A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail note from a colleague on an organization's board of directors, a colleague of Sephardic Jewish provenance, in the course of which she quoted well-known lines which she tentatively (but at least correctly) attributed to the Pharisee Rabbi Hillel. Hillel, originally from Babylonia, was famous as an influential exegete and teacher whose later life probably overlapped the childhood of Jesus chronologically. Of course, the lines she cited were the classic lines of Hillel variously rendered, which in Francine Klagsbrun's wonderful "Voices of Wisdom" (1980) are stated "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" When I followed up the source, I learned that this saying is found in the section of the Talmud entitled "The Wisdom of the Fathers" (in Hebrew, Pirke Abot; published separately in Judah Goldin "The Living Talmud. The Wisdom of the Fathers and Its Classical Commentaries", Univ. Chicago Press 1955, p.69-70). Goldin describes the content of the treatise as "a collection of maxims, sayings of the Synagogue Fathers from the Men of the Great Assembly (sometime between the latter half of the fifth and third centuries B.C.) down through descendants of Rabbi Judah the Prince in the third century of the Common Era. These maxims are a record of the Fathers' preoccupations, their emphases and values, and their epigrammatic formulation of reflections on what constitutes God-fearing, civilized conduct and thought." (ibid p.10). The maxims, of course, come with commentary on every sentence and clause. This saying of Hillel is found in the first chapter, preceding those of the more conservative Pharisaic Rabbi Shammai, who flourished during the same period. The conflict between these two rabbis on a few issues, and between their students on further ones, is legendary.
The Talmudic context of the treatise is perhaps surprising. In earlier editions of the Talmud, the treatise in question was placed in the section on jurisprudence or damages, near the end, between the treatise on idolatry and that on decisions. My aged English-language Babylonian Talmud (2nd ed. trans. M.L.Rodkinson, Boston 1918) places it before all of the other treatises on jurisprudence, because it deals with the ethics of life and therefore, in the view of the editor, should be given precedence. Such a location is sometimes not without significance. I was startled recently to realize that the placement of the Talmudic discussion of community charity within the section on the law of partnerships mutely implied an extension of partnership relations to the level of the whole community.
This particular Talmud did me the honor of taking up residence on my shelves about a quarter of a century ago. At that time, when I lived in Iowa City, my friend John Else, a minister of the Disciples of Christ who has subsequently become a distinguished practitioner of microeconomics in the third world, and his Jewish woman friend Nina, found it in a local bookstore, and gave me the first volume for Christmas (!). John and Nina, of course, knew how compulsive I am, and that I could not bear to see such an important set of books split up, so of course I was driven to go buy the other volumes immediately. But John and Nina also made clear that someone who had read as many Greek Christian texts as I had should at least make the acquaintance of the main compilation of the post-Tanakh Jewish legal and doctrinal tradition. Since I had the good fortune to grow up in a time and place in which I found myself in regular contact with a relatively liberal and open Jewish community, in contrast to the relatively conservative and closed Christian community of that time and place, that was a reasonable assumption. I did not, on the other hand, learn to use the Talmud in my youth, as described movingly by Chaim Potok in his novels of Jewish youth of half a century ago ("The Chosen", "The Promise"), so that no doubt I missed much in it and still do so.
The commentary of R. Nathan printed in my Talmud interprets the lines of Hillel in relation to the necessity to reach a reward and do good deeds during life, since after death noone can do these things for one. "For a living dog fareth better than a dead lion" in the words of Ecclesiastes 9:4. Many other sources cited in Goldin's edition (ibid pp.69-70) expand these thoughts in a rich train of contemplation on how one should behave in life, in relation to the need for self-reliance, for the need to act virtuously while one can on the basis of that freedom of action which has been granted by God, for inquiry as to the needs of the day, for going beyond the necessity to take care of one's bodily needs to the obligation to serve the Lord and perfect one's soul. Even if one has striven to do right things oneself, one is also obligated to teach others to do so. And as one goes through life, one should strive in one's youth to acquire good qualities and habits, since they are hard to acquire in old age (Maimonides). Finally, "Let no man say, "Today I am busy with my work; tomorrow I will turn to the task of perfecting myself." Perchance the opportunity will not present itself. And even if it does present itself, that particular day has vanished utterly and an opportunity of serving the Lord has been lost; it can never again be recovered (Rabbi Jonah)." For me, at least, although I must interpret some details metaphorically, that is hard to argue with.
The closest that I have come personally to that world was in 1989 when I visited the synagogues of Prague, as a side visit to a medical meeting held in a city which constitutes a great open-air Baroque museum. One day, a Cincinnati surgeon came back to the meeting with a bewildered report that in the Jewish City of Prague he had seen a synagogue where there was buried a medieval rabbi who had invented a robot. I immediately realized that he had somehow come close to the burial-place of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (c. 1520-1609), known as the Maharal of Prague, said to be the creator of the golem, of which Eli Wiesel has written in a book that is almost as magical as its subject. The golem was a primitive man made of clay, who would do the bidding of his creator, and especially would defend the Jews of Prague in the case of danger of a pogrom. Belief in such creatures was sufficiently widespread at that time that whether a golem would count as the tenth man in the minyan, the quorum for liturgical purposes, was an issue on which there was serious discussion.The golem, however, could not speak, so that at times I have thought that I have spent my life in the search for what distinguishes a human being from a golem.
After the reminder of the resting-place of Rabbi Judah Loew from my colleague from Cincinnati, on the next day that I had an afternoon free from the meetings, I made a tour of the ancient Prague synagogues. I preserve a small album of photographs bought then, to keep fresh the power of my impressions from them. But when I entered the graveyard of the Klaus synagogue, I seemed to be led by some invisible guiding force, around the building to the far end of the synagogue from the entry. There I found the prominent tomb of Rabbi Judah Loew. In its cracks, visitors had inserted written messages to God on pieces of paper, in the belief that the occupant of the tomb would be able to transmit them to His attention on their behalf. And I know that some readers of these lines will doubt that very much, but I do not want to do so.