A few years ago my wife asked me what I wanted for a birthday present.
The truth is that at my stage of life there is little that I lack. But since she is a Judaica artist, I asked her to make an illuminated calligraphic version of my favorite rabbinic saying: “Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them close to the Torah” (Avot 1:12).
She created a beautiful work of art and it hangs at the entrance to my study. I chose that saying because to my mind it expresses the very essence of what it means to be a rabbi, the ideal of true religious leadership. I think every rabbi everywhere should have it constantly before him/her as a reminder of what our work is really all about.
Hillel (first century BCE) – sometimes known as Hillel the Elder – was the most influential of the ancient Sages, the founder of an entire dynasty of leaders of the Sanhedrin and of a school of Sages known as Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) whose liberal opinions predominated in rabbinic Judaism over the more strict ideas of the rival Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai).
Hillel’s ideal teacher is characterized by two loves: the love of peace and the love of all humanity.
But Hillel is not simply advocating a feeling of love. It is all too easy to allow love to remain a passive ideal, an attitude with no practical application. What good is loving peace if that love does not lead to action with the goal of attaining peace? What good is an abstract love of human beings if it does not lead to some deed that demonstrates that love? For that reason, in both of these loves, while Hillel begins with the abstract feeling – “loving…” – he immediately follows that with a call to action. Love of peace must lead to pursuit of peace. Love of people must lead the religious leader to bringing people closer to God’s teaching, knowledge of Torah.
Since Hillel does not speak of Israelites or Jews but of “human beings,” this indicates that he believed in spreading the word of Torah to non-Jews as well. In Hillel’s time, the only monotheistic religion was Judaism and there were indeed many non-Jews who expressed an interest in Judaism as opposed to the paganism of their own culture.
If Torah is the teaching of the Lord – the only God – what can one do to benefit human beings more than bringing them to that truth? In this brief statement Hillel does not explain what he means by peace.
In ancient Jewish teaching, such as the words of the prophet Micah, the greatest dream is of the elimination of warfare and the bringing of peace between nations.
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore, but every person will sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him” (Micah 4:3-4). Hillel must have had that in mind, but in The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, an ancient commentary on Avot, Hillel’s statement is taken to refer more to relationships between individuals, between one person and another, between husband and wife. This is known as shlom bayit – a peaceful home.
According to the many legends told there about Aaron, he made it his life’s work to reconcile those who had quarreled, going so far as to tell white lies. He would go to a husband and tell him that his wife was sorry they had quarreled. The husband would then be willing to make up. So he would then tell the wife – truthfully – that her husband had agreed to be reconciled. They would then meet and resume their marriage. The result would be the birth of children – many of whom, the legend recounts, would be called Aaron, since without him they would never have come into the world (The Fathers 12).
According to these legends, Aaron would also make certain to greet every person, especially those who had sinned, with the hope that in this gentle way he would influence them to change their ways.
When I was very young, I was once extremely upset because my mother had a quarrel with her best friend, a woman I adored. They stopped speaking and seeing one another. This went on all too long. Although I did not know Hillel’s saying, instinctively I followed his way, going to the friend and saying that my mother wanted to see her again, and going to my mother and telling her that her friend intended to make up. It worked, and for many years, until death separated them, they enjoyed the benefit of their close friendship. I had become the disciple of Hillel and Aaron without knowing it.
With this statement, directed to his own disciples, Hillel wrought a revolution in early Judaism, replacing the zealot priest Phinehas (Numbers 25:12), who until then had served as an ideal and prime example of religious leadership, with the more gentle priest, Aaron. Even if, in the Torah, Aaron was less than the ideal leader, having been responsible for the sin of the golden calf, Hillel recreated the figure of Aaron as the model of love, patience and moderation, traits that were also those of Hillel himself.
Furthermore, by speaking of “the disciples of Aaron” as opposed to “the descendants of Aaron,” Hillel asserted that the hereditary priesthood is no longer the primary authority and source of God’s word. Rather, anyone can follow the ideal ways represented by Aaron and attain his status as a teacher, thus further strengthening the rise of religious leadership among the laity, religious leadership that, soon after Hillel, assumed the new title “rabbi.”
If all of our rabbis were to take Hillel’s statement seriously and conduct themselves accordingly, things would be very different in our world. There would no longer be a problem about conversions in Israel, and no more difficulties about divorce and agunot. We would not have violent riots about Shabbat. Women would not be harassed on buses or on the streets of certain areas of Beit Shemesh. Churches, mosques and Arab homes would not be set on fire or desecrated. The phenomenon of “price-tag” attacks would be eliminated and our young people would be taught to “love human beings,” all human beings.
There are many wonderful rabbis in Israel, rabbis who take Hillel seriously and live according to his rules of love and peace, but unfortunately there are others who take a different path.
Hillel’s teaching is applicable not only to Jewish religious leadership but to all religious leadership. The Muslim world needs religious leaders who will denounce the cruelty performed in the name of Islam that we see in Islamic State and other groups, leaders who will instruct their youth that Jews are not devils but human beings deserving of honor and love as well.
Why is it that the current pope has attained such stature and moral authority in the world so quickly? Is it not because, as opposed to the previous pope who was doctrinaire and pedantic, he shows love and tolerance and prefers to come close to people and bring them close rather than treating them with strict doctrinaire methods? I do not know if the pope is familiar with Hillel’s teaching, but I am certain that he would appreciate it and agree with it.
Hillel’s teaching may be 2,000 years old, but it has not lost its meaning and its importance. Our religious leaders need to hear and heed it today, just as Hillel’s students needed it in his time. This article is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Paul Laderman, who died just before Yom Kippur and whose entire life and rabbinic career was exemplified by the teaching of Hillel.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a longtime Jerusalem Post columnist, is a prominent lecturer and author who twice received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society).