The history of Hillel and the Hillel of history: The Glyphs and Blips of Faith

In my previous post Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation, I discussed David Stern’s view of textual interpretation, where he said: “The very nature of midrash …has now come to epitomize …a discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired, a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash… interpretation [is seen] as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention” (My italics and emphasis).

The upshot: Get shot of “original authorial intention.” Instead “extend a text’s meanings,” stretch what (we can’t be sure) really happened. I suggest that this postmodern idea is back to front. What is really happening is that the text (we’re talking of religious texts here) is considered an extension of the self. Reconstructionist Judaism is a good example.

Here is Rabbi Lester Bronstein, a Reconstructionist Jew (in his crash course on Reconstructionist Judaism:

In this system, God does not choose the Jews to be performers of the commandments. Rather, the Jews choose to be called by God by means of a vast network of sacred acts (mitzvot) ranging from balancing work and rest (Shabbat), to establishing courts and laws, to sexual fidelity, filial respect, medical ethics and the rhythms of the seasons. (Hence, asher ker’vanu la’avodato, “who has called us to your service.”) Paradoxically, it is the mitzvot that keep us Jewish, but which simultaneously attune us to the greater universe of which we are a tiny part.”

In Reconstructionism, God is not the supernatural personal being of the Torah, with a mind, a will, who loves, who judges, and so forth, but is a transcendent power, which evolves. Mordecai Kaplan claimed a continuity between traditional Judaism (where the Torah is a historical document that records the relationship between God and His people). I don’t see such a continuity between the personal God of Moses and the transcendent process of Kaplan or what Rabbi Bronstein has described as Reconstructionism, which I am pretty sure is a faithful description of it.

In Reconstructionist Judaism, there is much Reconstructionism but little Judaism. There is hardly anything in less-than-a-century-old reconstructionist Judaism that represents Judaism that has existed for more than 3000 years, and continues to exist among those who have been set apart (for God) from the myriads of Jews that make up the bulk of the Jewish people. And reconstructionist Rabbis know that “set apart” (Kadash) is a synonym for holy. The Torah is set apart from the world; it is in the world, but not of the world. Where have I come across this before? “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17). 

What does Rabbi Bronstein mean by “the Jews choose to be called by God?” It can only mean that God didn’t choose the Jews, the Jews chose God. Why did they choose God? They chose Him because they wanted Him to choose them. What do they want from God, I mean from themselves? A reconstruction of society that cherishes democratic values.

Reconstructionism cuts the Torah cloth to fit its modern Jewish coat, which wants to fit with the non-Jewish culture of which it is a part. “”Reconstructionist Judaism is a progressive, contemporary approach to Jewish life which integrates a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life…. Today, Judaism faces [this] challenge: after centuries of living in restricted, hierarchical societies, how do we make Judaism meaningful in an open, democratic environment? ” (Shir Chadash; see also The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism).

The traditional Jewish view is very different. It is this: Jews know of the Talmudic sages because they can trace themselves back to the specific sages identified in the Talmud and further back to the Mosaic revelation at Sinai. 

Regarding the reconstructionist idea of cutting one’s cloth to suit one’s coat, where does the famous sage Rabbi Hillel fit into this reconstructionist model. He doesn’t – in any shape or form, for he believed that God, and not himself is the tailor, and so, he, like all traditional |Jews, cut his coat to suit the Torah’s cloth. Well, that’s the historical Hillel anyhow.

Judaism considers Hillel to be the founder of a very important school of study., which determined the shape of traditional |Judaism. Hillel, writes the Jewish Encylopedia,  was a “[d]octor of the Law at Jerusalem in the time of King Herod; founder of the school called after him, and ancestor of the patriarchs who stood at the head of Palestinian Judaism till about the fifth century of the common era. Hillel was a Babylonian by birth and, according to a later tradition, belonged to the family of David…. Nothing definite, however, is known concerning his origin, nor is he anywhere called by his father’s name, which may perhaps have been Gamaliel.”

Jews who believe in the divine inspiration of extra-biblical traditions (the Oral Law) would never ever ask Did Rabbi Hillel really exist?” Jacob Neusner, in contrast, the most prolific commentator on Talmudic literature, tries to find a middle ground between, on the one hand, what he considers to be a dubious “history of Hillel” and the traditional divine inspiration view.

(Quotations of Neusner are from conclusion to the chapter, “A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in his “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity, pp. 77-88).

If this middle ground is neither an historical (temporal, earthly) space nor a religious (eternal, heavenly) space, what on earth is it? What kind of discourse could possibly exist in the chasm between the historical record (the “history of Hillel”) and divine revelation? Dark natter? Perhaps Jacob Neusner can lead us out of the impasse by helping us “reflect upon the rather alien and odd materials about Hillel.” One thing we “will recognise (if not immediately) is that they were made up or constructed for some purpose other than to preserve the very words Hillel had spoken, the very deeds he had done” (Italics added).

What is, and always was, asks Neusner, the Jewish interest in Hillel? One thing only: no one could tell stories like he could; he was a “model story-teller.” (Charlton “Moses” Cheston loved the Bible; it had such wonderful stories, he said). 

Where I see a chasm between “the history of Hillel” and divine revelation, Neusner, like a good reconstructionist (though he would perhaps not like the label) believes he sees solid ground; a middle solid ground: “the Hillel of history.” 

If we ask not about the historical Hillel’ but about the Hillel of history, that is, about how Hillel lived on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism, we get exact and reliable answers. Every story then is a fact. It testifies to what people later thought Hillel had said and done. It tells us then about the things rabbis maintained all Jews should say and do: the model of virtue, the mode of correct reasoning alike. Hillel then is: he endures. He never dies. He is the teacher, he is the paradigm. That is why the stories reach us. That, it seems to me, stands then for the purpose for which the stories were made up and preserved. They are documents of culture, glyphs of faith (My italics).

What does Nuesner mean by “glyphs of faith?” What’s a glyph? It’s as easy as PIE.


1727, “ornamental groove in architecture,” from Fr. glyphe (1701), from Gk. glyphe “a carving,” from glyphein “to hollow out, cut out with a knife, engrave, carve,” from PIE (Prot-Indo_European) base *gleubh- “to cut, slice” (cf. L. glubere “to peel, shell, strip,” O.E. cleofan “to cleave”). Meaning “sculpted mark or symbol” (as in heiroglyph) is from 1825, glyph ( a diacritic is a glyph, even if (like a cedilla in Spanish or French).

So, faith helps us out of our depression by making us feel groovy. And if you want to make a sacred (hiero) cow of it , you end up with a hieroglyphic faith. 

Neusner asks:

l wonder, however, whether in the context of faith-whether concerning Moses, Jesus,or Muhammad, such a thing as “critical history” in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? (p. 88. See Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation).

Yep, who’s going to be there for me in the dark night of my soul? My Bible stories! No; my blips of faith.

2 thoughts on “The history of Hillel and the Hillel of history: The Glyphs and Blips of Faith

  1. Pingback: Love your neighbor as yourself « Inspirations
  2. Pingback: Love Your Neighbour as Yourself? | Impressions

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