Hillel and Shammai and the Moslem World

The Torah portion this week is filled with all sorts of stories.  In fact, here are all the stories in this parasha:

  • Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. God blesses him. Jacob names the place Bethel. (28:10-22)
  • Jacob works seven years in order to marry Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. (29:16-25)
  • Jacob marries Rachel but only after having to commit himself to seven more years of working for Laban. (29:26-30)
  • Leah, Rachel, and their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, give birth to eleven sons and one daughter. (29:31-30:24)
  • Jacob and his family leave Laban’s household with great wealth. (31:1-32:3)


Let’s focus on one part of the parasha.   Here is the text I want to focus on:


After his famous dream, Jacob went toward Haran and the text tells us:


Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.

2 There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large.

3 When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well.

4 Jacob said to them, “My friends, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.”

5 He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “Yes, we do.”

6 He continued, “Is he well?” They answered, “Yes, he is; and there is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock.”

7 He said, “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.”

8 But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.”

9 While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess.

10 And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban.

11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears.


Why would Jacob kiss Rachel and then break into tears?

Not surprisingly, the Midrash has an answer.  It teach us that Esau’s son, Eliphaz was given the task to chase Jacob and kill him.  Esau – and, by extension, Eliphaz – were Jacob’s brother and nephew and Esau was Jacob’s full-time rival from whom he stole the birthright.  There was a lot of enmity between them.  And so knowing that Jacob was out in the open, Esau sent his son to kill Jacob.

But Eliphaz knew that such a command was immoral and so was conflicted.  Should he obey his father or a greater moral?  The Midrash tells us that Eliphaz knew the Talmudic dictum that, ‘A pauper is like a dead person.’  And so, to consider Jacob ‘dead’ – he took all of his wealth that he brought to Haran and, by impoverishing him, made him ‘dead.’  Jacob cried because the wealth that he had brought for the bride-price would force him to work – ultimately for 21 years – before he could leave Haran with his two wives after working to pay off the ‘bride price.’

There is a lesson here and it revolves around Eliphaz.  Eliphaz was a mixture of light and darkness. The lightness was the honor he gave to his father.  The darkness was the command to ambush his uncle.  That he found a way to symbolically honor his father’s wishes testifies to his cleverness.  But the darkness and the light still remain.

Our Sages knew this problem well.  When someone is led astray by the text, they are often bound to do terrible and horrific things.  In the Talmud (b. Shabbat 88b) the Torah is compared to a medicine in the right hands.  It supports.  It heals.  It offers comfort.  But if used improperly, it poisons and kills.  The text become the poison.

This past week’s events in Paris show us exactly that.  The Moslem world has its fill of Moslems who take the Koran literally.  They say that if you don’t follow the Koran exactly, you are not a Moslem and taking the Koran literally means killing everyone who is not a Moslem as they interpret it.  Their words, not mine.  That is why they have no problem burning, beheading and exterminating.  It is the most vile expression of religious chauvinism on the face of the Earth today.

Jews went through the same period, I am sure.  Jews who take the Torah literally, and only the Torah, are wont to do exactly the same thing.  But Jewish scholarship evolved in a completely different way.  We created a system of ethics and morality through interpretation that, in great measure, was a conscious effort to move away from the harshness of literal Torah interpretation.  Over time, the literal Torah was seen as the foundation stone of Judaism but not the be-all and end-all.  That is illustrated in this wonderful story from the Talmud in discussing the differences between Hillel and Shammai:

“On another occasion it happened that a certain non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, “I will convert to Judaism, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai chased him away with the builder’s tool that was in his hand. He came before Hillel and said to him, “Convert me.” Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

Shammai was absolutely correct – absolutely.  No one can learn the Torah while standing on one foot.  That is why he chased him away with a ruler.  But Hillel had a different perspective.  The Torah is first and foremost about love and respect, honor and seeing God in the face of another.  It is the House of Hillel – Hillel’s students and its followers – who always prevail in the Talmudic arguments (with a couple of exceptions).  That is the way Judaism has flowed.  That is why Jews have never been suicide bombers or beheaded their enemies in every era after the events of 2 Kings in the Bible, the most violent period of Jewish history.

The Moslem world has its share of Hillels to be sure and they need to be heard and supported.  But it also has too many Shammais.  These are the voices that are heard in every massacre, in every beheading and in every violent act uttered in the name of Islam.  And it is Islam in the same way that Shammai also taught Judaism.  The problem in the Moslem world is that far too many of them – in the MidEast and in the West – are still stuck in the 7th Century.  The Islamic intellectual Renaissance has not yet begun in earnest.  And, until that happens, it is the Shammais of the Islamic world which will determine how the rest of the world sees Islam.  That is the great tragedy of the world of Islam and non-Muslims and well as Hillel-Muslims are paying the price by letting the Shammai-Muslims set the agenda.

The School of Hillel won the Jewish intellectual struggle because Jews saw all people in the image of God.  Shammai Muslims see all people as infidels and those Moslems are the sword of God.  Big difference.  And until the Hillel Muslims start to teach love and respect and its intellectual leadership stops its 7th Century literal interpretations and fighting wars from the 8th and 11th Century, these events will go on.  The West grew mature because of the contribution of Hillel Jews.  The Islamic world has yet to embrace it.

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