Thursday, May 01, 2014
The PC Hijacking of Hillel the Elder
The PC Hijacking of Hillel the Elder
By Steven Plaut
I have long had a pet peeve about the hijacking of the words of Hillel the Elder (renowned first century BCE sage) by the assimilationist liberals and leftists in the United States and in Israel. The simple fact of the matter is that, with the exception of "Tikkun Olam," there is nothing in all of Judaism that is so intentionally distorted and manipulated by the assimilationist liberals and Political Correctness hucksters, misappropriated by them to serve as supposed Judaic basis for their pseudo-theology of "Political Liberalism as Judaism." A simple Google search points to around 69,000 web pages that allege that the real meaning of the proclamations of Hillel is that Jews must pursue "social justice" and the wellbeing of the underprivileged in general society. Of these, around 17,500 web pages explicitly misuse the term "Tikkun Olam" as part of their misinterpretation of Hillel. In their "politically-correct" pseudo-theology, "Tikkun Olam" is defined as pursuit of fashionable liberal political trendiness.
To remind you, there are actually several sets of proclamations by Hillel in the tractate "Sayings of the Fathers," which is an unusual and intriguing segment of the Talmud that contains folk wisdom, bons mots, and pithy short sayings and proverbs attributed to the early sages in Mishnaic and Talmudic literature. The particular statement by Hillel that is recited with obsession by the assimilationist liberals (I prefer to call them asslibs, by the way) is this: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?; If I AM for myself, then what am I?; and, If not now, then when?" Curiously, the assimilationist liberals ignore the proverb that follows a few lines after this, in which Hillel tells the skull and soul of a drowned man that he was condemned to drowning because in his lifetime he himself had caused others to be drowned. This bit of capital punishment as comeuppance is something the liberals prefer that we not read.
So just what does the proclamation of Hillel above really mean? Well, if you were to consult any of those web pages I mentioned above or ask the various representatives of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative synagogue movements (I use the term "Reconstructionist synagogue" in the loosest possible sense), then you will be told that the Hillel proverb is a call for the Jewish community to adopt the causes and interests of the "underprivileged" as its own. Hillel, they insist, is demanding that the Jews stop being insular and get out and serve the needs of the "Other." Promoting and protecting the "Other" is thus the true calling for practitioners of Judaism.
Hillel tells Jews in the first segment of the three-sentence saying that they must be for themselves, and the asslimilationists would prefer that Jews simply skip over this segment as fast as possible in order to get to the second segment. In that second segment, or so the liberals insist, Hillel is telling Jews that if they are ONLY for other Jews and not for other groups, then what in the world are they. Indeed, the word ONLY, which does not appear in the Talmudic text, is often inserted by the liberals here. The third segment about "If not now, then when?" is interpreted as an admonition for Jews to get cracking and take up the causes of "The Other" with a sense of urgency.
So what exactly are we to make of all this?
Let us begin by noting that the assimilationist liberals are simply wrong when they interpret the Hillel sayings as calls upon the Jewish community as a whole or upon the Jewish people as a whole to do anything at all. This is a complete fabrication by the liberals and is not present at all in the text. The Hillel admonitions are not addressing the Jewish PEOPLE as a whole at all, but rather are addressed to Jewish individuals. Hillel's statements do not serve as policy guidelines or principles for the community about anything. Thus the PC-hijacked assimilationist interpretation of these is simply wrong. Hillel is NOT saying to the Jewish PEOPLE that, while they may legitimately place their own narrow interests ahead of other causes, they must not abandon the need to defend the downtrodden, the underprivileged, the "Other." Hillel is not addressing the community at all about anything. Certainly not about any non-Jewish "Other."
As is clear from reading the text and from all commentaries on the tractate, Hillel is addressing individual Jews. Each individual Jew is of course entitled to place his own interests ahead of those of others. He is also expected to remain a member and part of the community as a whole (as Hillel himself says in a different verse), the Jewish community. Nothing at all here points to any expectation that Jews should adopt or even take cognizance of the interests of non-Jewish communities, and certainly nothing suggests that they elevate these interests to parity with Jewish self-interests. Non-Jewish communities are simply not being discussed (here, or anywhere else in the tractate). Hence, even if we interpret Hillel's comments as admonitions about which interests must be protected and pursued, then - at most - Hillel is calling upon Jews to maintain their presence and membership within their Jewish community.
In much the same way, while the Torah and Talmud are filled with admonitions for Jews to give charity or tzedakah, NOWHERE IS THIS A CALL FOR JEWS TO TRANSFER WEALTH AND RESOURCES TO THE UNDERPRIVILEGED OF THE NON-JEWISH NATIONS. It is a "social justice" mechanism that is intended as a safety net for underprivileged Jews within the Jewish community, not a welfare mechanism for underprivileged non-Jews. And even here, self-interest trumps "social justice." For example, the "tithe for the poor" that Jewish farmers are commanded to grant in two years out of seven, the tithe made to Levites, and the gifts made to Kohanim (priests) may all be given to relatives and friends of the donor. This is not considered nepotism, and in fact is looked upon FAVORABLY! It is considered to be a continuance of the admonition that one is expected to watch out for oneself (and one's close relatives and friends) AHEAD of the general community of Jews. And the interests of non-Jews are simply not a factor that Jews are commanded to consider at all (although they may do so voluntarily if they so wish).
But no less objectionable in the assimilationist liberal misinterpretation of Hillel is the assumption that the sayings are referring to interests at all. According to Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, a 15th and early 16th century sage from Italy, whose commentary on the Sayings of the Fathers is considered authoritative and popular, Hillel is not speaking at all about anyone's interests, neither self-interests nor community interests. Rabbi Ovadiah says that Hillel simply means this: if you do not make yourself worthy of God's approval by means of your own deeds and actions, then who can make you worthy? And if you DO make yourself worthy by your actions, then "What are You?," meaning what have you really accomplished when compared with the total set of obligations and expectations that God has imposed upon you? What do your humble achievements count when placed in the context of what you are really expected to accomplish? And the last part of the saying, "If not now, then when?" is referring to your actions in this world. If you do not make yourself worthy of God during this lifetime on earth, then when exactly do you think you will be able to do so? Most other commentators make pretty much the same points and have a similar "take" on Hillel's words.
Rabbi Ovadiah's comments suffice for us to see that the presumption that Hillel is even speaking about interest at all is highly dubious. The "asslib" dogma that holds that Hillel is calling upon Jews to adopt the political agendas of black Americans, Hispanics, Tibetans, and Palestinians is beyond the ridiculous.
Yet for 60 years, the assimilationist liberals have conjured up Hillel as the pseudo-theological underpinnings for their dogma, which insists that all of Judaism is the pursuit of liberal political trendiness. The misinterpretation of Hillel is also growing in Israel, where journalistic leftists like to cite the Hillel sayings as basis for the need for Israel to grant the "Palestinians" lands and statehood. After all, if we are ONLY for our own interests and not for the interests of "The Other," then what are we? And if not now, then when will the "Palestinians" be "liberated"?
Finally, we can see the effects of the intentional distortion of the sayings of Hillel in other arenas as well. As you know, the main Jewish presence on most North American campuses is in the form of the "Hillel House." The choice of the name for these houses no doubt is based upon the veneration for the rulings, sayings, and wisdom of Hillel the Elder and his school of followers. And as you also know, many of these Hillel Houses are today being converted into anti-Israel propaganda centers by Jewish assimilationsist campus leftists. Those are the people who insist that Hillel wants Jews to place the interests of "The Other" at the top of their agendas, certainly well ahead of Jerusalem. Can there be anything more dishonoring of Hillel?