Hillel, the Babylonian immigrant who, in the first century BCE, founded an academy that was largely responsible for the subsequent development of Jewish law, may well have been the most important Jewish leader to have emerged since the time of Moses.
Representing the masses as opposed to the aristocracy, the common people as opposed to the priests, he set the tone for the way in which the Torah would be interpreted from then on. The literature that developed from the Oral Law was basically filtered through his eyes and the eyes of his disciples.
A brief statement of Hillel's found in the Mishna (Avot 1:12) may conceal within it not only Hillel's basic philosophy, but also a revolution in Judaism that changed its face forever. The first saying attributed to him is, "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them close to the Torah" (Avot 1:10).
This is Hillel's platform, his instruction to his students who were to be his emissaries, spreading his teaching throughout the Jewish world. In what many interpret as a rebuke to the kohanim of his time, he implies that biological lineage is not important. It is more important to follow the ways and the teachings of Aaron than to be one of his actual descendants.
What were the ways of Aaron according to Hillel? The ways of peace and conciliation. Aaron, hardly the hero of the stories of the Torah, becomes for Hillel the greatest example of how to be a religious leader. Hillel's choice of Aaron is instructive. He does not say that we should be like Moses, who, according to rabbinic tradition, was a harsh leader, standing for justice. Nor - more importantly - does he say that we should be like Pinhas, the priest singled out by the Torah as being the recipient of God's covenant of peace (Numbers 25:12). Pinhas was a zealot, and was for many, including the Maccabees, the ideal figure they wanted to emulate (Maccabees I 2:26).
Hillel ignores him and instead picks Aaron, the non-zealot. To bring peace, reconciliation, to stress love - these are the things that concern him. In the second half of the saying, he speaks about the task of such people - to bring others, including non-Jews, to the Torah, the expression of the Divine will.
What a contrast this is to the actions of Pinhas and those who followed his ways! Pinhas's actions and those of the Maccabees may indeed have been appropriate and needed at their time and in that situation, but to make them the pattern for the enforcement of religious regulations at all times would have led Judaism down the path we now see happening in militant Islam. Note also the contrast between Hillel's advice concerning "bringing them to the Torah" and the forcible Judaization that took place during the Maccabean conquests.
The characteristics that Hillel ascribed to Aaron, of course, were his own qualities. He was a man who practiced what he preached. He certainly went out of his way to "bring them to the Torah." The stories of his attitude toward those who wished to convert to Judaism are well known, and the patience and love that he demonstrated are legendary (see Shabbat 31a).
Hillel's disciples fleshed out his saying, giving numerous examples of Aaron's activities as a peacemaker. Aaron would make peace between people who quarrelled, between husband and wife, often resorting to subtle subterfuge to bring people back together, telling each that the other regretted the quarrel and wished to make up, to the extent that children born of the renewed union were called "Aaron" in his honor (Avot d'Rabbi Natan A 12). These stories speak of an Aaron who would go out of his way to greet sinners when he passed them on the public street, so they would feel that they wanted to change their ways and be worthy of Aaron's greeting.
In the end, we have the strange situation that in Midrash after Midrash it is Aaron, rather than Moses, who is the hero. Moses comes to represent strictness, justice - perhaps a kind of proto-Shammai - and Aaron to represent love and mercy - indeed a model of Hillel.
It is quite clear that what was at stake here was the image of the ideal Jew, and thus the essence of Judaism. Are we to follow the zealousness of Pinhas or the tolerance and moderation of Aaron? The followers of Shammai were inclined to strictness and exclusivity. Hillel teaches love, peace, tolerance and inclusiveness. Hillel teaches his students to follow that pattern, the way of Aaron.
Who is the ideal religious leader and how is that leader to act in order to influence the masses? Hillel's own life and his idealized picture of Aaron was the answer: the ideal religious leader is one who leads through love rather than fear, with persuasion rather than force. This is an idea that revolutionized Judaism, desperately needed, perhaps never more than today.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.