Hillel — the 1st century sage — is one of Judaism’s great heroes. He is one half of the paradigmatic intellectual/spiritual rivalry in Jewish tradition. Yet his rivalry with Shammai is not remembered for animosity, but rather as the prime example of an argument for the sake of heaven.
Ancient Judaism had some modicum of pluralism vis-a-vis Jewish law, and this was manifested most clearly in the fact that although the schools of Hillel and Shammai differed on profound questions of halakah, the followers of each still married the followers of the other.
Of course, in matters of halakhah, Hillel was the victor and we follow his laws. (If it were the other way around, college students would be going to the local Shammai House for Shabbat dinner tonight.)
And while I’m sure we could find problems with Hillel if we wanted to, he appears quite heroically in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, as well, doling out ethical advice and insights that are both profoundly simple and shockingly easy on contemporary ears.
A series of three mishnayot quoting Hillel begins in Mishnah 12.
1:12 – Hillel and Shammai received the Torah from them. Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them close to the Torah.
Here Hillel the Hero doubles as Hillel the Hippie.
What might get lost in the beauty and simplicity of this teaching is the introduction Hillel gives: “Be of the disciples of Aaron.”
Why is this important?
Because Pirkei Avot began with a reference to Aaron’s brother, Moses, receiving the Torah from Sinai and beginning a chain of transmission and tradition. Pirkei Avot — and all of rabbinic literature — is predicated on Moses receiving the law and passing it along, yet it’s notable that we are never told to be Moses’ students. Why?
Moses represents Torah and law. And while these may be the foundation of rabbinic Judaism, according to Hillel, they must be accompanied by — and perhaps tempered with — Aaron’s values: the pursuit of peace and love.
And, indeed, the biggest contribution of the Mishnah is the final point: To bring people closer to the Torah of Moses, you can’t only invoke Moses. Law and Torah may be important, but you won’t be able to show anyone this without love.
So yesterday, I decided to be all festive and celebrate Israel. Struggling to figure out what I wanted for lunch, I settled on schwarma, and headed to my favorite place in NYC.
As I’m carrying my sack full of humus, pita, tabouli, meat and more, I suddenly realize that I have screwed up. While Israel’s Memorial Day was over in Israel, I was still supposed to be observing it in the US. Yom Ha’atzmaut didn’t start until sundown.
Somehow my meal seemed less festive when it became Yom Hazikaron schwarma.
The confusion was not without cause. Just before heading out, I was talking with my best friend online. She’s in Israel for the year. She was telling me about her day, and at that point, she was getting ready to go out and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. I figured I should do the same.
Wouldn’t it more sense if Diaspora Jews celebrated these holidays at the same time as Israelis? I mean they are Israeli national holidays. Does it even make sense to commemorate Israel’s Memorial Day at a time when Israel itself isn’t marking it. Likewise, the biggest Israel parade in the US rarely happens on Israel Independence Day itself.
And isn’t the best way to show solidarity with Israel to celebrate with Israel?
-The High Rabbinical Court of Israel has ruled that all of the thousands of conversions conducted since 1999 by Rabbi Drukman – who heads the Conversion Authority — must be declared invalid. They also ruled that it was permitted to retroactively cancel the conversion of someone who does not observe the Sabbath, doing so to the woman in the actual case, whose conversion was 15 years ago. Their ruling converted her children into gentiles, and â€œout of extra caution,â€? they ruled that her husband, a born Jew, could not marry either. (The Jerusalem Post)
-But it turns out that Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar tried to halt the publication of the ruling. (Haaretz)
-And criticism arises quickly. (Haaretz)
-For Yesmao Yela’o, having died speeded up his conversion process. (Haaretz)
-What is billed as â€œthe largest conference of Black, Asian, Latino, and mix-raced Jewish leaders” has its focus on issues around conversion. (Earth Times)
-Rabbi Myron Zuber writes about converting Inca Indians in Peru, but notes, â€œThe Lima Jews do not permit the Inca Jews to enter their synagogue, even though the Incans were converted by a Bais Din of Israel.â€? (Kulanu)
1:10 – Shmaayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shmaayah would say: Love work, loath mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government.
The word that is here translated as “mastery over others” is rabbanut. Today, this is the word used for “the rabbinate,” and while the populist in me would be just a little giddy about interpreting this mishnah as an anti-rabbinic maxim, it would be misleading. (Chachmim, sages, was the word used to denote the rabbis as a group.)
Rather, it probably makes the most sense to see the last two clauses in the mishnah as a pair, something along the lines of “avoid seeking a position of power and avoid those who are in power.”
How is the first clause — “Love work” — related to this?
Perhaps Shmaayah is advising his contemporaries, who may not have been on such good terms with the authorities, to keep a low profile — i.e. do your work and keep your nose clean; don’t try to change the status quo by acquiring power or by cozying up to the government.
Interestingly, of the few things we know about Shmaayah, one of them has to do with his government dealings. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
When Herod on his own responsibility had put to death the leader of the national party in Galilee, Hyrcanus permitted the Sanhedrin to cite him before the tribunal. Herod appeared, but in royal purple robes, whereat the members of the Sanhedrin lost courage. Only Shemaiah was brave enough to say: “He who is summoned here on a capital charge appears like one who would order us to execution straightway if we should pronounce him guilty. Yet I can blame him less than you and the king, since ye permit such a travesty of justice. Know then that he before whom ye now tremble will some day deliver you to the executioner.”
Today is Yom Hazikaron, Israeli’s Memorial Day. I’d like to take the opportunity to tell our readers about the life of a young man named Michael Levin. While some people may know his story, it cannot be told enough times.
Michael Levin grew up in the world of Camp Ramah and USY. He was determined at a young age to make aliyah and serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. Though he was small in stature, friends and family say he was big in heart.
Michael eventually joined an elite paratrooper unit of the IDF. During the 2006 war with Lebanon, Michael was visiting the US when he saw the fighting on TV. He cut his trip short and went back to serve with his unit, though he didn’t have to. Michael Levin was killed August 1, 2006 in clashes with Hezbullah in the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab.
He was 22 years old.
Thousands of people attended his funeral. Most of those did not know him, but were moved by the way he lived his life.
His story has been recorded in the documentary A Hero In Heaven. It has been shown across the country in educational settings, and for the past two years on Channel in Israel for Yom Hazikaron. I had the privilege to see it earlier this year.
Growing up and throughout college, I was what one would consider an outspoken Israel-advocate. I lead the Students for Israel group on campus, hosted programs for the school, wrote op-eds in the school paper, and traveled to Israel frequently. But after four years of Jewish communal agencies competing for my time, trying to convince me that their view of being “pro-Israel” was correct, I was exhausted.
While I never forgot my affinity for Israel, I didn’t want to talk about Israel, read the newspaper or attend any type of events.
Yet watching this movie about a young adult, whose background was much like mine, touched me. Through my tears, I was reminded that supporting Israel is a task that is our’s as Jews and is a task that we can never abandon.
And while many of us in the US don’t commemorate Yom Hazikaron, today I am taking some time to reflect on the life of Michael Levin, and the thousands of others who died protecting Israel.
I hope you will too.
Pictures from Michael’s funeral can be found here.
News stories about him can be found here.
-The last surviving person to have attended the historical afternoon session when Ben Gurion read the scroll establishing the Jewish state recalls that time, and laments the lost feeling of togetherness. (Haaretz)
-Gideon Levy complains: â€œIn a short period of seven days the State of Israel dictates three times what its citizens should feel: They should grieve twice – on Holocaust Remembrance Day and on Memorial Day, and to be happy once – on Independence Day. These three days are commemorated in Israel with near zealous totality, a sort of missionary sanctity that appears to be intensifying over the years.â€? (Haaretz)
-But for many Israeli Arabs, itâ€™s a day of bitter memories. (National Post)
-Participation by handicapped and IDF disabled veterans in Memorial Day ceremonies for the IDF fallen is hampered or prevented by lack of handicapped-access facilites. (Ynet)
-A â€œgroup of over 100 British Jews comprised of well-known academics, writers, actors and other public figures has launched a scathing attack against the Jewish stateâ€?, saying, â€œWe’re not celebrating Israel’s anniversaryâ€? in a the letter carried by the Guardian newspaper. (Ynet)
-1948 photogallery (all B&W). (Sun-Sentinal)
-Recollections of Israelâ€™s founding, each including a video. (Sun-Sentinal)
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-In an earlier day, the Flag of Morocco had the 6-pointed Star of David, â€œknown in Arabic as Khatam Suleyman and in Judaism as the Seal of Solomon.â€? (Tingis Magazine)
-When a rabbi in a highly publicized NY child sex abuse scandal gets a light plea-bargain deal, one expert says, â€œThis has all the earmarks of the usual prosecutorsâ€™ deference to religious groups.â€? (The Jewish Week)
-A new book looks at the sorry history of abandoned Jewish wives. (Forward)
-A federal appeals court ruling bars a football coach from leading his team in prayer, and two Jewish organizations find themselves split on the ruling. (NJ Jewish News)
-Carlen Altman makes â€œJewish Rosaries.â€? (The Jewish Week)
Last night I was watching the Chicago Cubs game against the St. Louis Cardinals on ESPN. Around the top of the 8th inning, mind you the game was still very close, color commentator Joe Morgan took a few moments to make an announcement. He was thinking of two former players who were ill back in California. He wanted to take a moment to mention their names and ask the viewership to hope for a speedy recovery.
Then in the bottom of the 8th, Morgan mentions another two individuals associated with baseball who were ailing (you’ll forgive me that I don’t remember the names. I’m not such a baseball fan.)
It struck me as quite peculiar. The Cubs, playing their arch rivals, were trying to make a comeback, and had even managed to load the bases. But all Morgan could contribute was the MLB’s Mi Sheberach list.
Praying for the ill is an important aspect of spirituality for many people. Saying a mi sheberach prayer, a prayer for healing, is a key point in Jewish services. We have the opportunity to say the prayer in each of the three weekdays amidot, as well as the Shabbat Torah service.
Yet at many shuls, the rabbis ask those who have a name to add to the list come up to bimah to announce the name. This often disrupts the service. People see it as a time to chat with neighbors or run to the bathroom. The list of names becomes longer than the sermon itself. Some minyans avoid this situation by asking members to silently say the name of the person. But this denies the community the awareness and ability to pray on behalf of others.
I’m not sure what’s the best way to handle this, but it’s unfortunate when prayer for the ill becomes bothersome to those listening. And that’s what happened in last night’s game, when the commentary sounded something like this.
-Debra Ruth Kolodny crafts â€œA new Ceremony of Simchat Bat,â€? explaining the rationale behind the process. (Ritualwell)
-Rabbi Shlomi Aviner, one of Religious Zionism’s most prominent authorities has ruled â€œa woman must always wear modest clothes even when she is alone and in the dark, because the Holy one blessed be he is everywhere.â€? Trousers are not permitted. (Ynet)
-Rachel Elior says, â€œI have come to praise God, the handiwork of man. â€¦ My subject matter is â€¦ in the meanings men and women create when they talk about God. In the ideas they develop when they try to set down what man may do in relation to God. (Jbooks)
-A Reform theologian tried to focus attention back on God. (Forward)
-The erotic theology of the Jews. (JBooks)