Renewing Judaism: Rabbi Telushkin on Hillel
Wed, 09/08/2010

TEXT/CONTEXT: According to the sages, Hillel died exactly 2,000 years ago, in the year 10. In what sense do you see him as a figure of the future as well as the past?

RABBI JOSEPH TELUSHKIN: One of the sad things that happened to Jewish life in modernity is that the word “religious” became associated in people’s minds exclusively with ritual observance. Thus, if two Jews are speaking about a third and the question is raised, “Is so-and-so religious” the answer is based solely on the person’s level of ritual observance. “He keeps kosher, he keeps Shabbat, he is religious,” or “She doesn’t keep kosher, she doesn’t keep Shabbat, she is not religious.” Such responses, perhaps surprisingly, are offered by Jews across the spectrum of denominations, and can easily mislead one into thinking that in Judaism, ethics are an extracurricular activity, and not particularly important. Hillel, though, perhaps in defiance of his own—and likewise in defiance of our—times, offers a strikingly different formulation, “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.”

This message of ethical sensitivity and inclusiveness is sorely needed now, and I suspect will be for the foreseeable—and not-so foreseeable—future.

Hillel was, in your account, dead serious in his commitment to convert gentiles, and to do so quite quickly. What do you suppose his reasons were?

If Judaism has a message and has insights on how to make people better, then it makes sense that these messages and insights will likewise affect non- Jews who incorporate them into their lives. My friend Dennis Prager makes the point that if a medicine works on Jews suffering from an illness, it will work on non-Jews suffering from the same illness. This applies as well to spiritual medicine. In addition, Jews today are a tiny percentage of the world’s population, and number fewer than 14 million people in a world approaching seven billion. In 1938, just before World War II, Jews constituted about three fourths of one percent of the world’s population, already a very small figure.

However, we have now declined to only about one fifth of one percent of the world’s population, and are in danger of becoming so small that we might become irrelevant in terms of our impact on the world, quite a sad fate for a religion that brought God to the world. Would an increase in our numbers be good for the world? I think so. Does one doubt that the world would be a better place if 50 million people kept Shabbat, or 50 million people accepted Hillel’s credo as the guiding statement for their lives? And if one doesn’t believe that an increasing number of people practicing these laws and preaching these beliefs will have any impact on the world, then I fear it means that our Shabbat observance is not having much impact on the world now.

Have we lost Hillel’s fearless confi- dence that Judaism is strong enough to absorb seekers who convert first and conform to Jewish norms later?

According to the Talmudic account— and I’m not saying this as my view, but simply describing how the Talmud depicts Hillel’s behavior—Hillel placed tremendous, perhaps primary, emphasis on the study of Judaism’s holiest texts, particularly the Torah (“an ignoramus cannot be a pious [alternatively ‘righ- teous’] person,” he taught elsewhere).

And Hillel, a far more insightful person than I, perhaps could tell that these three non-Jews would grow into observant Jews. But more fundamentally, I believe he had confidence that the Torah’s wisdom, along with the rabbi’s understanding of the Torah (ensconced in the Talmud), would influence its students and mold their behavior. For Hillel, belief in Torah meant that he believed not only in the Torah’s truth, but in its capacity to affect people’s behavior, a belief that I feel we should emulate. That is why he concludes his comment to the proselyte with words that apply to all of us, “Now, go and study!”