Blogging Avot: Hillel the Hippie

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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.

Posted on May 9, 2008

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