Happy Monday! Grab a cup of tea or coffee (or if you’re like me, a delicious cold Coke) and let’s talk about Hillel: If Not Now, When? by Joseph Telushkin. This is one volume of many in the Jewish Encounters series by Schocken.
I selected this book for two reasons. The first is that Hillel is the historical rabbi to whom Jesus is most frequently compared. Since their lives are but two generations apart, it is easy to assume that Jesus would have been taught in the rabbinical tradition of the School of Hillel. Secondly, Hillel is featured in the following well-known story: A Gentile came before Hillel and asked of him, “Convert me to Judaism on this condition: that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” 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.”
This story has always captured my imagination because Rabbi Hillel distills Judaism’s ethical essence and then sends the man forward, hoping and assuming that will the new convert will be able to fulfill the ethics now, as he studies to master the religious aspect of Jewish life.
This is such a bold statement and it’s part of why Hillel’s influence has lasted into modern times. Yet, Telushkin argues, and I agree, that we still have much to learn from Hillel’s openness to converts and his creative faith imagination. One of his profound gifts was the concept, tikkun olam. First associated with Hillel, but by no means limited to him, the “phrase literally means ‘repairing the world,’ although it is sometimes translated as ‘perfecting the world’ or ‘bettering the world’.” (47)
[Hillel said,] “In a place where there are no men [willing to take action], try to be a man” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6): Do the right thing, for if you don’t, people’s lives will be diminished rather than elevated by the Torah. I understand Hillel’s usage of the concept of tikkun olam as intended to create a safeguard against the dangers of legalism. Ironically, religious are endangered not only by external threats, but sometimes by their endemic strengths as well. (55)
Telushkin goes on to point out that in Judaism, and many other religions, the details of prohibitions become their own ends, rather that opening an understanding of what is best for our neighbors, ourselves and all creation. If we adhere to the letter, but miss the spirit of the law, we undermine the healing and creative powers of the Scripture and in doing so, dim its light from those who might be drawn to it. Hillel promoted the concept of tikkun olam to prevent his students, and later generations of Jews, from becoming mired in minutiae and able to rejoice in the life-giving power of the Torah.
Telushkin decribes Hillel’s patience, moral imagination, optimism, nonjudgmental nature and intense curiosity, but also acknowledges some of his historical shortfalls, including his occasional misogynist opinion. Hillel is more willing than other rabbis of his generation to allow a man to divorce his wife because she has failed to find favor with him, in any area, than to restrict the possibility of divorce to a case of adultery.
In the discussion of Jesus and Hillel, Telushkin notes that many scholars are making more of an effort of acknowledge Jesus’ Jewish roots.
Comparisons between Hillel and Jesus are inevitable, but will always be unsatisfactory because they inhabited two different religious spheres… It may be easy for Jews to say that what is true in Jesus’ teachings is not new (e.g., the emphasis on loving one’s neighbor and loving God), and what is new in his teachings is not true (e.g., the injunction to “offer the wicked man no resistance,” and the claim that he has the authority to forgive sins). But just as many New Testament scholars have been restoring the Jewish context of Jesus, so it seem appropriate for Jews to acknowledge not only that aspects of Jewish culture made their way powerfully into the teachings of Jesus, but that the openness Christianity displays to Gentiles was already comfortably embraced by Hillel long before Jesus had preached his first sermon.” (140f)
It is always worth talking about Christianity’s Jewish roots, not as supercessionism, but in a way that gives a deeper understanding to who Jesus was as the Son of Man and to further understand the long-standing nature of some of our own Christian practices. Part of the way we can heal the past and squash the future of anti-Semitism is to speak truthfully about Judaism, about the hope of the Hebrew Scriptures and the faithful (and real!) people therein.
In Hillel’s time, as in our own, people were always too busy. There was too much to do to devote time to studying the Torah, to which Hillel responded, “If not now, when?” No one ever gets more time. Telushkin writes, “Delaying Torah study won’t lead to future learning, but to no learning at all.” (162) This doesn’t only apply to the study of scripture, but also to justice work, love for neighbor and even self-care. How many times do we sigh over hearing about the same “lack of time”, perhaps we can inspire (and be inspired) by the two-thousand year-old words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”
This book was extremely readable and has several useful appendices, including a glossary of Jewish terms in case you have trouble telling your Torah from your Talmud and your Mishah from your mikvah. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes religious history, enjoys armchair philosophy, is looking for an interfaith book club possibility or wants to make a deeper connection to Christianity’s Jewish roots.
I am curbing all that I want to quote about this book, which I really enjoyed, and I made many notes in my own (purchased) copy:
Telushkin, Joseph. Hillel: If Not Now, When? Schocken Books, New York. 2010