What do you know about Hillel, the most famous Rabbi in Jewish History? Well, if you went to Jewish summer camp, or Hebrew school, you can probably quote (or sing) his teachings “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; If I’m only for myself, what am I; and If not now, when?”
That teaching, and so many others, are really the sum of what the average Jew knows about Rabbi Hillel. That’s why prolific Jewish author Joseph Telushkin’s new biography of Hillel, appropriately titled “Hillel: If Not Now, When?” (Schocken (9/14/2010): Hardcover only $16.42) is so genius. The book follows Hillel through the Talmud, reliving his stories, analyzing his teachings, and opining on how the history of the times (anti-Semitic rulers in Palestine, for ex) may or may not have affected what Hillel taught.
Telushkin brilliantly transports the reader back to Hillel’s time, replaying Hillel’s debates with other rabbis of his day over whether and how non-Jews should be allowed to convert to Judaism. Despite Hillel’s old-school status (we are talking about a Rabbi born more than 2000 years ago), his take on conversion is more modern and welcoming than that of many rabbis today. When would-be converts approach Hillel interested in converting for what seem to be superficial reasons (one wants to convert so he can wear clothes as fine as the Hebrew priests), Hillel says yes almost immediately. Hillel recognized that exposure to Jewish beliefs, values, culture and tradition over time would help the would-be converts become full, committed and valued Jews in his community. Even if their initial interest in the religion was less than fantastic.
I highly recommend you read the book. My paraphrasing really does it no justice.
If you’re a Jewish scholar, a recent convert, a lover of Joseph Telushkin (his “Jewish Literacy” was my childhood bible), or just a person who wants a new and insightful book to read at home on our lovely cold Minnesota nights, pick this book up. You won’t be disappointed.
Disclosure of Material Connection, required by the FTC: TC Jewfolk received a complimentary review copy of the book.