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?)