A generation or so before Jesus of Nazareth, two great early rabbis rose up in Israel, namely Shammai and Hillel. Each founded his own school of thought and attracted disciples. Each developed a method for discerning the meaning of the Torah and implications for ways of faithful obedience to God’s will.
As I understand his teachings, Shammai was a strict literalist. Hillel, however, was concerned about both the letter of the law and its purpose. That made Hillel more flexible at times and more willing to reframe a question in order to find guidance for complicated human dilemmas. Scholars tell us that Jesus of Nazareth often seems to fit into the line of thought proposed by Hillel.
Among the many stories associated with Hillel is that of the prospective convert who approached him with a request to be taught the Torah if it could be done while the candidate stood balanced on one leg. Shammai had chased the inquirer away with a stick until he become more serious, but Hillel agreed. Hillel’s response was two-fold, namely first of all, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary” and then “Go and study!” Countless Jewish schools and academies across the nation, Milwaukee included, bear the name of Hillel and help young scholars to fulfill his mandate.
The “go and study” was the key, as Hillel insisted, to life long exploration of God’s will and to understanding the history of God’s people within the wider range of God’s plan of redemption for the world. This is mandatory for any adult, Jewish or Christian.
Recently Rabbi Joseph Telushkin of the Synagogue of Performing Arts in Los Angeles wrote a fascinating brief introduction to Hillel’s thought for contemporary Americans under the title of “Hillel: If not now, When?” Midway through the book I stumbled upon a very provocative paragraph about pastoral challenges today:
“Without study and a knowledge of Jewish holy texts, Judaism becomes literally contentless (the question “What does Judaism want me to do?” becomes unanswerable). That is why Hillel is so insistent on the importance of ongoing study. I often meet Jews who are passionately political, and given the political orientation of most American Jews, that means they are usually liberal, though a fervent minority are conservative. I ask such people if they ever find themselves studying Jewish texts that challenge their liberalism or conservatism. If they don’t – and few of them I find do – that means that their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, with a smattering of biblical and Talmudic quotes cited to support whatever position they already believe (page 22).”
The rabbi wrote about his experience of working with his Jewish synagogue members. His point was that issues which seem merely political on the surface are in fact often profoundly religious.
Unfortunately, a similar concern would seem to be true of contemporary Catholicism as well. Opinions, even when strongly held, are not based on the fullness of the church’s teaching, but on isolated truths, or on personal prejudices.
We live in a bitterly and painfully divided nation, church and society. Too often I have the feeling that the religious positions held by so many people in society are in fact based on things other than fundamental religious truth. I can cite ample evidence from the letters which come into any bishop’s office these days. The need, however, to explore the whole teaching of the Scriptures or the entire spectrum of Catholic Christianity is easily brushed aside even though God’s truth would insist on nuances or the truth itself need a bigger picture than we are prepared to embrace at any given moment in life! “Go and study” should be a guiding maxim for everyone.
Areas for study should include all of Scriptures, not merely a favorite verse. Resources for study should also include, for example, the pertinent Documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, revised edition.
Examples from Catholic life today are countless. Let me only select two for illustration.
We are told, for example, in circles of Catholic devotion of the wonderful miracle of Christ choosing to come down from heaven to become the Bread of Life on our altars. That is certainly true to our Catholic convictions about transubstantiation and the Real Presence, but if that belief is isolated from the rest of the church’s sacramental teaching, the statement risks radical dualism. The fullness of Catholic truth is that Christ is already also present in the currents of history, the eucharistic presider and preacher, in the assembled community and in the eucharistic prayer! “Go and study!”
In the political realm, we hear complaints about too much taxation and too much government interference in private lives and local businesses. Those are legitimate concerns for contemporary debate. They also have moral implications, and cannot be reduced to mere politics, as the church’s moral teachings repeatedly point out. When separated, therefore, from the Scriptures or from Catholic social teaching about care for the needy and concern for the common good, they risk radical individualism which is not Christian, Catholic or even American. “Go and study.”
The beginning of a new school year and the restart of catechetical programs in most parishes at this time of the year is an opportunity for further study and learning. This is not merely for the youth. Adults across the country are finding attraction in the rich intellectual traditions associated with our Catholic tradition.
RCIA programs offer stimulation to many thoughtful God seekers in our contemporary world. The church has something to offer, but true learning presumes a willingness to change our minds at times regarding how God works in our world, about what God really expects from us and about the full spectrum of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
“Every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven is like the head of a household who brings forth from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:52).