Hillel and Personal Ethics
Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:13
הוא היה אומר אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתי:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? [Translation by HillelandPanim]
Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Examine this Mishna piece by piece. What is Hillel saying?
2. What is the overall guiding moral and ethical principle of Hillel’s teaching?
3. How can we translate this teaching into our social justice work today?

1. Examine this Mishna piece by piece. What is Hillel saying?
In the first phrase, Hillel validates a strong sense of self-worth, teaching that it is a prerequisite to earn the support of others. The next phrase communicates the idea that someone who is exclusively self-focused is not exhibiting the defining trait of humanity (i.e., an outward sense of responsibility). Hillel challenges us: If I am “only for myself,” “What am I?”
a. How does one’s attitude about him/herself affect how others feel about him/her? What is the relationship between people’s commitment to others and their sense of self-worth?
b. How does the last question that Hillel asks relate to the first two?
c. How does this statement negotiate the tension between the particular (me) vs. universal (others)?
2. Do you agree with this teaching? All of it? Some of it?
This text brings into focus the universal/particular tension that most modern Jews wrestle with today. Hillel clearly embraces both poles of this tension, but prioritizes them. The participants’ responses to this text will serve as a window into their own attitudes.
3. Do you agree with the following statement? “If I am not for my people, who will be? But if I am only for my people, what am I? And if not now, when?”
a. For whom might this saying be true?
b. Describe a situation when you would choose to be “for your people.”
c. Describe a situation when a person of another ethnicity might choose to be “for his people.”
d. How do you feel about such behavior? Is such behavior selfish? Righteous? American? Un-American?

The variation on Hillel’s statement and the questions which follow are presented as an experiment. If participants agree with Hillel on a personal level, will they agree on an ethnic, communal, peoplehood-level? This might raise fascinating issues on the place of “peoplehood” in the modern world. If so, mine the discussion and explore the foundation and source of values of such attitudes.
Developed by Hillel and Panim.