An old story:
One day long ago in the land of Israel, a non-Jewish man knocks at the door of the great Jewish sage, Hillel, seeking to convert to Judaism as quickly as possible.
“I will become Jewish on the condition that I can complete your course of study while I am ‘standing on one foot.’”
By this point in his life, Hillel — we might imagine — has seen it, and them, all. He has honed his reputation for patience over a lifetime, carefully cultivating a long-suffering love for his fellow human beings, their questions, skepticism, impetuousness, and nonsense.
He converts the man right then and there, promising him his crash course in Judaism after the conversion ceremony, a rather strange reversal of protocol.
“OK, you want me to teach you the essence of Judaism while you are standing on one foot? Here it is: whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
“That’s it?” the man queries him. “Nothing else?” I just have to be avoid doing bad things to others, be a good person?”
“That’s it,” Hillel says, smiling slyly as the man places his lifted foot back on the ground. “That’s the whole point, premise and purpose of the Torah, our holy book. Of course, the rest of the curriculum, the vast storehouse of wisdom which we call Judaism, is the commentary on it. Now, go out there and learn it.”
This is a very ancient, perhaps over-told, story of the Jewish tradition. It folds so many important ideas into itself, that rabbis and teachers of Judaism cannot resist using it to talk about what Judaism is.
To be more accurate, why Judaism is so compelling as a great story of life, love, law, and loyalty.
Of course, Jews who daily live deeply immersed in the many expressions of Jewish principle, practice and peoplehood are already living Hillel’s story. We don’t think about it all the time, and at times out of frustration with its implications, demands, or limitations, we wish we could be living in a different narrative. But we always come back to our rabbi, Hillel, and his non-Jewish student. The story is actually an exaggerative tale whose intent is to praise the legendary patience and wisdom of the great sage. Yet like all great tales, it contains other gems of insight, specifically about what within Judaism is compelling.
First, let’s look at the story’s context.
A non-Jewish man is coming to a rabbi asking him for entrance into his religious community. We know nothing about this man or his motivations, only that he wants to be Jewish and he seems to be in a rush. The other actor in this story who I failed to quote, Hillel’s colleague, Shammai, has already driven the man away after he makes his request. Hillel draws him close through dialogue. He never rejects him, and he also never tells him, “This is the only path for you to choose if you want to live well.” To be compelled is not to be coerced or to be condemned.
Next, let’s look at the story’s main point about the “essence of Judaism.”
Simple without being simplistic, Judaism emphasizes its version of that most universal of all principles, the golden rule, which preceded Jesus’ “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” by at least one hundred years: refrain from doing evil to others.
Then, let’s look at the particularistic corollary to that idea, one which makes Judaism what it is, and not everything else:
Refraining from evil, doing good, being a mensch (the Jewish term for a good person) is the goal that all great religions and philosophies share, or at least should share. So, why go through the hassle of being and “doing “Jewish with its specific, boundary setting identity labels and restrictions? Surely, every wisdom path, religion, and philosophy has something to offer us. Why not just choose from a Chinese menu of world cultures and faiths, pack them into one’s pockets, and live well in the world?
Because choosing a meaningful life implies, in part, making the choice between dilettantism and depth. Ringing Judaism’s major goal of making us good, in an endless series of concentric circles, is the commentary of which Hillel spoke to his conversion student. It comprises millennia of thinking, argument, struggling with God, ideas, and other people, dreaming, hoping, building, weeping, rejoicing. Jews embrace parts of — and all of — this as individuals and as an entire community. We are constantly called to improve our planet, what God has built, and to heal our planet, what God has not stopped humanity from destroying. We Jews are not a religion, we are a people who actively remain a part of the world, while also being apart from the world. We are a great story of a great, never-ending journey.
Finally, let’s look at Hillel’s departing words: go out there and learn.
By exploring the story of Hillel with me, you are doing what Jews have been doing with our great story for millennia: learning it.
Not just accepting it blindly, on faith, but learning it through critical thinking.
Not just reading it as someone else’s account of the world, but learning it through personal application.
Not just drawing it from a book in isolation, but learning it with others, so that we build a community across time and space, one in which ideas, people, values, past, present, future, intersect meaningfully.
Other old stories hold that every Jew, past, present, and future, stood, stands, and will stand at Mount Sinai; where God gave, gives, and will give the world the Ten Commandments; when God made, makes, will make us the Jewish people.
In less paradoxical terms, this great story of Judaism and the Jewish people is always moving, being told and retold, constantly growing. When you learn Judaism, those endless concentric circles of commentary which Hillel introduced to his friend, you become part of this story and it becomes part of you. You shape it and it shapes you. You grow it and it grows you.
If you are thinking about exploring the Judaism of your past in which you were never raised, or never raised well, or in fact raised very well, this story is for you.
If you are struggling with the Judaism of your present which raises disturbing questions for you about yourself and your place in it, this story is for you.
If you are wondering about the potential Judaism of your future with a Jewish partner, in which you would raise Jewish children and bring new life into the Jewish people, this story is for you.
If you are a citizen of the world, but you are not sure you are at home in any of it, and you think Judaism can provide you with an anchor, while avoiding a ball and chain, this story is for you.
Knock on Hillel’s door. It is always open, and we are waiting just behind it.