Now that the context and character of this/these stories has/have been set out, the interpretations of the stories themselves becomes much more focused. Here’s an English translation (Soncino) of the text under discussion (From ‘Our Rabbis taught on 31a).
In each of these stories, the potential ger is motivated to find his way ‘under the wings of the Shechinah’, but is also held back by certain barriers. Whereas Shammai disqualifies each for not having what it takes, Hillel works with the individual until the barriers are overcome.
The following is my own attempt to make literary and religious sense out of each episode, and shouldn’t be read as an attempt to define the authoritative meaning of the texts. If my readings seem somewhat autobiographical, well, it’s to be expected:
- Why would a person coming in off the street ask “How many Torahs/Teachings do you have?”? Furthermore, if one of us were asked such a question, how many of us would answer like Shammai, and how many would go with the more intuitive answer of “One”? It seems that he’s looking for something authoritative. THE Truth. The Singular, Unadulterated, Immaculate Word of God. Shammai makes it clear to him that there’s really no such thing in Judaism. Sure, we have such a text, but that text isn’t the sole basis for Jewish worship. The Gentile only wishes to encounter the Word directly, and have no truck with anything that might have been corrupted by human fallibility. Hillel’s lesson is less about the authority of the Oral Law and more about the need to trust and rely on fellow human beings in the search for religious meaning; there is no encounter with God, or with His Truth, which is not filtered through human beings. Nevertheless, Hillel recognized that the Gentile’s impulse was good, though immature.
- The second, and probably most famous of these episodes, involves the Gentile who asks to be taught the Torah while he stands on one foot. The expression ‘al regel achat’ has entered modern Hebrew from this narrative as an expression of extreme brevity. What’s this fellow looking for? He wants to learn the whole Torah, but as he stands on one foot. He’s tougher to profile, as this can be the result of a number of factors and a combination thereof. Perhaps he’s simply a shallow thinker, who needs a slogan, a bumper sticker. Perhaps he knows that he’s got no attention span to sit and learn. Perhaps, beyond both of these, stands an ‘activist’. He’s a ‘doer’, not a ‘learner’, and he needs a slogan that can become his raison d’etre. Shammai and Hillel, we’ll assume, are both aware of the irreducibility of the Torah to mere slogans. Shammai even uses a ‘yardstick’ to drive the person away – an instrument of precision and insistence upon detail – as if his medium is itself his message. Hillel, however, sees someone who is restless and driven and in search of a cause to devote his life to. In a brilliant move, Hillel responds to this ‘activist’ by giving him a ‘passive’ cause, and then encouraged him to explore it further on its own. This guy’s rarin’ to go do ‘Tikkun Olam’ (said with the best American accent) and Hillel throws a monkey wrench into his thinking by suggesting that the Torah’s purposes are fulfilled by what we don’t do as much, if not more, than by what we do, in the human sphere. Must’ve confused the heck out of the guy, putting in position indeed, to continue his studies.
- The third Gentile, I’m convinced, really was Jewish from the outset, because I believe that he had a Jewish mother. He comes in with the attitude of “I can be whatever I want to be, as long as I put my mind to it”. If he’s impressed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the High Preist, and that’s what he wants to do, then by golly he can do it and nobody can tell him otherwise. There are really two issues with this fellow: one is that he doesn’t have the lineage to be the High Preist. The second, which isn’t really addressed by the Gemara, is that his attraction to Judaism is the funky priestly J-bling. Even if the first reason can be overcome, the second issue seems to be a far more serious problem. Cool Chai necklaces isn’t necessarily the best reason to become Jewish. Hillel, however, saw something beyond. The priestly garments and the pomp surrounding their ceremony, is not for the glory of the wearer, rather, for the Glory of God – kavod u-tiferet in the words of the Chumash. The guards at Buckingham Palace – you know, the fellows with the spodeks – are ‘honor gaurds. The ceremony and pomp surrounding their uniforms are not their own glory, but reflect the glory of something much greater than themselves. I think this would be more akin to someone saying that they have ambition to become a baseball player so that they can don the revered Yankee pinstripes. Hillel takes a very sound educational approach: let the learner discover for himself what his own shortcomings are. If one aspires to be a doctor, let them take organic chemistry. It has this amazing ability to weed out the underqualified, more than a heart-to-heart-you-don’t-have-what-it-takes speech. Hillel encourages him. Once he begins studying, he realizes how far away he is. He’s ‘coming with his staff and wallet’. He’s eaten his humble pie. He tells Shammai his chiddush; amazing how with people like this the only way for something to register is for them to learn it on their own. Yet, Hillel, even with this fellow, found a way to bring him under the wings of the Shekhinah.