Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Hillel: If Not Now, When?
Comparisons between Hillel and Jesus (Yeshua) are pretty common. After all, noted Jewish author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin even devoted a chapter to this "couple" in his aforementioned book (and it's not the first time). In fact, one of the reasons I find this book so fascinating is I can see some parallels between my own faith and Telushkin's characterization of Hillel.
However, let's not get too excited. The similarities may not be all that great, especially as you extend the teachings of Yeshua into the mission of Paul. Telushkin writes:
It was perhaps in response to Jesus' emphasis on faith and love, and Paul's decision several decades later to drop the requirement to observe Torah laws, that many Jews came to focus Jewish religiosity on laws, especially ritual laws that most differentiated Jews from Gentiles.While Messianic Jews and Gentiles in the Hebrew Roots movement may not consider this to be a valid statement in relation to their (our) understanding of Paul and the early Messianic faith community, it is certainly the predominant (non-Messianic) Jewish perspective. In fact, all of the comments I've read in this book so far (I haven't finished reading it yet) tend to be at least slightly critical and uncomplimentary of Christianity, and Telushkin says that Yeshua and Hillel were more unalike than they were alike.
However, Telushkin did bring this comparison up for a reason and not solely to discredit Christianity's belief in Yeshua as the Messiah:
But comparisons between Hillel's and Jesus' teachings on a number of issues can be fruitful. For one thing, it is valuable for Christian scholars to bring Hillel into a consideration of Jesus because of his likely influence on that figure at the center of their religion. Jesus was raised as a Jew and grew up among Jews, and Hillel was the most significant religious figure in the Jewish community during Jesus' youth. That Jesus would have been familiar with Hillel - and with some of his more famous teachings - can be assumed.The primary value of a Christian's study of Hillel from Telushkin's viewpoint then, would be to gain a better understanding of the Jewish context and Jewishness of Jesus. Rabbi Telushkin makes another point that speaks (though of course, without intending to) to the current "tension" between Jews and Gentiles in the modern Messianic community. In comparing the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, another classic teacher in Judaism and a contemporary of Hillel, Telushkin says:
Indeed, most of the disputes between Shammai and him (Hillel) and among their disciples were on matters of ritual law. He simply deemed Judaism's ethical demands to be foremost in significance, and it is one of the paradoxes of history that the very power of Hillel's moral teaching, having likely affected Jesus, his disciples, and the religion founded in his name, might have been responsible for provoking an anxiety about those very teachings in Jews who felt threatened by the rise and growing popularity of Christianity - a feeling that intensified after Christianity had done away with the legal structure of the Torah and started to hold Jews accountable for their savior's death.There's much more in this short chapter I could draw from but I want to focus here on what Rabbi Telushkin is saying. Let's isolate part of the quote from above:
..one of the paradoxes of history that the very power of Hillel's moral teaching, having likely affected Jesus, his disciples, and the religion founded in his name, might have been responsible for provoking an anxiety about those very teachings in Jews who felt threatened by the rise and growing popularity of Christianity..This isn't really what's happening between Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic movement today, but it's something similar. There's dynamic tension involved in Gentile Messianics taking on Jewish practices, including praying the Shema, wearing tzitzit, keeping "kosher style" (though in most cases, not Rabbinically kosher), and saying that they are as much "Israel" as the Jewish people. One of the criticisms I hear repeatedly from Messianic Jews is that these Gentiles are threatening the identity of Jews in the movement by taking on board Jewish behaviors and claiming them as their (our) own.
It seems this sort of collision has happened before, at least in part. Hillel, the predominant teacher in the Judaism of his day, was considered "Gentile friendly", at least quite a bit more than his main opponent Shammai. The story of the three converts illustrates how some pretty rude sounding would-be Gentile converts to Judaism approached Shammai with what most of us would consider unreasonable demands to be converted. Shammai predictably, turned them away, running two of the Gentiles off with a measuring rod and insulting the third. By contrast, Hillel shows amazing patience in accepting and actually converting all three Gentiles, seemingly on the Gentiles' terms, but in fact, ultimately on Hillel's.
Rabbi Telushkin points out that in Roman occupied Israel and especially after the destruction of the Second Temple, the apparent parallels between the teachings of Hillel and Jesus, as illustrated in the actions of a growing number of Gentile Christians, may have pointed Judaism towards expressing a religious life by emphasizing ritual acts of Torah. This was done in order to preserve the Jews as a people and as a distinct faith apart from Christianity. Anything Gentile Christians said or did that was similar to what Jews said or did would be considered a threat to Jewish identity and distinctiveness.
As Christianity and Judaism continued to diverge and finally completely separate, that particular threat died down (though throughout history, Gentiles have been threatening Jews in many other ways), but here we are, 20 centuries later, and we've re-entered the same conflict again. To some degree, a very small degree, Telushkin comments on this, too:
But just as many New Testament scholars have been restoring the Jewish context of Jesus, so it seems appropriate for Jews to acknowledge not only that aspects of Jewish culture made their way powerfully into the teachings of Jesus, but that the openness Christianity displays to Gentiles was already comfortably embraced by Hillel long before Jesus had preached his first sermon.Rabbi Telushkin isn't really talking about the Messianic movement nor is he likely to, but he does state that, at this time in history, Christianity (and from a traditional Jewish point of view, everyone in the Messianic movement is a Christian) is acknowledging "the Jewishness of Jesus". He also possibly suggests that Judaism can see the Jewish teachings of Hillel reflected in the words of Jesus.
To the Jews and Gentiles who have faith in Yeshua as our common Messiah and who share devotion to the One God of Israel, can we find a meeting place between our two viewpoints and traditions? I believe so. But we have to learn to understand each other.