Hillel and the Proselytes
Shavuot is, among other things, a time for reflecting about conversion to Judaism. The Revelation at Sinai is perceived by the halakhah as a paradigm for the conversion of individuals to Judaism; indeed, the Sinai event is itself seen as a kind of conversion, when the Jewish people as a whole, by receiving the commandments, entered into the covenant. Similarly, one of the reasons for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot is that Ruth was considered a proselyte, possibly the first one in Jewish history.
This line of thought reminded me of a series of stories concerning Hillel the Elder—himself a central, towering figure, arguably a kind of founding father of Rabbinic Judaism, who occupies a place in the Oral Torah analogous in certain ways to that of Moshe Rabbenu vis-à-vis the Written Torah. The three stories all follow the same pattern: a Gentile approaches Shammai requesting to be converted to Judaism, but doing so while asking a provocative question. Shammai angrily chases him away; he then goes to Hillel who, with forbearance and understanding, patiently and gently relates to their question seriously, giving them the answer hat enables them to embrace Judaism. This aggadah, which appears in b Shabbat 31a, conveys two main messages: one, the value of patience and forbearance, which were outstanding traits of Hillel; . secondly, they teach us something about Judaism itself.
Hillel was famed for his patience. Indeed, these stories appear immediately after one in which various people try to cause Hillel to loose his patience by demanding his attention at awkward times to answer what are obviously stupid questions (“klotz-kashes”)—but to no avail. Indeed, the heading of the entire page of Talmud is: “Let a person always be modest as Hillel, and not strict like Shammai.” Hillel’s love of and pursuit of peace are expressed in the following motto from Pirkei Avot 1.12, the first of several sayings quoted in his name:
Hillel and Shammai received [the tradition] from them [Shemayah and Avtalyon, the previous “pair”]. Hillel said: Be among the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah.
We now turn to the first proselyte story:
Our Rabbis taught: An incident involving a certain Gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: How many torahs do you have? He answered him: Two: the written Torah and the Oral Torah. He said to him: Regarding that which is written I believe you, but regarding that which is oral I do not believe you; convert me on condition that you teach me [only] the Written Torah. He chastened him and sent him away with a rebuke. He came to Hillel and said: convert me. The first day he [Hillel] said to him [i.e., showed him the Hebrew letters]: Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. The next day he told him the opposite. He [the convert] said to him: But yesterday did you not say to me thus [the opposite]? He said to him: Was it not me upon whom you relied? So should you also rely on the oral words [of the Torah].
The issue at hand here is one of the foundations of Judaism: the centrality of the Oral Law—not coincidentally a point of great contention in those days between the Sages, or Pharisees, and their opponents, the Sadducees, who asserted that the Torah must be interpreted literally, without the oral traditions that often seem to go far afield from the apparent meaning of Scripture. Hillel’s response to the Gentile was a simple one: he showed him that even so basic a thing as reading is impossible without an “oral tradition,” without a teacher to show one how to read the letters in the first place.
In Rabbinic Judaism, the oral and written tradition are interdependent; there can be no text without interpretation, without living teachers and a living tradition of how to understand it. But beyond the specifically Jewish context, the idea of interpretation is a basic one for all human culture. All culture, all thought, ultimately builds upon what proceeds it; the most radically new and “original” ideas are so within the context of a complex weave of what people have taken to calling “inter-textuality.” Interpretation of the past, the living word, drawing connections between past and present, are all essential components of creativity, facilitating innovation and flexibility. (What does the ever greater ubiquity of computers, of on-line, non-frontal learning, do to our culture? People may acquire information, but will they gain wisdom or understanding without a living teacher? I suspect all this has far-reaching implications, far beyond what we would like to think.) The truth of the matter is that even those who claim to be literalists—Sadducees, Karaites, perhaps the Samaritans, Christian fundamentalists—in fact create their own oral tradition, their own way if understanding the sacred written text, whether they admit to it or not.
The second story is doubtless familiar to most people:
Again, an incident involving a certain Gentile who came to Shammai. He said to him: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. He chased him away with the builder’s rod in his hand. He came before Hillel, and he converted him. He said to him; “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
At first blush, this man’s question seems equally unreasonable: the Written Torah alone is a massive document, not to mention the extensive oral tradition. How can one possibly teach it “while standing on one foot”? Shammai, justly infuriated at this man’s seeming contempt for a discipline to which he had devoted his entire life, chased him away. Hillel understood that what he sought was not the details, not the specifics, but “the essence of Judaism”—an easily digestible, short “sound bite” that could be understood by a person who evidently did not have the patience to apply himself to deep and serious thinking and study. Not an ideal situation, surely, but Hillel took up the gauntlet and gave him a concise and profound answer. (Interestingly, during the modern period it was not uncommon for theologians and philosophers to attempt to reduce Judaism to an “essence”; “ethical monotheism” was one popular formulation. In the very early twentieth century, in response to Adolf Harnack’s The Essence of Christianity, Leo Baeck wrote The Essence of Judaism. This pursuit was not alien to Hazal either; see the sugya at b. Makkot 24a, in which the 613 mitzvot are progressively “reduced” to 11, 6, 3, 2, and finally 1 basic principle; see HY II: Balak [=Haftarot].)
Hillel’s answer is a variation of what is taught to Western school children as “the Golden Rule” or, in more philosophical terms, the maxim of reciprocity: that is, the recognition that other human beings are essentially like oneself, with the same basic needs, aspirations, fears, etc., and to treat them accordingly. In fact, the three-word maxim in Lev 19:18, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, “love your fellow-human as yourself” already implies the notion of reciprocity—to see the other as a similar to oneself.
Interestingly, this idea appears in Christian scripture, in the words of Jesus given in in Matthew 7:12 and, with minor changes, Luke 6:31: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” Or, more simply, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto yourself.” Wikipedia’s entry on “the Golden Rule” notes that a similar maxim appears in virtually every known religious tradition, as well as in ancient Greek thought and elsewhere. One might argue that Kant’s categorical imperative—that one make the maxim of one’s actions such that it could be made universal—is similar in spirit, if not in wording, to this idea. Wikipedia elaborates:
This concept describes a “reciprocal” or “two-way” relationship between one's self and others that involves both sides equally and in a mutual fashion. This concept can be explained from the perspective of psychology, philosophy, sociology, religion, etc.: Psychologically it involves a person empathizing with others; philosophically it involves a person perceiving their neighbor as also an “I” or “self”; sociologically, this principle is applicable between individuals, between groups, and between individuals and groups.
But there are two important differences between Jesus’ saying and that of Hillel. First, Hillel’s maxim is phrased in the negative, rather than the positive: “that which is hateful to you do not do to others.” As noted by George Barnard Shaw, there is a flaw in the positive formulation: “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you: their tastes may not be the same.” This does not apply to the negative formulation: avoid causing pain, loss, insult, etc., to others, just as you would wish them to avoid regarding yourself. Expecting them to anticipate and fulfill your needs is exaggerated and unrealistic.
Second, the two little words at the end of Hillel’s maxim: zil gemor—“Go and learn.” A maxim, an “essence,” is very good as a starting point, but Judaism—as any serious life teaching—requires study, which in turn elicits serious thinking about life, about ethics, and the innumerable issues encountered in life.
One last point: one can see other people as similar to oneself, but draw a diametrically opposed conclusion: that if others want and need the same things as myself, and life is seen as a “zero-sum” game, then others are my rivals and competitors, and I must treat them with suspicion, hostility, and even hatred. At times, it seems that this idea is the de facto maxim of unfettered, “cannibalistic” capitalism. The basic attitude of love of others, rather than hatred, is ultimately an axiom, a given, an emotional-spiritual attitude towards life, and not something that can be deduced through logic alone.
The third and final story is a bit different from the first two; there is something naïve, almost child-like, about its hero:
Again, an incident involving a Gentile who passed behind the Study House and heard the voice of the scribe saying: “And these are the garments that they shall make: breast plate and ephod….” (Exod 28:4). He asked: For whom are these for? [He was told:] The high priest. That Gentile said to himself: I will go and convert so that I may be made the high priest. He came before Shammai and told him: Convert me so that I may become the high priest. He chased him away with the builder’s rod that was in his hand. He came to Hillel, and he converted him. He said to him: Does one appoint a king unless he knows the ceremonies of court? Go and learn the ceremonies of the court. He went and read. When he came to the verse, “And the stranger who draws close shall die” (Num 1:51). He asked: To whom does this scripture refer? He was told: Even to David king of Israel. That proselyte draw an inference regarding himself: If one of the Israelites, who are called sons of the Omnipresent, and out of the love that He loved them he called them: “my first born son Israel” (Exod 4:22), it is written “the stranger who draws close shall die,” a convert, who came with his staff and his knapsack, all the more so? He came before Shammai, and said to him: Am I at all fit to be high priest? Is it not written in the Torah, “the stranger who draws close shall die”?! He came before Hillel and said: O modest Hillel, may blessings rest on your head, that you brought me beneath the wings of the Shekhinah?
Of the three, he was the most innocent and child-like. The first two asked questions that seemed provocative, deliberately challenging. Hillel nevertheless answered them patiently and persuasively. This one exhibited a naïve fascination with the splendor of the priestly robes, and wanted to wear them. Hillel did not dissuade him, but left him to learn by himself, knowing that he would eventually come to understand his error—as he indeed did. But by this time he was enamored with Judaism, was committed to it for its own sake. “Let him learn Torah, even if not for its own sake: the light therein will bring him to the good path.” This story illustrates a basic confidence in human beings, and in their ability, through the study of Torah, to come to a mature understanding thereof.
Incidentally, it is worthy of note that Hillel converted each of the three before even entering into serious dialogue about the questions each one raised. Tannaitic halakhah does not know the long, drawn out process of instruction and testing that has become de rigeuer in modern Judaism, of all schools—but that discussion is for another occasion.
To summarize: these three stories illustrate the importance of Oral Torah and interpretation as essential to the living Torah; the interpersonal ethics of respecting the other as like oneself; and the importance pf study, and how the process of study in itself gradually brings a person to a deeper, truer understanding.
Our aggadah concludes with words of praise for the patient, modest Hillel:
After some time, the three of them chanced to be together at the same place. They said: the strictness of Shammai would have taken us out of the world; the modesty of Hillel brought us beneath the wings of the Shekhinah.