"Hillel: If Not Now, When?" by Joseph Telushkin (Schocken, 272 pages, $24)
Even a gentile has heard of Hillel, the famed rabbi and teacher whose name graces Jewish campus centers around the country. A generation before Jesus, Hillel preached and embodied a religious way of life that emphasized compassion for the poor, the spirit of the Law over its letter and inclusivity.
Joseph Telushkin, a scholar and Orthodox rabbi who has made Jewish literacy his mission in earlier books, has composed a compact, thoughtful biography of the sage. It's a study of Hillel's thought and teaching as well as his life, because we have only a handful of facts about the man himself. He came to Israel from Babylonia. He was poor but longed to study Torah and persevered in doing so despite many obstacles, becoming the religious leader of his community. He pioneered the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Hillel, Telushkin writes, "is not only, arguably, Judaism's greatest rabbinic sage, but also its most fearlessly inclusive." One story in the Talmud relates that a gentile came to Hillel seeking conversion but demanded to be taught the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied: "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."
Christians will recognize Hillel's statement as kin to the golden rule of Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Telushkin points out that Jesus did not present his statement as an original thought. Rather, he was quoting from Leviticus, where that commandment had previously been set down. Jesus was a Jew raised among Jews, and Hillel was the most significant religious figure in the Jewish community when Jesus was alive. We can assume he was familiar with Hillel's thought, Telushkin writes.
Unfortunately, Telushkin believes, the religious revolution brought about by Jesus and his followers may have made Jews anxious about aspects of Hillel's teachings that came to be associated with the new Christians: "the extraordinary openness to converts and the emphasis on loving and just behavior as God's central demand."
"It was perhaps in response to Jesus' emphasis on faith and love, and Paul's decision several decades later to drop the requirement to observe Torah laws, that many Jews came to focus Jewish religiosity on laws, especially the ritual laws that most differentiated Jews from Gentiles."
In support of his point, Telushkin offers this thought: If one Jew asks a second Jew how religious a third Jew is, their discussion is nearly always about the third one's level of ritual observance, not his or her ethical behavior.
Noting a key difference, Telushkin points out that Hillel says little about prayer and much about the urgency of studying the Torah, while Jesus does the opposite.
Telushkin spends many of his pages illuminating the differences between Hillel and his great rabbinic contemporary Shammai, who represents a more literal strain of Jewish belief. While Telushkin is clearly in Hillel's camp, especially when it comes to conversion, he is fair to Shammai and notes occasions when Shammai's thought has carried the day.
"It says something about Judaism that both Hillel and Shammai, and many of their followers, remain revered figures with traditional Judaism, even when they embody opposite approaches to the law and to life itself. In this regard, Talmudic Judaism is anti-fundamentalist. It isn't simply the answer that is prized, it is the argument itself, the culture of disputation, the wrestling with the truth."