Book Review: Hillel: If Not Now, When?

Hillel:  If Not Now, When?, by Joseph Telushkin

In general, I enjoyed reading this book.  For one, I must admit that my knowledge of the Jewish context of the New Testament, even when I do not consider writers like this one to be very knowledgeable and accurate when writing about the New Testament because they take their ideas about Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul from mainstream Christianity, which itself does not understand the relationship between Christianity and the law.  Likewise, I appreciate this book in large part because it does not make the subject matter of the book (or the author) appear to be entirely sympathetic.  We see the author seeking to use the stories and examples of Hillel in order to promote a certain understanding of evangelism and Jewish identity in light of the demographic fears the author has about the decline of acceptance of Judaism and identification as Jewish among many people who could see themselves as such.  This motive is so honestly admitted and so transparently viewed, though, that it is impossible to think badly of the author for seeking to use the past, especially the underappreciated past, as a way for the Jewish community to strengthen itself in the present-day.

This short volume of just a bit more than 200 pages consists of eighteen chapters in four parts along with three additional appendices.  The author begins with six chapters that discuss some of the unique teachings of Hillel (I), including his role as a particularly ardent student (1), his rise to leadership (2), his belief that at least a fundamental aspect of Judaism could be explained by standing on one foot (3), his relationship with three converts (4), his view of repairing the world through ethical conduct (5), and five traits of his that the author finds useful for contemporary Judaism (6).  After that there are five chapters that examine the contrast between Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud’s most famous adversaries (II), including chapters about their different approaches in interpretation as opposed to literalism (I favor the latter, generally) (7), issues of thieves, brides, and lying as a virtue (8), issues regarding women (9), Shammai beyond the stereotype (10), and the discussion of the two Torahs (11).  There is one chapter that discusses the relationship between Jesus and Hillel (III, 12) that points to issues of interaction with Christianity, before the author closes with six chapters that look at lessons from the first century that apply to the contemporary situation of (American) Judaism (IV), including the need for outreach to others (13), the need for teachers to be patient (14), the need for students to question while they learn (15), the need to devote time to study even if one is busy (16), passionate moderation (17), and final thoughts about why we need Hillel more than ever now (18).  After this there are three appendices on additional teachings of Hillel (i), seven rules of Torah interpretation (ii), and Hillel’s teachings in the Ethics of the Fathers (iii).

Admittedly, I do not agree with everything in this book.  In particular, I find the author (following Hillel, it must be admitted) made some terrible logic in assuming that because the written Bible includes obvious unwritten material as part of its context that the Oral Torah held to by the Pharisees and their successors, including the author, is correct.  There is a leap here that deserves to be contested concerning the authority of the scribes and Pharisees and Orthodox rabbis in contradicting scripture through their human traditions and in disregarding the authorities that God had set over them, as well as disregarding the authority of God when He Himself came as a man to rebuke and correct them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Likely, an examination of these issues is likely not to be harmonious and easy, but it does suggest that the approach of the author in praising Hillel shows a certain blind spot to questions of transmission of tradition in the Talmud that, like the analogous issue in Islam concerning Hadiths [1], deserves to be questioned and dealt with openly.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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