One of the most famous passages of the Talmud tells the story of three prospective gerim (converts) who approach Shammai, who rejects them, and then Hillel, who accepts them.
How are we to understand the stories of these three gerim? Do they imply that Hillel would accept anyone who wished to become Jewish? Did he see something in each of these potential gerim? If so, what?
Hillel is clearly the hero of these stories, but what is the relationship between these stories and other passages from the Talmud that seems to take a more Shammai-esque approach? What is the crux of the debate between Hillel and Shammai?
Finally, how is the relationship between halakhah and aggadah expressed in contemporary approaches and policies regarding gerut (conversion)?
With these questions in mind, we can begin.
The question seems strange, and the answer seems even stranger. What answer was the prospective convert seeking? If someone were to ask you how many Torahs there are, would you answer "two" or "one" (or something else)? Why do you think Shammai gave the answer he gave?
Consider the Protestant Reformation and its doctrine of "sola Scriptura", the notion of return to Scripture and the ability of each individual to interpret it on their own. What motivated this return to the text? What were its theological implications? Can we see something of this approach in the words of this prospective ger?
And what of Shammai's reaction? Would we react differently if someone came to convert with an attitude of "I do not trust you"?
Hillel clearly saw something that made him willing to convert this person. What did he see? What of the concerns about not believing that there is an Oral Torah?
With regard to Hillel's response, is he saying that there is no such thing as a "Written Torah" without an "Oral Torah"? Is that correct?
Hillel, in a sense, lied to the convert by mis-teaching the Hebrew alphabet. Was he not taking advantage of the convert's vulnerability and ignorance? Is "rely on me" a safe attitude for converts to have toward rabbis?
This is the most famous of the three stories that appear in this passage: The man who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. What kind of person wants to learn the whole Torah on one foot?
How would you respond if someone asked you to summarize the entire Torah in one tweet? "Hey rabbi! Gimme the Cliff Notes! What's the bumper sticker version of the Torah?" (Note also that the word for "foot" - "regel" - means "rule" in Latin. A "regulum". Perhaps this person wanted the Torah distilled into one overarching principle.)
Shammai (who perhaps now has a bit more sympathy from us) pushes this person away with his "builder's cubit". His yardstick. His measuring stick. His standard. He thought that this candidate doesn't "measure up".
What did Hillel see in this person who wanted the Torah in one tweet?
Perhaps Hillel saw a rebel in search of a cause. An activist. Someone looking for an ethos or credo by which to live life.
And what does Hillel give that person? A credo that is completely passive, and an instruction to learn more.
Should we take Hillel at face value - that this principle is "the entire Torah", and that the rest is interpretation? Or was Hillel answering this person according to his understanding of their motives?
Imagine the scenario. You are a rabbi. One day, someone walks into your office and says they wish to become Jewish. You ask why. They say, "because I really like those 'chai' necklaces. I want to wear one. So make me Jewish." In this third story, someone decides to convert after they hear about the High Priest's bling. Is this a good reason to convert?
Shammai, predictably, rejects this candidate. Hillel accepts him. What did Hillel see? Are there other instances where a uniform is not just about the clothes, but something bigger? The guards at Buckingham Palace? A baseball player?
Eventually, the ger learns that none but someone of priestly pedigree can become High Priest, and he accepts this. He even confronts Shammai for not letting him know. Should Shammai have told him the truth?
In this "recap", Hillel is clearly the good guy, and Shammai is the bad guy. Is that a fair assessment of Shammai? Let's look at a couple of other sources about the personalities of Hillel and Shammai.
Is the difference between Hillel and Shammai one of ideology or one of personality?
What about the difference between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai? Personality or ideology?
I am inclined to think that the personality of the leader is emulated and treated as ideology by disciples.
Do the differences between Hillel and Shammai have a theme? Note that the name "Hillel" is related to Hallel - praise - and "Shammai" can mean "assessor" or "appraiser". Do these distinctions come out in the three Gemaras we have seen?
Having studied these aggadot, we now turn to halakhic material.
This passage contains an outright rejection of any potential convert suspected of ulterior motives: love, gain, power, etc. What is the relationship between this passage and the passages from Shabbat? Does this passage align more with Hillel's approach or with Shammai's approach? Is it possible that the Shabbat passages are a form of self-critique, an expression of discomfort with the Shammai approach that the rabbis themselves espouse?
וההיא דפ"ב דשבת (דף לא.) ההוא דאתא לקמיה דהלל ואמר גיירני ע"מ לעשות כ"ג בטוח היה הלל דסופו לעשות לשם שמים
Tosafot ad loc.
But in the second chapter of Shabbat there is the one who came to Hillel and asked to be converted on condition that he be made high priest. Hillel was certain that it would ultimately be for heaven’s sake.
The Tosafists - one of the most important commentators on the side of every page of Talmud - note the tension between the passage in Yevamot and the passage in Shabbat. How do they harmonize this contradiction? Are there other potential resolutions? Is the assertion, "Hillel was certain that it would ultimately be for heaven's sake," borne out in the text in Shabbat?
אחד איש שנתגייר לשם אשה ואחד אשה שנתגיירה לשם איש ושנתגייר לשם שלחן מלכים ואחד גרי אריות וחלומות כולם גרים
Tur, Yoreh De'ah 268
Whether a man who converts for a woman or a woman who converts for a man, or one who converts for the royal table, or converts because of lions and dreams – they are all converts.
וכתבו שם התוספות: “וההיא דפרק שני…" ומכאן יש ללמוד דהכל לפי ראות עיני בית דין
Beit Yosef ad loc.
And Tosafot write there: “But in the second chapter…” From here we learn that everything accords with the view of the court.
The Tur, or Arba Turim, is one of the great medieval halakhic codes. It codifies the passage in Yevamot and completely neglects the Shabbat passage. After all, there is a general rule that halakhah cannot be derived from aggadah. However, Beit Yosef, Rabbi Joseph Karo's monumental, encyclopedic commentary on the Tur, cites the Tosafot and draws a general conclusion: that everything hinges on what the court sees fit.
What is the meaning of "the court sees fit"? Is this carte blanche to ignore the rules set forth in Yevamot? Is it an acknowledgment that even though rules and guidelines are important, the complexity and diversity of human experience means that the court may exercise discretion in exceptional cases?
This leads to a question with real contemporary implications: How important is it that the court "sees"? What does this say about rabbinical courts that try not to "see"?
וכתבו התוס… הכל לפי ראות עיני הב"ד עכ"ל ב"י
Shakh ad loc.
Tosafot write…everything accords with the view of the court – thus states Beit Yosef.
Although R. Karo cites the Tosafot in Beit Yosef, in Shulhan Arukh - written by the same author - this important element of discretion is left out. It is reintroduced by Shakh, one of the major commentators in the margins of the page.
This series of sources would have a striking visual component if we saw them in printed books. Three sources - the Talmud, the Tur, and Shulhan Arukh - cite the view that converts with ulterior motives are not accepted. In all three cases, a commentator in the margin - the Tosafists, Beit Yosef, and Shakh - complicate this ruling by introducing an element of discretion.
The main text follows the Yevamot passage and reflects the Shammai approach. The commentary - present, but in the margins - reflects the Hillel approach. The aggadic passages about Hillel "sneak" into halakhic discourse and complicate it by noting that real-life situations can't always be measured easily. This is a function of aggadah more generally. In this case, the tension between halakhah and aggadah reflects the difference between Hillel's disposition and Shammai's disposition and finds expression on the very pages of the texts. The central, block texts take a Shammai approach, while the commentaries, off to the side, smaller and in Rashi script, introduce the Hillel approach.
Let us conclude by considering the state of conversion today. A great deal has been said and written about "higher" and "lower" conversion standards, with those who espouse lower standards claiming Hillel's mantle. But is Hillel really a "lower" standard? Isn't it possible that those who favor standards, whether high or low, agree with Shammai that rabbis should be using yardsticks, and merely disagree about the correct length of the yardstick? Wouldn't Hillel's approach be that there is no such thing as a conversion course and no such thing as standards - but rather each individual is taught based on what makes them tick? Is a Hillel approach even feasible on a large scale?
In Israel today, conversion is state-run, which means that it has taken on many of the features of modern, bureaucratic government. Is that more conducive to a Hillel approach or a Shammai approach? Is there any way to synthesize the approaches of Hillel and Shammai, to obtain the best of both worlds?