Hillel’s teachings still resonate, rabbi says
November 2, 2010Tweet
The Jewish sage Hillel died about 2,000 years ago, but his teachings can still shape modern understanding of topics ranging from gratitude to self-esteem. That was the message Rabbi Joseph Telushkin shared with an audience of about 125 people who gathered Oct. 28 in FA-Casadesus at Binghamton University.
Hillel, Telushkin said, is famous for his aphorisms, or sharply observed comments. “They were so smart,” Telushkin said, “that they suffered the fate of what often happens to smart comments: They became clichés. And once it becomes a cliché, people cease to sense the freshness of the comment.”
In his speech – just as in his new book, Hillel: If Not Now, When? – Telushkin strives to restore that “freshness” to Hillel’s teachings.
One of the most famous anecdotes about Hillel relates to a conversation he had with a non-Jew:
“Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you can teach me the whole Torah while I’m standing on one foot,” the non-Jew said.
Hillel replied: “What’s hateful unto you don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
Telushkin noted that Hillel didn’t speak about God or even Jewish law, but rather focused on ethics. Hillel also chose the negative expression of this idea rather than say, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Why would that be? Telushkin asked.
“Love your neighbor as yourself is a very high-minded ideal, and yet it’s hard to know what it actually is,” he said. “Hillel offers a different definition because it’s something that you can more immediately incorporate into your life.”
From there, Telushkin touched several more of Hillel’s best known teachings:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” is another of Hillel’s oft-cited pieces of instruction. Telushkin said this is actually an important message about self-esteem: “If you’re not going to make your needs known, don’t expect others to,” he said.
Telushkin offered this piece of wisdom as a frequently ignored aphorism from Hillel: An ill-tempered person can’t be a teacher.
“We don’t learn well when we’re afraid,” Telushkin said, his voice rising as he punched the air for emphasis. “You want to make people love the material. When you teach with love, the love suffuses the people who are learning it. So he lived 2,000 years ago? What he taught is still relevant. These aren’t clichés; these are life lessons that can still affect the way we live.”
Telushkin’s book Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History is one of the best-selling books on Judaism of the past two decades. He has also won recognition from Talk magazine as one of the 50 best speakers in the United States. Indeed, despite the serious and deeply philosophical nature of his one-hour lecture, Telushkin frequently had the audience laughing.
Evan Lieberman, a senior math major from New York City, said he especially appreciated Telushkin’s emphasis on studying source material. Telushkin offered Hillel’s teachings in the original Hebrew and then translated them throughout the talk.
“I think it was a very worthwhile discussion,” Lieberman said. “He’s certainly a great lecturer.”