The Right 'Tude

The Babylonian Talmud is one of two literary cores of Judaism; Hebrew Scripture is the other. In truth there are two Talmuds, one written in Babylonia and one written in the Land of Israel. The Babylonian Talmud, because it is far more extensive, is generally considered the more important of the two. Talmud is the collection, amplification, and expansion of the oral traditions of the first century B.C.E. and continuing through those of the sixth century C.E. In all, the Babylonian Talmud comprises 20 volumes filled with legal arguments, traditions, legends, and theological discussions.

Talmud tells numerous stories about two great Sages, Hillel and Shammai, who lived in the first century B.C.E. They were colleagues but rarely agreed with one another. Even more significantly to the Sages who came later, Hillel and Shammai had vastly differing temperaments.

Talmud records that one day a man who knew nothing about Judaism came before Shammai and said, “Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Can you imagine someone asking you to explain all of Christianity, all of Buddhism, all of Islam, or any religious tradition in one minute? Shammai interpreted the man’s challenge as disrespectful and rude – which it was – and brushed him aside. The man then came to Hillel with the same demand. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the basis of Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” The man became an ardent follower of Hillel.

Before we make the mistake of thinking that Hillel himself brushed off Torah as reducible to one simple ethical principle, let us explore this story more fully.

First, the story contrasts Shammai’s exacting and stern demeanor, with Hillel’s more flexible and playful way of dealing with the irreverent stranger. Shammai pushes him away, but Hillel receives him with patience and good will.

Second, Shammai knows that learning “all of Torah” involves extensive study and hence a lengthy investment of time. Shammai rejects the man because he does not begin with Shammai’s outlook. Hillel, in contrast, meets the man where he is, which is not in a learning stance at all, but rather in a provocative and testing mode. Hillel responds respectfully to what is in actuality a rude question, and thereby draws him close. Hillel understands that the first step is to establish a relationship; from that true learning will flow.

Third, Hillel does not claim that there is nothing more to Torah, or Judaism, than this one principle. Recall that Hillel told the man, “Go and learn.” Hillel helped the man begin with something he could understand and appreciate, thereby opening the door to further learning.

We could understand this passage as narrowly addressing a certain kind of prospective convert, or we could interpret it more broadly to teach valuable lessons about how to receive other people whose attitudes are not always what we would hope they might be.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.