I. We Need More Hillels
We need more people like Hillel. This is the central theme of R. Joseph Telushkin’s eloquent and thoughtful Hillel: If Not Now, When? and I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it. A fractured community like ours desperately needs leaders who, like Hillel, model themselves after Aaron, constantly loving and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah. In this age of selfishness we surely need to ask that if we are only for ourselves, what are we? And in this informationally overloaded society we must overcome the art of skimming and diligently study.
But when it comes to conversion, I wonder whether R. Telushkin has misunderstood Hillel’s legacy. Hillel famously converted three candidates whom Shammai rejected — one who wished to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, another who rejected the Oral Torah and a third who wished to become the High Priest. Hillel evidently did not have hard and fast rules on who could convert to Judaism. He instead used his vast stores of wisdom to assess each candidate.
II. Conversion Today
Rabbi Telushkin compares this attitude to that of an instructor in Yeshiva University who tells rabbinical students not to convert people unless they, the rabbis, would be willing to bet $100,000 of their own money that the candidate will be fully observant on conversion. The contrast is stunning. Or is it? I contend that Hillel converted those three candidates, and presumably others, because he was confident that they were sincere and would quickly become fully observant. He had a keen sense of human nature and understood these people to their core. If he had been rich enough to have the first century BCE equivalent of $100,000, he would have been willing to bet that these converts would be fully observant.
The relevance of Hillel’s attitude to conversion is questionable when dealing with the complex problems we face today. Unlike in Hillel’s time, Jewishness is sadly no longer inherently connected in people’s minds with obeying God’s word or even believing in His existence. What would Hillel do about insincere conversion candidates? Perhaps he would still be lenient, as was Rav Uziel (whom R. Telushkin quotes). Perhaps he would not. Hillel’s passion and talent was for opening up the doors of Judaism to sincere seekers of God. That is not the big conversion problem on our communal agenda.
R. Telushkin describes many other of Hillel’s attitudes, showing their continued importance 2,000 years later. His patience, optimism, confidence in the public, nonjudgmental nature, intellectual curiosity and moderation between selfish and selfless concerns are universal aspects of the human condition that transcend time and place. In extracting these elements of Hillel’s personality and views, R. Telushkin guides us to becoming more like Hillel.
I found many of R. Telushkin’s textual interpretations surprising. Perhaps this is due to my lack of familiarity with the relevant academic literature, but I feel the need to respectfully dissent, at least from the perspective of traditional commentary, from many of his explanations and assertions.
V. Saving a Life on Shabbos
In the first chapter, R. Telushkin tells the story of Hillel falling asleep on the roof of a study hall and being covered in snow. His teachers find him there on the Sabbath, start a fire to warm him, and state that he is a person worthy of violating the Sabbath on his behalf. But wouldn’t they violate the Sabbath to save anyone’s life? R. Telushkin suggests that the laws of saving lives on the Sabbath had not yet crystallized and brings a proof from the book of Maccabees.
I don’t have any theological problem with this theory but find it implausible. Traditional commentaries suggest that someone lying on a roof during a snowstorm is deliberately jeopardizing his life, and according to some we do not violate the Sabbath to save someone who does that (see Iyun Ya’akov on Yoma 35b; Or Gadol, no. 1). Hillel, they were saying, was worthy of violating the Sabbath because he had gone onto the roof to learn Torah and not to intentionally endanger himself.
I would alternately suggest that the Gemara (Yoma 85a-b) offers two reasons to violate the Sabbath to save someone’s life — “And you shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5) or “Violate one Sabbath so he will observe many Sabbaths”. Perhaps the teachers were saying that they were confident that he is a religious individual and will observe future Sabbaths. (See here for R. Shlomo Goren’s explanation of the Maccabees proof: link)
VI. Passover Eve on the Sabbath
In explaining why Bnei Beseira did not know whether the Passover sacrifice may be slaughtered on the Sabbath (Pesachim 66a), R. Telushkin writes that “[a]pparently, many years had passed since Passover had last fallen on a Friday night, and no one seemed to recall what had been done” (p. 220, ch. 2 n. 3). This is quite surprising because the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 6:1) specifically says dismisses that suggestion and says that it occurs once every 14 years. Indeed, this problem has exercised many commentators, with the Meiri even (Seder Ha-Kabbalah, pp. 54-55) offering three suggestions. Other commentators offer additional resolutions.
I can only suggest that R. Telushkin was following the approach of R. Reuven Margoliyos (Yesod Ha-Mishnah Va-Arikhasah, pp. 47-49) that the Yerushalmi means that had it not been for strong rabbinic leadership, this event would have occured once in 14 years. But because leading Torah scholars had manipulated the calendar to avoid this problem, it had not in fact occurred. Only Bnei Beseira, who were weak leaders, allowed this to happen. I find the Meiri’s suggestions more compelling.
R. Telushkin devotes chapters seven and eight to the argument that Shammai was a biblical literalist while Hillel focused more on biblical intent. His first proof is from the mitzvah of reciting Shema, about which the Torah say we must do “when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:9). Beis Shammai holds one must literally lie down while reciting Shema at night and stand up while saying it in the morning. Beis Hillel, however, understands “lie down” to mean during the time when people go to sleep at night and “rise up” to mean when people wake up in the morning (Mishnah, Berakhos 10b-11a). This, R. Telushkin suggests, is an example of Beis Shammai reading the Torah literally and Beis Hillel less so.
However, the Gemara explains that Beis Hillel felt forced by the immediately preceding phrase in the verse to explain it as such. If we may recite Shema while “walking on the road,” how can we have to do it while lying down or arising? Rather, the literal meaning of the verse refers to times of going to sleep and waking up. In a footnote (p. 88), R. Telushkin quotes such a suggestion from Dr. Michael Berger. I think it is the simple understanding of the Mishnah and Gemara.
VIII. More Literalism
R. Telushkin brings another example from the debate between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding a thief who builds a house with a stolen beam. According to Beis Shammai, he must return the stolen beam even though this requires his dismantling the house. Beis Hillel, however, takes the biblical requirement to return a stolen object less literally and allows him to return the monetary value of the eam rather than the beam itself (Gittin 55a). My understanding is that Beis Hillel’s leniency was of rabbinic nature (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Gezeilah 2:2). In order to facilitate repentance, the rabbis used their power of “hefker beis din, hefker” to declare the beam ownerless and require the repentant thief to return just the monetary value. This has no bearing on how to read the biblical text.
Another proof R. Telushkin brings is about praising an ugly bride. Beis Hillel holds you may lie for the sake of peace and say she is pretty. Beis Shammai says you must tell the truth and praise her for a legitimate trait (Kesubos 16b-17a). Evidently, Beis Shammai takes the exhortion to refrain from lying literally. However, the prohibition is not stated as “Do not lie.” Rather, it is phrased as “Distance yourself from lying” (Ex. 23:7). Many authorities see this wording as significant, teaching something slightly different than merely not to lie (see R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good, ch. 5). If anything, Hillel is more of a literalist in this case because he recognizes that the Torah’s language is somewhat equivocal.
Again, I emphasize that while I find these interpretations puzzling, I have no doubt that R. Telushkin bases himself on solid talmudic and historical scholarship. However, it is not the scholarship I recognize, which marred my otherwise great pleasure in reading this fascinating book.