Hillel used to say:
be thou of the disciples of Aaron,
loving peace and pursuing peace,
be thou one who loveth one's fellow creatures
and bringeth them nigh[i] to the torah.
Avot 1, Mishna 12
This statement from the Talmud seems simple enough – Hillel is speaking to an important leader, the High Priest, and advising him to be as peace loving as Aaron, Moses’ brother who was well known for his kindness and wish to maintain peace at all cost, sometimes to his detriment.[ii] But as often happens when listening to Hillel, the simplicity is misleading. This is an explosive political statement.
Before and during Hillel’s time, the High Priest was always one of the Hasmonean family. Descendents of the five Maccabee brothers, the Hasmoneans were anything but peaceful.[iii] The family carried a legacy of violence and even madness which continued to express itself in each new generation. The worst of them, Alexander Jannaeus, even murdered thousands of his people. Each of the Hasmonean High Priests was extremely influential politically, and in addition, lived a life of excessive luxury and worldly interests which Hillel strongly objected to. They were constantly involved in the political events of the country, rather than remain honorably detached from worldly matters and attend to their higher calling.
Hillel uses his words very carefully. “Loving peace” is a sentiment, a feeling anyone can have, but it is followed by “pursuing peace,” a statement which implies a request for active behavior. Later, Hillel’s famous disciple Yochanan ben Zakkai, interpreted the sentence for us. He explained that Hillel meant that peace must start at home by “loving peace” between husband and wife, family members, and neighbors. Then pursuing peace, it would influence in turn peace between cities, nations, and governments. Charity, kindness and peace are interconnected in the individual, and it is the duty of the High Priest and the political authorities to see that it is extended to the wider sphere.
Why is Hillel saying “disciples” rather than the more commonly used “sons” of Aaron? Here, again, you must read between the lines. Hillel is referring to Shemaya and Avtalion, his beloved teachers, who were the sons of converts.[iv] Their origin, as such, was considered much lower than that of a member of the Hasmonean family, which was part of the Jewish aristocracy for many years. And yet, the people of Judea loved and respected Shemaya and Avtalion to such an extent, that at one point a scandal rocked Jerusalem. The Talmud tells about it:
“Our Rabbis taught: It happened with a high priest that as he came forth from the Sanctuary, all the people2[v] followed him, but when they saw Shemaya and Avtalion, they forsook him and went after Shemaya and Avtalion. Eventually Shemaya and Avtalion visited him, to take their leave of the high priest. He said to them: May the descendants of the heathen come in peace! [vi]They answered him: May the descendants of the heathen, who do the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron, who does not do the work, he shall not come in peace.”[vii]
There is no doubt that Hillel himself caused this story to be told and kept in the memory of the people. Shemaya and Avtalion are known for their view on political authorities and their aversion for political authority, and they exercised the greatest influence on Hillel’s views of leadership. He would do much to keep their names and thoughts alive. And this seemingly innocent statement is revolutionary, because it is the nearest thing to the modern idea of separation of State and Church, at a time when such a thought would seem inconceivable.
[i] Near in place, time, or relationship
[ii] As in the story of the Golden Calf
[iii] You can find several entries in this blog about the Hasmoneans.
[iv]You can read about them in the 1/29/12 entry
[v] Literally, the Talmud said “world”
[vi]According to tradition, they were the descendents of Sennacherib, a king who was the enemy of the Jews.
[vii]Aaron pursued peace; his disciples, too, were very peaceful. So were Shemaya and Avtalion increasing peace in the world, but this high priest, whose arrogance caused strife, was not a worthy descendant of Aaron.