Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s new book “Hillel: If Not Now, When?” focuses attention on the Rabbi Hillel, the towering 1st century BCE Talmudic sage who is the namesake of this organization. The qualities that inspired Hillel’s founders to name the organization after him – his openness, his devotion to ethics, his influence on ancient and contemporary Jewish life – also inspired Rabbi Telushkin to undertake this work.
Who was Hillel?
Born in Babylon, Hillel came to Eretz Yisrael in the First Century BCE. His personality and scholarship attracted numerous students and he became the dominant rabbi of his generation. Legal and ethical matters were determined by the decisions of Hillel and his students, known collectively as Beit Hillel, the House of Hillel.
Hillel’s famous maxim, “If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” has entered contemporary popular culture. He is equally well known for the story in which he was approached by a gentile contemplating conversion asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. He famously said: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
(For a short lesson in Hillel’s teachings, visit this page.)
Why Was Hillel Named after Him?
Abram Leon Sachar, one of the founders of Hillel and its executive director from 1933 to 1947, explained why the name “Hillel” was chosen to a reporter on the occasion of Hillel’s 50th anniversary: “It was a felicitous choice. Hillel is a symbol of the quest for higher learning. It was a beautiful name too. It appealed to the Christian fellowship that pioneered the foundation, since Hillel was virtually a contemporary of Jesus. In those days, the Jewish community still felt the need for the Christian imprimatur.”
A 1945 Hillel booklet, written under Dr. Sachar’s direction, went further: “Those who launched the Foundation program at Illinois realized the enormous importance of linking it with a name that would symbolize the best tradition in Jewish life. They at once concluded that no name would carry greater significance than that of Hillel, the gentle sage of the first century BCE, who was one of the outstanding scholars and teachers in Jewish history. His patience and modesty, his devotion to Jewish tradition, above all his passionate love of Jewish learning, marked him indisputably as the ideal symbol of the Jewish spirit.”
(For more on Hillel’s history, visit www.hillel.org/history)
Rabbi Telushkin Promotes Hillel’s Message
In an interview with Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, Rabbi Telushkin explains that he wanted to tell the Hillel story to promote the ethical content of Jewish tradition: “I think it’s sad that the word ‘religious’ is associated in people’s minds exclusively with ritual observance. If two people are speaking about a third, and the question is raised, ‘Is so and so religious,’ the answer will be based exclusively on the person’s level of ritual observance, as if ethical behavior is a sort of extracurricular activity, and not essential. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m someone who passionately believes in ritual observance: I think we need it for a sense of holiness, for Jewish continuity, and because it contains ethical lessons. But it’s striking to me that in the most famous story in the Talmud, when Hillel is asked to summarize Judaism, he puts the emphasis on the ethical.
“There has been a tendency to define Judaism by that which distinguished us from our neighbors, and I think there was a fear that if we emphasized values that were universal, it could lead to assimilation. This may have been a somewhat legitimate fear, because in the aftermath of emancipation, many Jews did assimilate. But Hillel had a more confident attitude: He believed that Judaism had an ethical message to teach, and that that didn’t need to lead to Jews being swallowed up.”
By promoting the teachings of Hillel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and Rabbi Telushkin are demonstrating the relevance of this ancient’s sage’s wisdom for the world today.
Rabbi Telushkin will discuss his book at Hillels at Rutgers, Rochester, Cornell, Binghamton University and elsewhere through the auspices of Hillel International Board of Governors and Board of Directors member Dr. Lynne B Harrison.