Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was justifiably proud when his son, Avner, won Israel’s National Bible Quiz in February 2010. That is a hard-fought annual contest, with very tough questions, and anyone who does not know the entire Bible, at least on a surface level, has zero chance of scoring a lucky win. Avner was fortunate to be tutored by his scholarly grandfather, the late Professor Netanyahu, who passed away in April 2012 at age 102.
What the Prime Minister surely never envisioned was that Israeli-American diplomacy would move beyond the Bible into a Talmudic debate over Mishnaic phrases taught by the Jewish prince and sage, Hillel. (The Talmud is divided into Mishna and Gemara. Mishna consists of concise phrases which review legal and moral conclusions derived from close study of the Bible. Gemara traces the Mishna principles back to their Biblical sources, then extrapolates from those principles to life situations.)
President Obama threw down the rhetorical gauntlet — while acting like it was a red carpet — to Netanyahu in advance of their meeting this week by quoting Hillel (Avot 1:14) to say: “If not now, when?” With Hillel doubling as an intellectual and a political leader, his insights would not be lightly dismissed by a Jewish leader. He was also the one who wrote (ibid. 1:12): “Be a student of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and encouraging them toward a moral life.”
Although this particular quote of “If not now, when?” was often used by Ronald Reagan (Time magazine, seemingly oblivious of its provenance, once called it a well-worn Reaganism), Obama was trying to send a Jewish cultural message by telling it to reporter Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News for Netanyahu’s benefit.
This prompted John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, to note that Obama forgot the rest of the quote from Hillel. In the same sentence, Hillel says: “If I do not take care of myself, who will take care of me?” There is no reason Israel should abandon control over its security and hand it over to the United States or to a multinational force.
I was struck by the scenario of dueling pundits or politicians each wielding a Hillel quote with which to bludgeon his counterpart. I do love the premise of invoking Hillel as the arbiter of policy at this juncture in history. Here are some examples of approaches Obama might learn from Hillel.
Hillel also noted this observation (ibid. 1:13): “One who is haughty in his fame will lose his fame… and one who uses the crown for self-gratification loses the crown.” That kind of thing should give a person pause when he picks up the Nobel Peace Prize in advance of delivering any actual peace.
Hillel offered this criticism (Psachim 66a) to the sons of Beseira, who handed off the principality to him: “What caused you to be unsuccessful as leaders was your laziness in not studying the policies of your predecessors.” This is a thought which might be of interest to Obama, whose primary tribute to his antecedent was blame for all the ills of society. Perhaps that was his interpretation of Hillel’s dictum (Avot 2:4): “Do not judge a man until you arrive at his place in life.” He arrived at the Presidency and immediately bashed its prior occupant.
Again, Hillel’s advice (ibid.) may apply: “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.” Or this one: “Do not say things which are not meant to be heard, because they will eventually be heard.” Maybe you should not send Vladimir pre-election messages about post-election flexibility.
Here are some more relevant thoughts (ibid. 2:5): “If a person does not know the dangers, he is not afraid of getting things wrong…” Benghazi, anyone? Or this (ibid.): “A person with thin skin cannot be a teacher…”
This commentary may help Obama understand why the Palestinians who celebrate the murder of the innocent do not get far. The Mishna (ibid. 2:6) says: “Hillel once saw a skull floating upon the water. He remarked that ‘because you drowned others you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned as well.’”
At the end of the day, Prime Minister Netanyahu does well to make this quote from Hillel (ibid. 2:5) his trademark: “In a place where there are no men, try to be a man.”
And he might remind Obama of Hillel’s most famous quote of all (Shabbat 31a): “What you do not want to have done to you, do not do to your friend…”