Hillel biog book cover.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even a gentile has heard of Hillel, the famed rabbi and teacher whose name
graces Jewish campus centers around the US. A generation before Jesus, Hillel
preached and embodied a religious way of life that emphasized compassion for the
poor, the spirit of the law over its letter and inclusivity.
Telushkin, a scholar and Orthodox rabbi who has made Jewish literacy his mission
in earlier books, has composed a compact, thoughtful biography of the sage. It’s
a study of Hillel’s thought and teaching as well as his life, because we have
only a handful of facts about the man himself. He came to Israel from Babylonia.
He was poor but longed to study Torah and persevered in doing so despite many
obstacles, becoming the religious leader of his community. He pioneered the
concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Hillel, Telushkin writes,
“is not only, arguably, Judaism’s greatest rabbinic sage, but also its most
One story in the Talmud relates that a gentile
came to Hillel seeking conversion but demanded to be taught the Torah while
standing on one foot. Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do
to your fellow. This is the entire Torah! All the rest is commentary! Now, go
Christians will recognize Hillel’s statement as kin to the
golden rule of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
out that Jesus did not present his statement as an original thought. Rather, he
was quoting from Leviticus, where that commandment had previously been set down.
Jesus was a Jew raised among Jews, and Hillel was the most significant religious
figure in the Jewish community when Jesus was alive. We can assume he was
familiar with Hillel’s thought, Telushkin writes.
Telushkin believes, the religious revolution brought about by Jesus and his
followers may have made Jews anxious about aspects of Hillel’s teachings that
came to be associated with the new Christians: “the extraordinary openness to
converts and the emphasis on loving and just behavior as God’s central
“It was perhaps in response to Jesus’s emphasis on faith and
love, and Paul’s decision several decades later to drop the requirement to
observe Torah laws, that many Jews came to focus Jewish religiosity on laws,
especially the ritual laws that most differentiated Jews from
In support of his point, Telushkin offers this thought: If one
Jew asks a second Jew how religious a third Jew is, their discussion is nearly
always about the third one’s level of ritual observance, not his or her ethical
Noting a key difference, Telushkin points out that Hillel says
little about prayer and much about the urgency of studying the Torah, while
Jesus does the opposite.
Telushkin spends many of his pages illuminating
the differences between Hillel and his great rabbinic contemporary Shammai, who
represents a more literal strain of Jewish belief.
While Telushkin is
clearly in Hillel’s camp, especially when it comes to conversion, he is fair to
Shammai and notes occasions when Shammai’s thought has carried the
“It says something about Judaism that both Hillel and Shammai, and
many of their followers, remain revered figures with traditional Judaism, even
when they embody opposite approaches to the law and to life itself. In this
regard, talmudic Judaism is anti-fundamentalist. It isn’t simply the answer that
is prized, it is the argument itself, the culture of disputation, the wrestling
with the truth.” – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT