If Not Now, When?
By Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Schocken - Nextbook, 2010, 244 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 13, 2010
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is persuasive in showing that current Jewry rejected the principles of one of Judaism's greatest thinkers, the sage Hillel.
Little is known of the life of Hillel other than the statements that the Talmud records in his name and the many legends developed about him. We don't know when he was born or how long he lived, who his parents were, who was his wife, and whether he had more than a single male child. Even the legends about him may not be exactly true, although they seem to reflect his general approach to life and his positive attitude toward people. Some are clearly false. Some conflict with others. Tradition states that Hillel was the Nasi, but scholars are unsure exactly what that function was. He lived during the time of Herod, a Roman quisling, when the Romans controlled Judea, and he could not have had great political and religious power. Yet despite these difficulties, Rabbi Telushkin handles Hillel's life well. He describes what we know in a popular manner, without technicalities, and his analysis of Hillel's thoughts is perceptive and thought provoking
Telushkin shows that Hillel's view on conversion, for example, was radically different than the current notion of many rabbis today who have created enormous hurdles for individuals who seek it. These rabbis require would-be converts to study enormous material, make commitments to observe all the laws of Judaism, and they delay conversions. Hillel did the opposite, as Telushkin shows on pages 18-46, 177-180, and other pages, where he discusses the issue in interesting detail.
The Talmud tells that three potential converts came to Hillel with what today's rabbis would consider preposterous conditions, but Hillel converted all three immediately. One stipulated that Hillel, "Convert me to Judaism on condition that you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot." Another said, "on condition that you have me appointed High Priest." The third insisted, "on condition that you teach me only the Written Torah" not the Oral Law. Like Hillel, Ben Zion Uziel (1880-1953), the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, argued for a policy of openness to potential coverts, and that "observing the commandments is not a necessary condition for conversion." Hillel and Rabbi Uziel reflected the clear talmudic mandate that when a would-be convert requests conversion, do so immediately after circumcision for males and immersion for both sexes.
Telushkin also cites examples where Hillel enacted laws to help people where a strict fulfillment of the previously-existing law, including a Torah command, would have hurt them, such as the biblical rule that debts are cancelled during the shemitah year, every seven years. Hillel, he shows, did not interpret Torah laws literally. Thus when the Torah states that the shema is said when lying down, Hillel explained that this does not mean it is recited while lying down, but at night. He stressed being considerate of others. Thus, while absolutists say that people may never lie, Hillel said that people should tell ugly brides that they look good.
His contemporaries insisted that only people who could pay for a Jewish education should receive it. This position still exists. There are families with more than a single child attending a Jewish Day School who need to outlay over $70,000. Hillel insisted that all children should receive an education. Like his view on conversion, this important issue should be resolved as Hillel wanted.
Telushkin's book is filled with many other good ideas. The definition of "religious," as Hillel shows, should be based on ethical behavior, not on whether a person observes rituals. Also, people should read two Bible chapters daily, a program that can be completed in 460 days.
In sum, Rabbi Telushkin's depiction of the great sage Hillel shows readers that they must radically change their views on many subjects, including conversions, payments for education, and being religious, and his book reminds us to copy the way Hillel acted, considering the dignity of all people.