to teach the 21 Century as he did his own.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A few months ago, I was talking with Christian friends about their faith and mine, Judaism, in particular the notion that Christianity entails clear, sweeping principles, while Judaism is a complex of laws.

Well, I mentioned something that a great Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, said not long before the time of Jesus. A man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah, the five books of Moses, while standing on one foot. And Hillel did. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That's the whole Torah, he said. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Well, in that conversation, two things struck me. First, my Christian friends knew nothing of Hillel, except that he's the namesake of the campus organization for Jewish college students. And secondly, I didn't know much more about him than they did.

Well, it turned out that Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who has written many books about Judaism, had a new book coming out about Hillel called "Hillel: If Not Now, When?" It's just about to be published, and Joseph Telushkin joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Rabbi JOSEPH TELUSHKIN (Author, "Hillel: If Not Now, When?"): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, when did Hillel live, and how significant a figure is he in Judaism?

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: Hillel was a tremendously significant figure in Judaism. He is, perhaps - along with Rabbi Akiva, the most famous sage of the Talmud, which is the major Jewish book after the Bible. He lived at the end of the first century, before the Common Era, and is assumed to have lived till about 10 of the Common Era.

SIEGEL: Perhaps even overlapping with Jesus of Nazareth in that kind of...

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: I think that it's very likely that the young Jesus, who seems to have come from a religious, Jewish home - or certainly a committed Jewish household - would have been familiar with some of Hillel's teachings.

SIEGEL: Now, I confess the one thing that I had not taken on board in religious school about the story that I just recounted - can you recite the Torah while standing on one foot, yes, what's hateful to you it hadn't occurred to me that this was all about conversion.

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: That's the aspect of the story people often overlook. If somebody had come to Hillel and asked him: Tell me the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot, it would sort of make sense that he would give - as most of us would when we'd be speaking to members of another religious grouping - a humanistic teaching, something drawn out of our tradition that's universal and that could appeal to people of all faiths.

What people often overlook is that the question the man asked of Hillel was more in the nature of a legal query. What he actually said to Hillel was: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I don't want to spend weeks studying to qualify here. Let's do it in a few seconds.

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: Right. Now, it doesn't mean that he would necessarily therefore have to have converted him immediately. It means that the man wanted, as a starting point, an immediate essence of Judaism, a principle.

That's consistent with what we know about the Stoics, who were a common school at the time, that they thought if you had a truth, you could convey that truth very briefly.

Now, so what he said to the man was: This is the essence of Judaism. You're standing on one foot. Now go and study, because it can take a while until you'll understand how to incorporate that lesson into your life.

The hardest thing in life sometimes is not doing what's right, but knowing what's right. So therefore, Hillel also taught an ignoramus can't be a good person, yet intellect has to play a vital role in figuring out the right thing to do.

SIEGEL: His attitude toward the gentile who wanted to convert, though, was, first, be open. First, be welcoming to this person.

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: Very open. Look, if one came up with an antibiotic, you wouldn't assume the antibiotic only worked on one group. 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.

So if Hillel had insights on how to be a good person, even the fact that he defines Judaism in a negative formulation what's hateful unto you he doesn't say love your neighbor as yourself, because love your neighbor as yourself is so hard to incorporate. Does it mean you should give away half of your possessions? Maybe it does, but nobody's going to want to do that.

But what he - and the Ten Commandments even reflects that idea in its own way. It doesn't say in the Ten Commandments be truthful. It says don't bare false witness. It doesn't say be honest. It says don't steal. So he wanted to give him a principle he could immediately incorporate into his life.

SIEGEL: His influence - you should explain this - first as a rabbinic sage, was great while he was alive and while he took part in what amounted to judicial deliberations, and then it lives on through a school of Hillel, people - rabbis who follow his approach to things.

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: Hillel had the fortune that he achieved prominence in his life. He was not one of those people who, like, died unknown and then was later discovered.

So he achieved prominence in his own lifetime, and has maintained prominence ever since. But oddly enough, on this one area, his openness to bringing the message of Judaism to interested non-Jews he wasn't going after people who were committed to another faith, but people were interested his openness was long ignored.

SIEGEL: Yes. You've described what the contemporary attitude, say, among the Orthodox rabbinate, to conversion is. It's beyond discouraging. It's some would say don't do it.

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: I wouldn't say it's beyond discouraging. Remember, like all worlds, once you go inside them, the world of orthodoxy encompasses people with many varieties of attitude. And in most of them, certainly if a non-Jew shows a great interest and an openness and a persistence, they really will be accepted. And you see that repeatedly.

But on the other hand, Hillel was open even to those who came in a more, initially, a more casual way, but wanted to know more. And there is no shortage of non-Jews who have close connections to Jews, who marry Jews, and I think many of these people would be open to becoming Jewish. I think there are many non-churched non-Jews who would be open and impressed with the message of Judaism, and I think Hillel was very open to conveying this message.

SIEGEL: One of the problems you encounter in writing about Hillel is he lived 2,000 years ago. You observe, in passing, that biography is not especially a Jewish form. You don't have a lot of confirmed facts to work with. What are you actually able to conclude about what was true about Hillel?

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: What Hillel left behind, and his disciples, were many legal teachings and many stories about the personality of Hillel himself. And the stories are so extraordinary - they don't tell stories like that about you and me - that from them, we can start to infer the sort of person he was.

But you're right. We are given relatively limited amounts of details. He did live 2,000 years ago, but because he addressed the eternal issues, we find that those answers continue to reverberate. And certainly, we live in an American society where a figure who lived 2,000 years ago, Jesus, has remained the preeminent religious figure within the Christian world.

Jews do not assign any divine status, of course, to Hillel, but Hillel's teachings carry such force, and I'm arguing they deserve a second look.

SIEGEL: Rabbi Telushkin, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Rabbi TELUSHKIN: Oh, thank you, and thank you for your very thoughtful questions.

SIEGEL: And happy New Year. Joseph Telushkin is the author of "Hillel: If Not Now, When?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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