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Jesus, Hillel and Other Religious Teachers

February 27, 2013

If you have ever lived in a city with a large Jewish population, sooner or later you will come across a Jewish center, charity or, perhaps, a campus outreach that bears the name of Hillel, yet few Christians have the slightest idea of who he was or when he lived.  Yet it is important for us to know. He was one of the two most influential rabbis during Jesus’ time and died sometime before Jesus began his ministry. He died sometime between 10 and 20AD. Tradition suggests that he was  120 when he died although his exact year of birth is not known with certainty. It is possible that Jesus met him and his rival, Shammai, when he went to the temple at twelve.

Hillel was born in Babylon and came to Jerusalem to study the Torah – the Law. He was a woodcutter and poor, but was well-liked and when he was unable to pay his school fees, school fees were abolished in his honor. He would become the father of one of the two schools of rabbis that would dominate Judaism for centuries- the Beit Hillel (beit=beth=house(of)). He became the president of the Sanhedrin. The vice president was Shammai, his rival and the founder of the Beit Shammai. Historically, in Judaism, Orthodox rabbis have been identified as Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai. (Shammai died either just before or after Jesus was crucified).

The difference between the two men is generally one of strictness with regard to the keeping of the Law. Hillel was very strict in the main, but believed in practicality. Shammai thought that Hillel was far too lax.

In some cases, it is possible to tell whose disciples Jesus is talking to, Hillel’s or Shammai’s, though this is not possible in most cases. Yet, there is one case where Jesus speaks to the heart of the principles of the Beit Hillel. For Hillel, when asked to give the principal of the moral law in one sentence, said, “What you would not have someone else do to you, do not do to him.”

Jesus plainly contradicted him and you can be sure that the Pharisees and Saduccees caught it immediately and so did Jesus’ disciples. So did many of the other people who were there to hear Jesus. It is found, of course, in the so-called Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Whatever you would that others do to you, do to them.”

Some refer to what Jesus said as the Golden Rule. Some call what Hillel said the Silver Rule. The first compels action, the second does not. The first says that you should actively seek for others what you would want yourself. The second says you should avoid doing to others what would hurt others. It is certainly commendable, but it is possible to just hide yourself away from others, live in a faraway cave and meet its requirements. Run away from everybody else and you cannot hurt  them. The Essenes, who are believed to have written the Dead Sea scrolls did just that.

Certainly, the Silver Rue is commendable and can be found in all the great religions of the world-Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Ba’hai and many others and no one who is a Christian would disagree with it, but it is not the Golden Rule. It is not proactive.

I am writing this because you frequently hear people say that all religions have the Golden Rule, so what is so special about Christianity? It is frequently used by many of today’s loudest atheists. Well, all religions don’t and it is precisely because of Jesus words that orphanages, hospitals and colleges and universities first appear in the Western world. Even things that we consider quite secular like hotels and modern inns are a product of Christian proactivism( ancient inns consisted of a single large room where everyone slept together without any privacy). Today we see well-digging, water purification, radio and television communication in the third world as things that have been done by Christians in remote places. In some cases, people of other religions have gotten on board, but the impetus has begun with people who have faith in Jesus Christ.

We who are Christ’s understand that this all has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals. But even those who disagree, must concede that me-too-ism cannot take root until there is an original. Jesus Christ makes the originators original.

Doubtless there are other things that other people can speak of that come from this impulse within the church, but what we hear so often today, especially in the academic community, is about all the wars that were started in the name of Christ, as if I decided to war, burn and pillage in the name of Switzerland and called myself Swiss, that that would make me Swiss.

In all of this, we need to decide, those of us who are a part of the Christian family, to approach the world we live in with Jesus’ persective and not our own, to find where we belong and what we should be doing, not only in directly reaching the lost, but in ways that alleviate the suffering that is in the world through sin., starting with our own and reaching out to this dying world.


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