If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
To begin with oneself but not to end with oneself.
One question, one statement: each of great importance to me. Reflecting, comparing them, it’s clear Buber (early 20th century) goes further, yet Hillel (around 100 BCE to 10 BCE) is more challenging. Is not the question form, in itself, preferable in teaching and learning?
Hillel insists that charity – caritas – begins at home; Buber assumes it and moves forward.
But this is only the first of three aphorisms from each of them.
Hillel asks another question: If I am only for myself, what am I?
Here he moves definitively in the same direction as Buber (and, surely, it is hard to imagine that Buber was not influenced by him?)
Again, here also Hillel asks a question causing us to pause and think. As Eugene Heimler suggested, Judaism’s genius resides in posing questions: is not the Talmud essentially based upon them? Though is that not also the Socratic method?
So, where does Buber now go?
To start from oneself but not aim at oneself
Another statement with a nod to Socrates’ “Know thyself!” And here again: the move towards the Other.
Might it be that Hillel’s initial emphasis on the self also presupposes self-awareness, self-knowledge? Are the two men, at this point, though differently, suggesting very similar ways of living? They are not done, however: where next?
Hillel said: And if not now, when?
Another question, with emphasis on the immediate present but what is asked of us: reflection? Action? Whatever it might be: today is the day. Nietzsche’s eternally recurring present: Live as if the present moment were to repeat itself for ever. I Am That I Am.
So what is Buber’s third aphorism? I forgot, I could not remember. I waited with baited breath till I could check. I was so excited. Buber has been my hero for so long. I have never compared Hillel and Buber in this way before. What was Buber’s ‘clincher’ to be? What was he going to add? To comprehend oneself but not be preoccupied with oneself.
I was so disappointed. Where Hillel progresses, stage by stage, from Self, to Other to Now, Buber merely repeats himself in different words. Further, the brilliance of Hillel’s questioning is replaced with the traditional teacher’s statement by Buber.
The only compensation is my added respect for Hillel – not, to be accurate, ‘Rabbi’ Hillel, since Hillel though a teacher (together with his contemporary adversary, Shammai) predates the period of such titles (the first use of the term being about 200 CE – that is ‘Christian Era’: a terminology used by Jews who find it a bit difficult to term the current era “AD”, i.e. the year of our Lord).
That’s it for today. Except, do take the time to listen to Debbie Friedman, the gifted American artist who died so young a couple of years ago. Her setting and exposition of Hillel’s words, her ability to inspire all of us, to make us think and question and act, illuminate the text. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mT_5xoAQUUE While listening or better, even, afterwards, do take a further look at a good article on Hillel: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder.
Oh: and you might look here also https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debbie_Friedman. I cried as I read it: I remember Debbie so well and value her contribution to Jewish life so highly…