Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
There is an old rabbinic tale of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbinic leaders of their generation. A would-be convert comes to Shammai and offers to “convert to Judaism if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai kicks him out of the room. The same person approaches Hillel with the same offer. Hillel’s answer is, “What is hateful to you do not do to others. All else is commentary. Go and learn.”
This paradigmatic story is used to illustrate the greatness of Hillel. In his generation Roman persecution reached new heights. Hillel included anyone who wanted to be a part of the community to better sustain it. Shammai is seen as a curmudgeon; excluding and thereby limiting community.
The irony of our reaction is that Shammai was right and Hillel was wrong. What kind of chutzpah does it take for a person to offer conversion under those circumstances? The only rabbis I know of today who would take that offer charge thousands of dollars for a penny-ante conversion which isn’t worth the toner the certificate used in printing. Of what use would this person be?
In point of fact we want to be like Hillel – but we act like Shammai. We want to be inclusive but the majority of the Jewish community is more comfortable with Shammai. Change is challenging. New people coming into our community tend to come to services earlier and sit in our seats. They are not interested in the old feuds that sometimes dominate congregational interactions. They have new ideas and methods. Clergy and congregational leadership, used to their own intrinsic dynamic can be easily put off by this fresh air and mark their territory in uncomfortable ways.
The story is also a cautionary tale for those who practice inclusion. It’s not by accident that the convert offers a deal that is at heart disrespectful. He is mocking the tradition by suggesting it can be encapsulated in just a few seconds. If that’s all there is, why be Jewish? In similar circumstance would we be inclusive to someone equally mocking, equally obnoxious? Would we include a sincere Messianic Jew? Would we count a felon in a minyan? Would you allow a known wife beater to have an honor?
Shammai was Hillel’s contemporary. He too faced Roman persecution. His response was to restrict entrance into the community so that its values and practices remained constant. Can we say he was wrong?
I believe that the key to the story is Hillel’s message. “What is hateful to you, don’t do.” Inclusion and exclusion are byproducts of “ahavat Yisrael,” love of Israel. If you truly act out of love and compassion, you will know when to include and what lines must be drawn to keep the constantly ever-changing nature of the community. The highest purpose to which a rabbi can aspire is to be the guide in this endeavor.
Pronounced: KHOOTZ-pah, Origin: Yiddish, nerve, brazenness, presumption, extreme confidence.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.