Hillel and Jesus, Reflections

We can benefit from pondering Rabbi Telushkin’s discussion on the differences between Hillel and Jesus in his book on Hillel, which are really his views on the differences between Christianity and Judaism.  IMHO these differences are more cultural than spiritual, spiritually these are differences in emphasis.

One major difference is while Jesus places a great emphasis on prayer, Hillel emphasizes studying the Torah.  “For Hillel, study is essential for knowing and fulfilling your religious obligations, because virtue is not achieved through good intentions alone.”[1]

You cannot really say that Judaism does not believe in prayer because any student who studies the Torah knows that we are commanded by the Law to pray daily the Shema from Scripture:

“The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”[2]

“If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—  then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill.  Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

You shall put the words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.”[3]

“The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.  You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.  So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God.  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”[4]

Scriptures exhort us to pray without ceasing, to hold our thoughts captive to the Lord, so studying the Torah and Scriptures with a devout heart is also a form of prayer.  The Shema exhorts us to always remember the Words of the Lord in our daily lives, and that our beliefs are not merely private but also public.  The Gospels exhort us, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”[5]

Early Christianity treasured the Gospels and Epistles of the Apostles that were eventually canonized in the New Testament, and there is a Christian tradition of studying the teachings of the Church Fathers, so you cannot say that Christianity denigrates studying.  Jesus’ emphasis on prayer is practical, few in the early Church were literate, but everyone can and should pray.

Rabbi Telushkin lists of difference includes:

“Jesus forgives all sins.  In contrast, traditional Jewish theology teaches that not even God Himself forgives all sins, only those sins committed against Him alone.  As the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches, ‘The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins committed against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”[6]

There is not a real difference, there is an important teaching that we often forget in the Sermon on the Mount: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”[7]

Also, Rabbi Telushkin tells us, “Jesus was an ardent pacifist and commanded his followers to love their oppressor. . . In contrast, Judaism demands that the wicked be offered powerful resistance.”[8]

He misreads this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[9]

Judaism does not teach that you should hate your enemy, the plain meaning of “you have heard that it was said” is that this was a common misconception people had of the teachings of the Torah.

Then Rabbi Telushkin says, “What the Torah and later biblical writings insist on is justice, not love, towards one’s enemies.  For example, if you see your neighbor’s donkey lying down under its burden, you are commanded to help him raise his animal (Exodus 23:5), and if your enemy is hungry, you must feed him (Proverbs 25:31).”  This sounds like the beginning of love to me.

Also, Rabbi Telushkin tells us, “Jesus claimed that people can come to God only through Him, ‘No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to who the Son chooses to reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27).”[10]

There is an often quoted counter verse in Romans, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”[11]

There is a tension between these two verses, and this debate has continued in Vatican II, which concluded people of other faiths can attain salvation through the grace of God.  We will discuss this in future blogs.

[1] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” (New York: Schocken Books of Random House, 2010) pp. 132-135.

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+6%3A4-9&version=NRSVCE

[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+11%3A13-21&version=NRSVCE

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+15%3A37-41&version=NRSVCE

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+8%3A38&version=NRSVCE

[6] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” pp. 135-136.

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+5%3A23-24&version=NRSVCE

[8] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” p. 136.

[9] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+5&version=NRSVCE

[10] Joseph Telushkin, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?,” pp. 136-137.

[11] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=romans+2%3A14-16&version=NRSVCE

About Bruce Strom 127 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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