In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.
This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.
This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel .
As John Judis reports in the New Republic Hillel’s evolving stand on Israel has now moved it into partnership with AIPAC. Further, towing the AIPAC line has become, for Hillel International the meaning of being Jewish.
Rava’s intellectual and spiritual honesty made him realize that despite the fact that his life’s work was in the study hall, deriving mountains of law from the crowns upon the letters in the Torah scroll, still and all, what was most important was whether or not he dealt justly with others. In Hillel International’s guidelines for who might be allowed to use the Hillel name, the only criterion is that a person pledge fealty to the State of Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” Those who don’t sign the pledge are not able to partner with Hillel.
One might have thought that Hillel, which has somewhere in its portfolio the mission to be a home to Jewish life on campus, would have articulated something about its ethical commitments. Something along the lines of: “Hillel does not accept donations from anybody who has not been faithfully honest in their business, who has not done their utmost to ensure that they were just to their workers.” Perhaps “Hillel will not partner with an organization that uses religion to oppress others, or whose religious practices give religion a bad name.” Unfortunately, none of this is on Hillel’s website. The only guidelines, as far as I could tell, are in regards to one’s Zionist fidelity.
This is the difference between a Sage and a politician. When the values of the Jewish people are articulated by a politician, they ignore ethics and go straight to politics. You are Jewish if you will go to the AIPAC convention. You are not Jewish if you “hold Israel to a double standard.” The Sage realizes that the core values are beyond the realpolitik of the current moment.