I think my greatest love is biographies. When I was asked to write the life of the philosopher Maimonides, I was shocked. “But I am not a philosophy expert!” I said to the editor who called me about it. “I am not well-versed in his work. You need a lifetime to study him!”
“We don’t want a philosophy expert,” said the editor. “We want the real life and the real man. A true biography of Maimonides has never been written. All the books about him are an analysis of his work, with some biographical material tacked on. Besides, we tried two scholars and their work was abysmally boring and dry.”
Well. Certainly no sane person could resist such a challenge, particularly since Maimonides looked a bit like Sean Connery, and so I wrote the book. I had fantastic scholarly material available to me about his era, but very little about him. It took a lot of digging, but I ferreted enough to recreate his life. It was a joy.
And then I wanted to write a book about another difficult person. I was told it was not possible, but what of it? I am doing it now, on line, as a blog. It’s the strangest thing I have ever done… I think the introduction to the book explains it all:
The Encyclopedia Britannica On-Line claims that it is impossible to write a proper biography of Hillel the Elder because “virtually every narrative about him is encrusted with legend.” I completely disagree. True, it may be impossible to give the exact date of his very happy marriage or the precise day when he left Babylonia for the second time, but dates are not necessarily the most important part of the story of a life. Bringing the man to life, showing him against the time and place in which he lived, putting a face on the myriad of legends is much more important. And that is exactly what I am setting out to do in this new book.
War, conquest, murder, scandal. Hardly the words that come to mind when Hillel the Elder is mentioned. And yet, this gentle soul lived against a most exciting historical background. The era, almost two thousand years ago, is dominated by the very handsome and sexually obsessed king, Herod the Great, a mentally imbalanced man of true genius and great charm, but with homicidal tendencies which come to the surface only too often. Herod is surrounded by a cast of glamorous characters -- Augustus, Cleopatra, Caesar, and all their crafty and influential advisors, murderous families, and dangerous spies.
Fascinating details are supplied by Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote an account of the times in his book Antiquities. Heroes sacrifice themselves on the field of battle. The stunningly beautiful Maccabean Queen Mariamne is murdered by her husband Herod, who then sets out to destroy their two sons. Cleopatra, certainly not the Hollywood glamorous character we are accustomed to, and much more concerned with wealth than with love, greedily plots and counterplots to attain lands. The scene in which she tries to seduce Herod who rejects her as an “ugly middle-aged woman” is priceless, and she retaliates by stealing his lands anyway. Augustus wields his power, sometimes for, sometimes against Herod, once his old childhood friend, now living in terror as his subject.
Against the horrors emerges the image of a man of wisdom, compassion, and courage. Hillel is the most important figure in Judaism since Moses. An influential Talmudic sage, the head of a famous school named after him, and the creator of some of the most important Judaic laws, he is instrumental in liberating and infusing life into the ancient traditions. Without his open approach and innovation, Judaism may have developed in a rigid and limited fashion, instead of the living, eternally growing religion it has become.
His many sayings are still quoted, his laws still practiced. The stories relating his kindness, intelligence, and love of study are still told. They appear in school books, novels, and one of his famous sayings even flashes on the screen as promotion for Public Television.
His kindness and straightforward behavior does not mean meekness or false humility. A truly cosmopolitan man, Hillel came from Babylonia. An international, magnificent city, the center from which kings ruled the entire known world for centuries, and where the Jews changed the face of God from a fierce desert entity into the merciful and omnipresent deity worshiped by today’s Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The place where Hammurabi wrote his Laws, so similar to the Laws Moses gave on the Mount of Sinai. This was a place where a man could grow to be well educated and sophisticated. Hillel knew his own worth and acted decisively when needed, causing quite a few scandals of his own along the way, and showing a certain arrogance at time, totally unexpected. He associated with the most important personalities of his age, acting and feeling as their equal. Some say he had a close association with Jesus, perhaps even acting as his teacher for a short while. The similarity of their views makes it quite possible and there will be a chapter devoted to this fascinating relationship.
A tiny country in a far away land, ruled by a giant empire. The great empire is no more, but it left a great legacy we still follow, images we see every day. The tiny country is still with us, modern and full of life. A story that happened so long ago, and yet is so vibrant that reading about it feels like a page of yesterday’s news. A giant of a man whose wisdom is part of our lives. A strange and fascinating time, full of tainted glory and true greatness. Could it really be two thousand years ago?
Author Ilil Arbel
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