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.