Rabbi Joseph Telushkin uses the first chapter of his compelling new biography of Hillel to retell an anecdote about the great rabbi that I'd never heard before. Most people know the "summarize-the-Torah-while-standing-on-one-foot" tale, though perhaps not all of its details and ramifications. Telushkin eventually gets around to analyzing that resonant encounter, since it holds a central place in his conception of Hillel's relevance to contemporary discourse and events. But first comes the lesser-known story.
Telushkin states that the great rabbi enters Jewish consciousness through a talmudic image that presents him almost like "an angel suspended above the heads of the two sages who were to become his greatest teachers."
A little background is necessary to comprehend this image. It is said of Hillel that he worked every day and earned just one tropaik, half a dinar, the author says, not a princely sum; half went to the doorkeeper at the House of Learning, the other half to his family for food. A day came, though, when he could find no work, and the guard barred his way to the House of Learning.
"Hillel climbed [to the roof] and sat upon the skylight to hear the words of the living God from the mouths of [Rabbis] Shmaya and Avtalion. That day was the eve of the Sabbath, during the winter, and snow fell upon him from heaven. When the dawn rose, Shmaya said to Avtalion, 'Brother Avtalion, on every day this house is light and today it is dark. Is it perhaps a cloudy day?' They looked up and saw the figure of a man on the skylight. They climbed to the roof and found Hillel, covered by three amot (cubits) of snow. They removed him, bathed and anointed him, placed him opposite the fire, and said, 'This man deserves to have the Sabbath laws violated on his behalf.' "
Though this tale may have certain legendary touches, notes the author, it still conveys distinct attributes about the great rabbi. In addition to his devotion to Torah study — in fact, says Telushkin, Hillel created the paradigm of the ardent scholar — he is shown as a poor man with steadfast determination. The fact that he works with his hands and has no spare funds, and yet rises to the top of the rabbinic hierarchy, conveys the message that the Talmud judges people not by status or money, but by the nature of their achievements.
But most important of all, says the author, the anecdote shows that acts of lovingkindness, such as those shown to Hillel by the two individuals who would become his greatest teachers, are where we must all begin our religious life.
Telushkin's Hillel: If Not Now, When? is one of the newest entries in the brief biography series called Jewish Encounters, a joint venture between Schocken and Nextbook. It is, without question, one of the most readable of the lot. Another of its significant attributes (among many) is that it conveys how Hillel's life and thought can be of use in the contemporary world.
This relevance is explained in the work's introduction, which begins with a more personal anecdote, conveyed before Telushkin delves into the "angel" narrative. The author reconstructs a discussion he had with a rabbi friend, who spoke of a young Jewish man and his non-Jewish girlfriend who'd come to him for advice. They wanted to marry, but his parents were dead set against it. Telushkin's colleague began by asking the woman what she thought about the parents' response. She was honest, saying she thought it seemed "primitive and ridiculous," though, if it was necessary, she was willing to convert. After all, she insisted, she wanted to be a good person, and Judaism, she imagined, wants people to be good and might even have something to teach her about goodness.
The writer asked his friend how he responded.
Being a rather traditional rabbi, he said he told the young woman that Judaism was not in any rush to bring people in. There has to be lots of study, rituals to learn, and that she couldn't be converted before all that studying was completed and a commitment was made.
What was her response, asked Telushkin.
The boyfriend was the one who spoke up next, and he seemed annoyed. He told his girlfriend that it was all pointless, as he'd said even before they came. He told the rabbi they were going to get married in six weeks — with or without his help.
The rabbi told the couple that even if they'd come to him with a more open attitude, six weeks was impossible. Even six months would be a stretch. The couple walked out with a book the rabbi had given them, but he assured Telushkin that they wouldn't return. He concluded that the pair would be better off going to City Hall and getting their license because we Jews don't need converts like that.
At the time of this conversation, Telushkin explains, he was already thinking about writing a book about Hillel, and this exchange only made him more resolved to do so. The great elder sage, the author writes, "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 300,000 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."
For Telushkin, Hillel was also the rabbinic figure who gave ethical behavior equal weight alongside adherence to ritual. That brings Telushkin to the famous "on-one-foot" tale. It 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 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."
The famous phrase Hillel uttered is rendered by his new biographer as "What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now, go and study." The rabbi who'd first chased off the non-Jew with a stick was Shammai, Telushkin eventually tells us, Hillel's famous talmudic adversary. Their differences of opinion are covered in a whole section of this new book, as are Hillel's rise to power, his teaching methods, and what attributes and ideas Jesus shares with the great Jewish sage.
All of this material is fascinating, especially since Telushkin tells us that it's particularly difficult to write a biography of Hillel because we know of him only through a handful of stories — like the "angel" tale — that are sprinkled throughout the Talmud and some Midrashic literature. Still, Telushkin, the prolific author of 16 other books, manages to craft a skillful and engaging narrative by way of an obvious paucity of materials.
Still, it is his thoughts on Hillel's contemporary relevance that are most convincing. Hillel's core teachings have to do with acting ethically and convincing people to keep learning. Ritual is all well and good, he says, but behavior — the way we treat others, Jews and non-Jews alike — is foremost among all concerns.
Telushkin stresses Hillel's sense of inclusiveness, his willingness to convert people without having them jump through hoops. This is a controversial point, and the author does not shy away from the possible criticism. His thoughts on the matter are always provocative and often wonderfully pragmatic.
As he writes near the end of his book: "Hillel has long been the Talmud's most famous rabbi. The time has come to let him become its most influential."