Interested in Judaism? Choose the Hillel way

The Talmud relates that three non-Jews once discussed their path to Judaism; and how a key role was a rabbi’s willingness to take a chance and welcome a problematic non-Jew. The importance off a willingness to take a chance with a potential Ger became apparent to me when for two months in the fall of 2010, I helped out at a Reform Progressive congregation in Warsaw; Beit Warszawa.

In the last decade thousands of people in Poland have discovered one or more Jews among their ancestors. Hundreds of them have sought out a rabbi to help them rediscover the Jewish community and the Jewish religion. Many of these people report that some rabbis and their followers do not welcome them or encourage them to join the Jewish community. If their mother’s mother was Jewish, and they can prove it, they have an easier entrance. But if the Jews are on the father’s side, or if they cannot prove their mother’s oral evidence with written documents from before the war, they will not have an easy time entering the Jewish community. This is the case it they go to most Orthodox Rabbis, or in Poland if they go to the official Jewish Gemeiner, which is controlled by an Orthodox Rabbi.

Poles who go to a Reform or Progressive Rabbi or to a Reform congregation in Warsaw or in Krakow find a much warmer welcome than with most Orthodox Rabbis, but attitudes towards problematic non-Jews also differ among Reform Rabbis. The difference between the two kinds of rabbinic attitudes go back two thousand years, to two rabbis who lived a generation before Jesus: Hillel and Shammai. Traces of these Hillel and Shamai attitudes can still be found in rabbis today; even among Reform Rabbis, and even in North America.

Hillel and Shammai offered two very different approaches to potential converts. Should we reject people who wish to convert quickly, or on their own terms, or for reasons that are not idealistic? Three such cases are related in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a). The different responses of Hillel and Shammai still provide examples that influence rabbis 2,000 years later.

The Talmud informs us about three converts to Judaism who met one day and exchange accounts of their conversion experience. Each of them, it turns out, had first approached Shammai with their special conditions. Shammai scolded, repulsed, and pushed away all of them (two of them physically). Then they went to Hillel who accepted them, with their special conditions; and converted them. The three converts concluded that “Shammai’s irascibility sought to drive us away from the (Jewish) world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah”. (Shabbat 31a)

Hillel and Shammai exemplify two very different approaches to problematic potential converts. Should rabbis reject people who wish to convert quickly on their own terms, or to convert to a different type of Judaism then that rabbi  practices, or for reasons that are clearly not idealistic? The details of the three individuals cases referred to above are related in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) as follows.

A man once came to Shammai and asked him, “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai  replied, ‘Two; one written and one oral.” “I will believe you about the written Torah but not about the oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me only the written Torah.” Shammai rebuked the man and ordered him to get out.

When the man went to Hillel, Hillel converted him. One day Hillel taught him the alefbet in order; the next day he reversed the order of the letters. “But yesterday you taught me the letters in a different order” he protested. Hillel replied, “See, you have to rely on a teacher to teach you the order of the written letters, in the same way you have to rely on a teacher to teach you the interpretations of the oral Torah.”

Shammai strongly rejects the first potential convert because he sets preconditions about what he will believe. This man has already learned something about the oral Torah and how it differs from the written Torah, Shammai’s reaction is not that different from what an Orthodox rabbi would do today to a potential convert who is honest and says that he or she will observe Shabbat, and Pesach food laws, but  according to Conservative or Sephardic law; not Orthodox Ashkenazy law. Hillel takes a very different path. He respects the man’s honesty, accepts him as a student, and teaches him for conversion. Then, as he teaches him, Hillel shows the man why an oral interpretation from a living teacher is necessary. Acceptance and conversion come first, orthodoxy comes later. Since the Talmud requires that a modest and eager potential convert should be received at once; and need only be taught a few of the major principles and a few of the minor ones (Yevamot 47a-b); it is not necessary for a rabbi (or a convert) to have an all or nothing rule (as the Orthodox imposed in later centuries).

The Talmud relates that on another occasion a man came to Shammai and said, “Convert me, but on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”  Shammai drove him away with the yardstick that he happened to have in his hand. When the man came to Hillel, Hillel said to him, “What you hate, do not do to your fellow human. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

Once again we see the great difference between Shammai and Hillel. Shammai believes that Torah and Judaism must be taught slowly, over a long time. Hillel is a romantic. In today’s terms Hillel knows that while most couples take months, or even years, to make a commitment to marry; some couples fall in love right away, and have no doubts. In Talmudic terms; most people only earn a place in paradise with decades of righteous living, but some people earn it in one day, with one major act. Thus, some people need years of Jewish living to become fully merged into the Jewish community; others fit in right away, because they are not converting, their souls are simply returning home. Hillel sees that this man has his heart and soul in the right place and only needs to feel a warm welcome to call him home. Hillel accepted this potential convert and sent him forth to learn all the details that flow from his desire to be Jewish.

Two decades ago I met a recent Russian immigrant who had started an introduction to Judaism class in Boston. She had to leave the class to move to L.A. with her husband for his new job. She was six months pregnant and wanted to be Jewish before the baby was born, because she was the child of a mixed marriage in the Soviet Union, and she did not want her child to have a similar experience. She told me that at age18 everyone in the USSR had to get an identity card. Since her father was Jewish, and her mother was Russian, the government official told her she could pick either one for her identity card, but she could not change it once it was issued. She said she wanted her identity card to read: Jewish. The official, and then his boss, spent over a half an hour arguing with her that this was a very bad decision. She insisted and it was done. When I heard that story, I told her that in my eyes she had already become Jewish by that act alone. I was ready to convert her next month. I did. And I was at the circumcision of her son two months later. The family joined my congregation, and were members for several years, until they moved to another part of town.

The case of the third potential convert is the most startling,  A non-Jew overhears a school teacher describing to his class the High Priest’s fancy vestments. He decides to convert, so he too, can become a Jewish Priest. He went to Shammai and said, “Convert me on condition that you appoint me as a High Priest.” Shammai drove him away. He went to Hillel, and Hillel did not reject him. Hillel started the man on the path to conversion in spite of his absurd demand, by telling him to study the Torah’s laws relating to the priesthood so he could prepare himself. The new convert did study, and when he realized that even King David could not become a Priest, he returned to Shammai and said that he now knew there was no way that he could become a High Priest. Then he went and blessed Hillel for converting him, even when he had made such an absurd demand. (Shabbat 31a)

This is the most amazing of the three accounts. The first man wanted to convert to a Sadducee view of Judaism i.e. a non Pharisee denomination. This is like asking an Orthodox Rabbi to convert someone to Conservative Judaism. Shammai refuses to do it, but Hillel does convert him and later influences him to accept the Pharisee view. In the second case, Shammai rejects a rapid conversion process. apparently without knowing much about the man and his circumstances. Hillel is more flexible and the outcome justifies his trust in the man.

But in the third case the man has a totally childish and inappropriate motivation for becoming Jewish. How does Hillel justify his decision? We do not know, but he turns out to be right. Maybe this case serves to warn rabbis not to be too quick, or too denominationally narrow minded, in judging the standards of other rabbis. Maybe we should be guided by the Bible’s statement, “Do not be too righteous; or too smart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) The Talmud introduced this whole section with the following statement: “A man should always be as flexible as Hillel, and not as inflexible as Shammai.” This lesson should still be applied by rabbis today whenever they encounter a potential convert, especially a problematic one.  An example of a Talmudic sage who followed Hillel’s guideline concerning problematic potential converts is Rabbi Hiya; who decided to convert a well known harlot who wanted to marry one of his students.

This student of Rabbi Hiya had heard about a harlot in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold coins  for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When, after many days of difficult travel, the lust filled student arrived at the appointed time …the prostitute unclothed herself and sat on a king size bed. The student of Rabbi Hiya joined her on the bed. As he was undressing himself, his talit tzitzit slapped his face. He fell off the bed on to the floor, where he was joined by the woman. “I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”

“I swear,” the student replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is a mitzvah commanded by our God, called tzitzit. Concerning this mitzvah it says, ‘Look at them and remember all the Mitsvot’”. (When I saw the tzitzit I knew I should not do this. Keep the money and let me go.)

“I will not let you go,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah.” He wrote down all she asked for; handed it to her, and left.

The woman sold all her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government (to pay her taxes, or so they would allow her to convert to Judaism), a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — and she proceeded to the school the rabbinical student had named; the Yeshivah of Rabbi Hiya.

“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Hiya, “I would like to convert to Judaism.”

“Perhaps,” Rabbi Hiya responded, “you desire to convert because you want a Jewish man?” The woman took out the piece of paper with the information and told the rabbi what happened. “Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” Rabbi Hiya proclaimed. (Talmud Menahot 44a)

Many Rabbis would push away a woman who wanted to convert because she was interested in a Jewish man. But Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Many Rabbis would push away a woman who had gone astray as a prostitute, but Rabbi Hiya did not push her away. Rabbi Hiya knew that that when the two spies that Joshua sent to Jericho were in danger of arrest, a prostitute named Rahav hid them from the police, and then helped them escape. He probably knew the rabbinic tradition (Pesikta Rabbati 40, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 22, 37), that Joshua later married Rahav, and among her descendants was the prophet Jeremiah. Even if he did not know this tradition,   Rabbi Hiya welcomed a seemingly reformed harlot for herself, and for her potentially righteous descendants.

The examples of Hillel and Rabbi Hiya should guide us today in deciding how to accept people with a blemished past and/or with mixed motives for conversion. When Rabbi Hiya proclaims, “Go and claim that which is rightfully yours.” he asserts that just as every Jew who sins has the right to repent; every non-Jew, even a blemished non-Jew, has the right to convert, and to marry any Jew he or she loves. The account in the Talmud thus concludes, “She ended up marrying the man. The bed which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully.” (Menahot 44a)

I think the Rabbis of today (especially in Israel) should not forget these four examples of Hillel/Hiya attitudes. Let us welcome most people who are potential converts; even if sometimes we have some doubts; even if a few of them fail to work out; and even if a few of them turn out to be annoying irritants that itch (Kiddushin 70b) like a scab; either because they become overly pious Jews, or because they remain blemished, like some Jews born into the Jewish community, still remain blemished after joining a congregation. Their descendants still can be a blessing. As the Midrash teaches, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9).

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.