Examining Hillels sage wisdom beyond the jargon

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wants to get Hillel off of people’s bumper stickers and back into their hearts.

Hillel is the great talmudic sage who lived some 2,000 years ago and is best known for epigrammatic sayings such as, “If not now, when?” and, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Though Hillel is one of the most important figures in Jewish history — perhaps the most famous sage of the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a tractate from the Mishnah that contains wisdom to live by — Telushkin felt his words had become trite.

That’s why he wrote “Hillel: If Not Now, When?” the latest in Shocken Books’ Jewish Encounter series. Telushkin will be a featured speaker on Sunday, Nov. 7 at the Global Day of Jewish Learning at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

The rabbi calls his book an “interpretive biography,” because few details are known of Hillel’s life (though we do know he was born in Babylon and lived in Israel from around 30 BCE to 10 C.E., and that he was a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of ancient Israel).

But the paper trail in the Talmud and Midrash gives many clues as to the kind of man he was, and that’s what Telushkin focused on during his five years of research and writing.

Telushkin, who also wrote best-sellers such as “Jewish Literacy” and “The Book of Jewish Values,” says his central conclusion about Hillel is this: “I find that his message is as incisive now as it was in his own time.”

Perhaps the most famous talmudic story about Hillel occurs when a non-Jew asks be converted to Judaism, on the condition that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one leg.

Other sages, such as Shammai, dismiss the rascal outright. But Hillel, ever given to outreach, takes him on.

And we  know the rest. Accepting the challenge, Hillel says to the man: “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

P.S. Hillel went on to convert the guy.

“So many people know that expression,” Telushkin says of the ethic often cited as the Golden Rule. “If anyone would spend 24 hours acting according to that maxim, they would find it would change their behavior immediately. When they ignore it, it can be ruinous.”

To drive home that point, Telushkin points to a stark example — a dorm student at Rutgers University who allegedly taped and disseminated a fellow student’s gay sexual encounter, which led to the victim’s suicide.

Telushkin, who lives in New York, is quick to note that people often forget the last part of Hillel’s maxim, the “go and study” part.

“When you start looking into him, you see certain themes emerge,” Telushkin says. “One was his emphasis on study. If you want to cultivate an educated Jewry, you make a big mistake if forget the aspect of study.”

On the other hand, Hillel’s innate kindness never fails to come through, even with his emphasis on study. After all, it was Hillel who said that one who is bashful will never learn and that a bad-tempered person cannot teach.

“That [latter statement] was revolutionary,” Telushkin notes. “When we think throughout history of the number of people  who had ADD [attention deficit disorder] or were dyslexic, and were punished [in school] as if they were bad people, and here was Hillel saying a bad tempered person had no business teaching.”

That last point resonates for Telushkin, who has made Jewish education his life’s work. Not only was his “Jewish Literacy” a perennial best-seller, he also serves as a senior associate with CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), sits on the board of the Jewish Book Council and is rabbi for the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles.

But he doesn’t merely like to dish out Hillel’s advice. He takes it himself as often as possible.

“What I say to people is  stop for 30 seconds, close your eyes and think of an area in life when ‘If not now, when?’ applies,” he says.” Most people aren’t going to follow it, but all will be forced to think.”

“Hillel: If Not Now, When?” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (244 pages, Shocken Books, $24)

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin will speak at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 7, as at part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. $12-$15. Information: (415) 444-8000.


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.