Hil­lel: If Not Now, When?

  • Review
September 8, 2011

A con­ven­tion­al biog­ra­phy of Hil­lel, Rab­bi Joseph Telushkin freely admits at the out­set of his new book, is impos­si­ble. We know lit­tle about Hil­lel — noth­ing about his par­ents, not even his wife’s name. We’re not cer­tain of his pro­fes­sion, nor do we know with pre­ci­sion the date of his death. 

But the alter­na­tive, Telushkin ably demon­strates, need not be a mere qua­si-ran­dom col­lec­tion of rab­binic apho­risms attrib­uted to his sub­ject. Rather, Telushkin — an accom­plished rab­binic schol­ar and pro­lif­ic author who brings both sets of attrib­ut­es to bear in this emi­nent­ly read­able and com­pelling brief book — sets out to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. He offers us a biog­ra­phy not of a per­son, but of a set of ideas, of a broad-rang­ing approach to Jew­ish life and the Jew­ish peo­ple, which he open­ly admits he wish­es were more in evi­dence today. 

Telushkin’s exam­i­na­tion of the world-view that was Hillel’s begins and ends with the issue of con­ver­sion. Bas­ing him­self on the famous three rab­binic nar­ra­tives about Hil­lel, Sham­mai, and prospec­tive con­verts, Telushkin tells us unabashed­ly what he believes we ought to learn from Hillel’s open-armed approach: Unless Jews find ways to bring the non-Jew­ish spouse of Jews, and the chil­dren of inter­mar­ried cou­ples, into the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion will decline precipitously.” 

That, in a nut­shell, is the pri­ma­ry con­clu­sion Telushkin would have us take from our encounter with one of Judaism’s great­est sages. But Rab­bi Telushkin is too seri­ous a thinker to leave mat­ters at that. Our encounter with Hil­lel with Telushkin as guide intro­duces us to Shammai’s com­pet­ing school of thought and the rab­binic notion of dis­agree­ment for the sake of heav­en. Hil­lel is con­trast­ed to Jesus, and in the few pages that he devotes to that com­par­i­son, Telushkin offers us a dis­arm­ing­ly sim­ple— but actu­al­ly beau­ti­ful­ly nuanced — way of think­ing about some of the dif­fer­ences between Judaism and Christianity. 

Telushkin is not the first schol­ar to attempt a biog­ra­phy of a great Tal­mu­dic sage. Louis Finkel­stein penned what was once a clas­sic biog­ra­phy of Rab­bi Aki­va, but he did so by tak­ing at face val­ue claims that con­tem­po­rary schol­ars do not believe can be read that way. Mil­ton Steinberg’s As a Dri­ven Leaf is still a com­pelling intro­duc­tion to the prob­lem of theod­i­cy and its poten­tial for wreak­ing hav­oc on the faith even of reli­gious lead­ers, but it is a nov­el, not a work of his­tor­i­cal biog­ra­phy. Rab­bi Ben­ny Lau’s new series Ha-Hakhamim (in Hebrew) is a mag­nif­i­cent effort to make the rab­bis of the Tal­mud three-dimen­sion­al, but it has not been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, and requires a good deal of learn­ing in order to appre­ci­ate it. 

That is what makes Telushkin’s book so unique, and so wel­come. Though even those well versed in Jew­ish schol­ar­ship will find his writ­ing crisp and will emerge with new insights from texts they’ve read hun­dreds of times, it is not to them that Telushkin’s book is pri­mar­i­ly addressed. Telushkin’s book will do more than speak to those just begin­ning — it will vir­tu­al­ly sing to them, siren-like, teach­ing them how to real­ly read a rab­binic text, and urg­ing them to hear between the lines of these texts not dry legal­is­tic dis­agree­ments between schol­ars, but rag­ing bat­tles between world­views, and dif­fer­ing con­cep­tions of the Jew­ish life well lived. 

Too few Jews have learned to see the tra­di­tion that is theirs in this light. By writ­ing this book, 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 us all.


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 to you, do not do to your fel­low. This is the entire 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.

An excerpt from Hil­lel, by Joseph Telushkin. Copy­right © 2010 by Joseph Telushkin. Reprint­ed cour­tesy of Schock­en Books, a divi­sion of Ran­dom House, Inc., and Next­book Press.

Discussion Questions