Monday, September 27, 2010

Hillel - 2,000 Years Later

If you could choose only one Jewish figure - past or present - to articulate our values for both the Jewish people and the rest of the world, who would it be? While there are many great choices, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better person than Hillel the Elder. And there is a very compelling reason why: his perspective was second to none.

In perhaps the most famous story in all of Jewish literature, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates an incident that occurred between a non-Jew and the two great sages of the time, Hillel and Shammai. The man first approached Shammai with a strange request, saying, "Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you will teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot." Shammai forced the man away with a building rod. The man then approached Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study." The man accepted Hillel's response and converted.

Notice the stark contrast between how we generally regard conversion today and what Hillel did back then. Also notice which aspect of Judaism he chose as the foundation of our existence. Hillel focused on bein adam la'chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) - not bein adam la'makom (the relationship between man and God). In other words, he was explaining that everything in life is predicated upon the ethical - not the ritual. Remember, this is coming from the wisest man of his generation, a man who was deeply concerned about Judaism's ritual laws, a man who had enormous faith in God, a man in whose merit a bat kol (heavenly voice) would even come down to proclaim his teachings as correct! Nevertheless, Hillel's underlying philosophy was neither based upon strict faith nor technical legalisms.

To take this one step further, the Talmud states, "One should always be humble like Hillel and not a formalist like Shammai" (Shabbat 30b). Unfortunately, this does not appear to have taken hold. Although we are supposed to follow the more inclusive, ethical ways of Hillel, why is it that we so often give in to the more exclusive, legalistic ways of Shammai? For example, there are often religious Jews who have trouble dealing with a family member who went off the derech (stopped being religious). At times, some think it is prudent to completely disassociate with that person. This could only occur as a result of a more Shammai-like approach, because I don't believe Hillel would ever consider doing such a thing. Although it is incredibly difficult for an Orthodox family to deal with a child or sibling who is no longer observant, it's not the end of the world. As long as that person remains ethical, they're still connected to the faith.

Unfortunately, the term "religious" has come to denote only one's level of ritual observance. But this is terribly misleading. As important as it is to keep laws such as Shabbat and kashrut, it is even more important to act ethically and decently towards other people. Perhaps it was Hillel's personal experiences prior to becoming a Torah scholar that made him understand the significance of interpersonal behavior. Or maybe it was his keen knowledge of the spirit of halacha rather than the letter of the law that compelled him to form unique ideas. Whatever the case, his actions resulted in increasing goodness in the world - something that cannot be said of those for whom ritual observance is the be all and end all.

It is believed that Hillel passed away in 10 CE (3771 on the Jewish calendar). Thus, this year would be his 2,000th yahrzeit, and a good time to recall his philosophical approach to Judaism and life. Unlike many of today's leaders, Hillel did not merely engage in clever sound bites - he actually lived according to his statements. Not only did he have a profound influence on those who sought his counsel, he also showed others how to improve their character by practically applying the values he espoused into everyday life. While there is so much to learn from a sage like Hillel, it's best to start with his most basic piece of advice: the Golden Rule. As long as our highest value is treating other people decently, we're on the right track.

The world needed Hillel's wisdom in the 1st century.

We need his wisdom even more in the 21st century.

(For more on this topic, there is a great new book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin titled, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is There Any Hope for Humanity?

Reading the daily news headlines can easily lead a person to hopelessness. The economy remains in shambles, a large segment of the world is at war with the West, and there is a genocidal regime on the precipice of becoming a nuclear power. It is almost as if the entire world is upside down. Just take the recent cover of Time Magazine, for example. As their leading story, they invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes in claiming that Israelis don't care about peace. To add insult to injury, world leaders have decided yet again to impose the "peace process" on Israel (i.e. guaranteed outbursts of violence by those who will never recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state). So what exactly is there left to hope for? Well, in both the macro and micro realms of life, there actually are better days ahead - as long as we rely on God and not world leaders.

First, let's deal with a macro example. We just commemorated the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While 9/11 served as a tragic wake up call for the United States to be more proactive when it comes to radical Islamic terrorism, Osama bin Laden has yet to be killed or captured. This might lead one to believe that there may never be justice served for the thousands of innocent people whose blood he has on his hands. But this will not be so. There was a Torah Code found about 9/11 that might be letting us know that there is indeed hope for the future. In it, bin Laden is named as the agent of destruction and Mashiach (Messiah) as the one who will take revenge. Exactly what this revenge entails, who Mashiach is, and when this will take place is not yet known. However, these two men are more than just individuals - they represent life vs. death and good vs. evil. Perhaps God is providing us with a preview of coming attractions, hinting that evil will have its comeuppance and goodness will reign on earth.

Now, let's consider a micro example. All of us have to deal with people in our day to day lives. Some of these individuals are friendly, while others drive us nuts. Yet, even if you get along with someone, you will eventually be disappointed if you overly trust in them. Unfortunately, human nature is fickle and unreliable. However, you will always have peace-of-mind if you trust in God. As two very instructive verses state: "Cursed is the man that trusts in man" (Jeremiah 17:5); "Blessed is the man that trusts in God" (Jeremiah 17:7). Especially during the High Holidays, it's important to remember that God is the ultimate just and merciful being, and He judges us the way we judge other people. If we generally give others the benefit of the doubt, God will do the same for us. Thus, while it's extremely important to be kind toward other people, our hope and trust should only be in God.

Properly-placed hope is a key element in becoming a good person, as well as a way of producing more optimism in a world that easily creates pessimism:

Being more optimistic will also help in the goal of Jewish unity. If we simply write this off as a dream that can't be realized, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we each focus on improving our own interpersonal conduct, it might just happen after all.

And with regard to combating hopelessness due to all of today's problems, take solace from four of the greatest words in the English language:

This too shall pass.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Honoring Jewish Victims of Terrorism

Unfortunately, it often takes death to clarify what is most important in life. All the terrorist attacks committed against Jews in recent years, particularly in the past decade, have bore witness to this statement. From Israel to virtually every other country where Jews live, radical Islamists can't stand our existence and target us. It's peculiar that the Muslim-dominated countries of the world hate one another until they focus on their common enemy of Israel. By the same token, it's also strange that we can't seem to get our act together until we realize there are genocidal regimes that wish to destroy us. While it should never take some extreme predicament to unify us, this appears to be the only way for the message to get across.

Every time I hear about the most recent attack against Jews, such as the Hamas murder of four Israelis last week, I'm extremely saddened and angry. But I'm sick and tired of feeling that way. It's time to act. Aside from obviously supporting those who can militarily stop this evil, any one of us can do something: improve how we treat other Jews. Most of us didn't know these victims well enough to uncover all the different disagreements we would have had with them, but that doesn't amount to a hill of beans. They were our brothers and sisters who died Al Kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of God's name). In their memory, we owe them something. This was nicely articulated by Devorah in a comment on an earlier post. When spelled in Hebrew, the word Hamas forms an acronym of the following words:


As she mentioned, if Jewish unity existed, there wouldn't be a need for groups like Hamas. Do we get it yet? We failed to achieve a greater degree of interpersonal decency while the victims of these terrorist attacks were still alive; we owe it to them to achieve some semblance of unity in their death. Obviously, this is extremely difficult because we all have significant disagreements with each other, whether they be personal, political, theological, or about anything else. However, we can overcome our inclination to act indecently toward those with whom we disagree - if we want to. Every time you have a serious problem with a fellow Jew, keep one of our Jewish martyrs in mind. It will put things into stark perspective.

Sadly, it appears as though God is using these terrorists as vehicles through which to create a stronger sense of brotherhood among the Jewish people. As we approach the High Holidays, a time during which we recite Avinu Malkeinu, we express that God is both our Father and King. However, God is only a proud "parent" when His "children" are good to one another. Maybe it will help to remember just how small and unique we really are:

While the video talks about love, what is actually necessary is figuring out a way to tolerate Jews who differ from us. Perhaps love will come naturally over time, but if it doesn't, don't worry. It's more important to act lovingly toward fellow Jews than to feel love toward fellow Jews. From the left-wing Jew living a completely secular life in Los Angeles to the right-wing Jew living a completely religious life in Jerusalem, we are one - whether we like it or not (and quite often, we do not). With all the evil that has been perpetrated against us in recent history, we must understand that we are all part of the same family in the eyes of God. If we fail to receive this message, there is a horrific reminder waiting for us in Iran.