I was sitting with a rabbinic friend swapping stories about our lives and our work. He started talking about an encounter he 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 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 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 Talmudic sage who lived two thousand years ago named Hillel, and about an American-Jewish community that’s been getting smaller and smaller, and whose members have been intermarrying at a rate of 40 percent and higher for more than thirty 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 she 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 heightened my resolve. Hillel, I am convinced, would have found absolutely wrongheaded my friend’s all-too-common and reﬂexively discouraging approach to conversion. In the same way, I ﬁnd it hard to imagine Hillel approving of the strange limbo in which some three hundred thousand Russians of questionable 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—or even greater—weight, along with strict adherence to the ritual laws. The story for which Hillel is best known, a story we will look at in greater detail in this book, 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. Hillel offers the man a single precept that surprisingly mentions neither God nor the rituals of the Torah, only the decent treatment of one’s fellow man, 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.
Writing a conventional biography of Hillel is, alas, impossible. All that we know of Hillel’s life comes from a variety of stories in the Talmud (and in related works, such as the Midrash). The Talmud is, along with the Bible, Judaism’s most important literary creation, a compendium of legal discussions, interpretations of the Bible, and an attempt to decipher what it is that God wants of human beings. Add to this folklore, ethical maxims, and stories, many of them about the Talmud’s greatest rabbis. The Talmud was edited around the year 500 c.e., but its roots reach down to the oldest stratum of Judaism and, in the belief of the Talmud’s sages, many of its teachings go back to Mount Sinai itself. But though a formal biography is impossible, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I believe it is still possible to construct a very clear impression of a man whose message speaks more urgently to Jews and Judaism today than that of any other Jewish ﬁgure in the last two thousand years.
Unfortunately, however, when it comes to details, we have considerably more biographical information about some of Judaism’s far more ancient ﬁgures. In the case of Moses, the preeminent ﬁgure of the Hebrew Bible, we know how he met his wife, the names of his sons, his father, mother, brother, and sister, even the story of a certain measure of ill will that Miriam and Aaron, his siblings, felt toward him at one point in the desert wanderings.
The character who ﬁgures most prominently in the early books of the biblical prophets is Israel’s second king, David. The son of Jesse, he is the youngest of eight brothers. We know the story of his ﬁrst love, Michal; indeed, she is the only woman in the Bible whose love for a man is recorded (“Now Michal daughter of Saul had fallen in love with David”). We even know the story of the ﬁght that led to the end of whatever love remained in their sad marriage (2 Sam. 6:16–23).
We move forward now to Hillel, perhaps the greatest rabbi of the Talmud. Hillel lived some twelve hundred years after Moses and about nine hundred years after David, and 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 ancestry 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 four hundred years. But 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 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 are four Gamliels, two additional Shimons, three Yehudahs, and the ﬁnal leader, known as Hillel the Second.1 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 (Shabbat 17a). 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 megalomaniacal kingship of Herod, who persecuted many of the era’s religious teachers. While the Talmud ascribes to Hillel a life span of 120 years (as was the case with Moses), it would seem that his years of religious leadership ranged from approximately 30 b.c.e. to 10 c.e., which would mean this book is being published, coincidentally, on what is possibly the two thousandth anniversary of his passing.
What we do possess about Hillel are many stories—stories scattered throughout the Talmud and Midrash along with many of his legal rulings and those of his disciples (Beit Hillel, the School of Hillel) that are recorded in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and both the Jerusalem and the 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.
But as familiar as Hillel’s teachings are 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 whose teachings can feel as radical today as they must have been 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? Understanding why this has happened—and why Hillel’s vision must be reclaimed today—is what motivated me to write this book.
“While Standing on One Foot”
Hillel’s willingness to run the risk of freezing to death is the story with which he enters Jewish consciousness. The story in which he deﬁnes Judaism’s essence to a non-Jewish questioner is the story that has kept him there ever since. It is the Talmud’s most famous story and one also known—unlike almost any other story in the Talmud—to many Christians:
There was [an] incident involving a Gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed the man away with the building rod he was holding. Undeterred, the man then came before Hillel with the same request. Hillel said to him, “That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.” (Shabbat 31a)
Well-known as this story is, I ﬁnd that it is generally related with one detail changed. The change occurs in how people usually begin the story: “A non-Jew asked Hillel to deﬁne Judaism’s essence while he [the non-Jew] was standing on one foot.” If that had been the non-Jew’s request, Hillel’s response would have been less surprising. People who present their religious teachings to outsiders often focus on their religion’s more humanistic and universalistic elements. But what the non-Jew asked of Hillel was more in the nature of a legal request, one requiring a legal response. He asked to be converted to Judaism on condition that Hillel deﬁne for him Judaism’s essence. In that context, what is striking is that Hillel does not speak to the man about belief in God or about the importance of observing the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, even though belief in God is Judaism’s core belief and the observance of Judaism’s ritual laws was one of Hillel’s central concerns. He was, of course, a fully observant Jew. Nonetheless, when asked what is most basic for a non-Jew to know before he can convert, Hillel restricts himself to a description of Judaism’s ethical essence and then adds, “This is the whole Torah! All the rest is commentary! Now, go and study.”
The fact that Hillel is willing to offer so brief an explanation—ﬁfteen words in the popularly spoken Aramaic—indicates that there is a central focus to his understanding of Judaism, one that provides him with a standard that later enables him to modify certain Torah laws in a manner that will shock other rabbis. Only if one understands Judaism as having an ethical essence can one conclude, as Hillel did on several occasions, that sometimes practicing the Torah literally can lead one to violate the Torah’s ethical will (for examples of this, see chapter 5).
Regarding the unusual question posed by the non-Jew, Talmud scholar Edward Gershﬁeld speculates that the request was characteristic of the Hellenistic intellectual. Many of the philosophical schools of the time strove to give clear and concise statements of their views. For some, especially the Stoics, clarity and simplicity were in themselves evidence of truth. Thus, as Hillel perceived, this speaker was speaking out of the context of the Gentile intellectual world. He was implying that if the Torah had something to say, it could be stated simply and clearly, and, if so, he wanted to hear it. If the message of the Torah could be understood only after much long-winded explanation, that in itself would argue against it being valid.
Hillel’s response is in effect a negative formulation of the Torah’s most famous commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But why did Hillel not simply quote the Torah verse, which, in its evocation of “love,” certainly has a more upbeat quality to it? Why did he resort to a negative formulation?
Here we’re in the realm of conjecture. I suspect that Hillel wanted to offer his questioner a principle he could incorporate into his life immediately. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” if understood literally, makes demands of us that are sometimes unclear and that few of us are ready to satisfy. For example, does this law obligate you to share all your belongings with others? Maybe yes (the verse would seem to suggest that), maybe no (which is what I suspect most of us feel), but to declare this commandment without extensive explanation could easily confuse the listener. Similarly, you could argue that this verse would oblige us to mourn the death of an acquaintance with the same intensity with which we would mourn the death of a member of our immediate family. After all, if we are commanded to love others as we love ourselves, why wouldn’t we be commanded to mourn the loss of others as we would mourn the loss of those dearest to us?
Hillel’s negative formulation, on the other hand, is much easier to incorporate into daily behavior. Before engaging in an act, we should ask ourselves, “How would I feel if that person treated me in the manner I am now preparing to treat him?” Or, “How would I feel if that person spoke about me in the manner I am now speaking about her?” Posing these questions to ourselves is within everyone’s capacity and, if our determination is strong, the answers yielded are not difﬁcult to incorporate into our behavior.
My friend Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, a psychiatrist, argues: “Hillel may have been emulating God’s articulation of the Ten Commandments. Thus, God did not command us to be honest, truthful, and faithful. Rather, He commanded us, ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t bear false witness,’ ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ It may be less positive, but it is undeniably more effective.”
That Hillel was willing to convert the man to Judaism upon his acceptance of this principle shows that Hillel’s belief in ethics as Judaism’s central teaching was not rhetoric. He meant it.
What he also meant with equal passion—and this part of his message is often ignored—are his ﬁnal words to the man, “Now, go and study.” Without study and a knowledge of Jewish holy texts, Judaism becomes literally contentless (the question “What does Judaism want me to do?” becomes unanswerable). That is why Hillel is so insistent on the importance of ongoing study. I often meet Jews who are passionately political, and given the political orientation of most American Jews, that means they are usually liberal, though a fervent minority are conservative. I ask such people if they ever ﬁnd themselves studying Jewish texts that challenge their liberalism or conservatism. If they don’t—and few of them I ﬁnd do—that means, in effect, that their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, with a smattering of biblical and Talmudic quotes cited to support whatever position they already believe.
Zil g’mar, “Go and study,” are Hillel’s ﬁnal words to the new convert and, in essence, to each of us. With the proper amount of study, when you try to decide how to behave, you will have more than good intentions upon which to rely, you will have a three-thousand-year-old body of teachings, arguments, and discussions from which to draw (for examples of such wisdom, see chapters 13–17). If you are willing to accept Hillel’s ethical summary statement and devote yourself to ongoing study, then, indeed, all the rest will be commentary.
Not a small amount of wisdom to communicate in ﬁfteen words.