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Rabbi Telushkin notes sadly that many people consider the level of a person's religiosity to be based on ritual observance rather than on ethical behavior. Somehow, throughout the generations and historical time periods, Hillel's words of wisdom have become lost to today's society.
Hillel is known for his great patience and tolerance of others. He is often compared to Shammai, his contemporary, who lacked these qualities. Although Hillel and Shammai often disagreed about ways to practice ritual observance, they "agreed to disagree" as they maintained respect for one another. Followers from the schools of Hillel and Shammai had no problem with intermarrying with one another as they considered each person a fellow Jew with variations in customs.
Hillel is known for the way he handled a difficult prospective convert who asked him to "teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot." The man had first approached Shammai, who, lacking patience for this kind of person, pushed him away with a building rod. When the man came to see Hillel, the patient sage calmly told the man, "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." Telushkin finds it amazing that Hillel doesn't describe belief in G-d, observing the Sabbath, keeping Kosher and Jewish holidays. While Hillel himself was a fully observant Jew, he did not consider ritual observance to be the essence of Judaism. He felt that the most basic idea of Judaism was living an ethical life. Hillel commented that following the Torah literally can sometimes lead to a violation of basic ethics of Judaism. The man who wanted to convert felt that if the Torah had a simple and clear message, he would like to hear it and to understand its meaning. The end of Hillel's message, "Now go and study," is remarkable as he leaves the convert with the message that without study and knowledge of Jewish texts, Judaism becomes literally without substantive content and the question of "What does Judaism want me to do?" becomes unanswerable.
It is puzzling that today when a potential convert approaches an orthodox rabbi, the rabbi is expected to discourage this conversion and not permit it until the convert requests it at least three times and makes a commitment to observe the main ritual practices - i.e. Keeping Kosher and Shabbat. Why, he asks, do we not emphasize instruction to potential converts about ethics and honesty as promoted by the Torah?
Today, at a time where rates of intermarriage continue to rise and many Jews no longer identify with the ritual demands of their religion, it is important to remember the messages of Hillel. His openness and nonjudgmental nature enabled him to bring people into the Jewish faith and to instill the Jewish people with a strong sense of pride.
Another story about Hillel's patience for the demands of others is the one regarding a man who repeatedly asked him irrelevant questions on a Friday afternoon, the busiest time of the week. Hillel was quite busy, trying to prepare for the Sabbath. After Hillel calmly answered the man's questions, the man became very sad. When Hillel asked why he was so sad, the man revealed that he was testing his patience in order to win a bet he had made with someone else on whether or not he could make Hillel angry. Hillel told him, "Be careful of your moods. It is worth that you should lose 400 zuzim and yet another 400 zuzim but Hillel shall not become angry." (Shabbat 31A).
Hillel placed priority on "Tikkun Olam" (literally meaning repairing the world), the idea of people helping one another. His main concern was the daily behavior of human beings. Rabbi Telushkin notes that just as Hillel said to the convert, "The rest is commentary, now go and study," the scholar showed, through his actions, "The rest is behavior, now go and do." The author describes places in both the Torah and the Talmud (oral law) where Jews reached out to help one another. He gives the examples of Moses taking on the pain and suffering of his people as he went out to witness their slavery and he struck down an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Jew. He notes that Queen Esther in the Purim story fasted and prayed for the entire Jewish community that they could be saved from Haman's evil decree of destroying them as a people.
Rabbi Telushkin notes that Hillel made great efforts to interpret the laws of the Torah in order to be able to apply them to various circumstances. He felt that the laws could not be taken literally, as Shammai did. For example, it is written that we should say the Shema prayer "when you lie down and when you rise up." Shammai taught that one must stand for the morning Shema and lie down for the evening Shema. Hillel emphasized that physical posture when saying the Shema does not matter. The important thing, he notes, is that we "concentrate our minds as we recite the prayer in the morning and at night." He felt that the Torah's intention was to establish set times for reciting the Shema, once in the morning and once in the evening.
This book is not a traditional biography, as very little is known about Hillel's childhood and youth. Although the book is small, the content is great as Rabbi Telushkin captures the essence of this great sage's identity. In addition to discussing Hillel's teachings and words of wisdom, many of which are found in Ethics of the Fathers, the author remarks that we could learn a lot from Hillel today. If more people related his teaching to daily life, Telushkin reflects, fewer Jews would feel alienated from Judaism and we would be united as a much stronger people.
Hillel, If Not Now, When? is insightful, inspirational and enlightening. I appreciated the author's detailed descriptions of Hillel's teachings and their relationship to us today. Although Hillel lived so many years ago, his teachings are timeless.
Telushkin's detailed footnotes are very helpful in understanding many of the sources for this book. He provides an extensive bibliography and a glossary of the Jewish terms he uses in the book. Also listed at the end is a summary of the teachings of Hillel that have been incorporated into "Ethics of the Fathers' (Pirkei Avot).
Hillel, If Not Now When? is a book that can make a difference in our relationship to Judaism and bring Jews together. Writings of this nature can help us return to a time where our practices are more closely aligned with those of Hillel. In order to stand up to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, we need to pay attention to the struggles from within our own people, promoting a more positive self image for Jews of all walks of religious observance. Working together and caring about one another can improve our lives and make a difference in the world in which we live.
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