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Modern Lessons From Hillel


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


Well, in that conversation, two things struck me. First, my Christian friends knew nothing of Hillel, except that he's the namesake of the campus organization for Jewish college students. And secondly, I didn't know much more about him than they did.

N: If Not Now, When?" It's just about to be published, and Joseph Telushkin joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

JOSEPH TELUSHKIN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, when did Hillel live, and how significant a figure is he in Judaism?

TELUSHKIN: Hillel was a tremendously significant figure in Judaism. He is, perhaps - along with Rabbi Akiva, the most famous sage of the Talmud, which is the major Jewish book after the Bible. He lived at the end of the first century, before the Common Era, and is assumed to have lived till about 10 of the Common Era.

SIEGEL: Perhaps even overlapping with Jesus of Nazareth in that kind of...

TELUSHKIN: I think that it's very likely that the young Jesus, who seems to have come from a religious, Jewish home - or certainly a committed Jewish household - would have been familiar with some of Hillel's teachings.

SIEGEL: Now, I confess the one thing that I had not taken on board in religious school about the story that I just recounted - can you recite the Torah while standing on one foot, yes, what's hateful to you - it hadn't occurred to me that this was all about conversion.

TELUSHKIN: That's the aspect of the story people often overlook. If somebody had come to Hillel and asked him: Tell me the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot, it would sort of make sense that he would give - as most of us would when we'd be speaking to members of another religious grouping - a humanistic teaching, something drawn out of our tradition that's universal and that could appeal to people of all faiths.

BLOCK: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I don't want to spend weeks studying to qualify here. Let's do it in a few seconds.

TELUSHKIN: The hardest thing in life sometimes is not doing what's right, but knowing what's right. So therefore, Hillel also taught an ignoramus can't be a good person, yet intellect has to play a vital role in figuring out the right thing to do.

SIEGEL: His attitude toward the gentile who wanted to convert, though, was, first, be open. First, be welcoming to this person.

TELUSHKIN: But what he - and the Ten Commandments even reflects that idea in its own way. It doesn't say in the Ten Commandments be truthful. It says don't bare false witness. It doesn't say be honest. It says don't steal. So he wanted to give him a principle he could immediately incorporate into his life.

SIEGEL: His influence - you should explain this - first as a rabbinic sage, was great while he was alive and while he took part in what amounted to judicial deliberations, and then it lives on through a school of Hillel, people - rabbis who follow his approach to things.

TELUSHKIN: So he achieved prominence in his own lifetime, and has maintained prominence ever since. But oddly enough, on this one area, his openness to bringing the message of Judaism to interested non-Jews - he wasn't going after people who were committed to another faith, but people were interested - his openness was long ignored.

SIEGEL: Yes. You've described what the contemporary attitude, say, among the Orthodox rabbinate, to conversion is. It's beyond discouraging. It's - some would say don't do it.

TELUSHKIN: But on the other hand, Hillel was open even to those who came in a more, initially, a more casual way, but wanted to know more. And there is no shortage of non-Jews who have close connections to Jews, who marry Jews, and I think many of these people would be open to becoming Jewish. I think there are many non-churched non-Jews who would be open and impressed with the message of Judaism, and I think Hillel was very open to conveying this message.

SIEGEL: One of the problems you encounter in writing about Hillel is he lived 2,000 years ago. You observe, in passing, that biography is not especially a Jewish form. You don't have a lot of confirmed facts to work with. What are you actually able to conclude about what was true about Hillel?

TELUSHKIN: Jews do not assign any divine status, of course, to Hillel, but Hillel's teachings carry such force, and I'm arguing they deserve a second look.

SIEGEL: Rabbi Telushkin, thanks a lot for talking with us.

TELUSHKIN: Oh, thank you, and thank you for your very thoughtful questions.

SIEGEL: And happy New Year. Joseph Telushkin is the author of "Hillel: If Not Now, When?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.