Hillel's Enunciation of Objectivist Principles"

The Second Most Widely Mistranslated Passage in Judaism

Who was Hillel?

Hillel was one of the greatest of the Jewish Sages. He was the head of the Sanhedrin during the transition from the period of the Pairs (Zugot) to the time of the Tannaim. He lived from approximately 90 BCE to 10 CE. His descendants held the position of Nasi, or Ethnarch, for a number of centuries, and were the heads of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

He is famous for several statements, but two of these are the most well known. One was said when a prospective convert came to him and demanded that he teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. This person had previously tried the same thing with Shammai, a contemporary of Hillel, and had been chased away for his presumption. Hillel's reply was later distorted by the authors of the Christian Bible, and in its warped form is known as "The Golden Rule". Hillel's original was:

Ma d'sani lakh, l'chavrakh al t'avid
What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow

The difference between this and the Christian "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is striking, and a basic difference in moral position. The Objectivist (Derekh Eretz) ethics require one to refrain from violating the rights of others. Not to help them. As in Judaism, benevolence is above and beyond what is required. It is never required. The results of the Christian version were inevitable. One classic example was the Inquisition, where people were brutally murdered out of "Christian love," the idea being that some pain in this world was a small price to pay for avoiding Hell in the next.

But as well known as this statement of Hillel's is, there is one that is even more famed. And almost always mistranslated in a way that tries to bring it into synch with the Christian ethic of the west.

Im ein ani li, mi li?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

U'kh'she'ani l'atzmi, ma ani?
And once I am for myself, what am I?

V'im lo akhshav, eimatay?
And if not now, when?

In almost every translation into English, you will find the second line of this changed to "And if I am only for myself, what am I?" As if in counterpoint to the first line, rather than in continuation of it.

The original, however, is clearly understandable, particularly in light of Derekh Eretz.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" This is the principle of individualism, or self-esteem. The realization that all men act for their own good, as does every living creature. It is a statement in diametric opposition to the altruistic conception that I am owed something by others. That I have the right to use others, and to expect them to sacrifice themselves for me. It is not woeful in tone, but matter-of-fact. "I am the one person in the world that I have a right to depend on."

"And once I am for myself, what am I?" This is the obvious question. Once I have accepted that I must be for myself, and that this is the normal/natural way of things, the question must be, What does that mean? It's easy enough to say I'm for myself. Does that mean I can go out and steal? Is that in my best interests? Does being for myself mean acquiescing to any whim I may find myself having? Hillel is telling us that we have to use our reason, our minds, to figure out what exactly it means to be for ourselves. It is this line which turns the first one from selfishness into rational selfishness. As the first line enunciates the virtue of self-esteem, this line speaks of the virtue of reason.

"And if not now, when?" This is a call to action. Philosophy is fine. It can be pretty and soothing, but Hillel wasn't an armchair philosopher. This last line tells us that it is not enough think about these things; rather, we must act on them. Unrealized principles are nothing. This line refers to the virtue of purpose.

The virtues of Self-Esteem, Reason and Purpose "happen" to be the three cardinal virtues of Objectivism. Ayn Rand gives them in a different order, and it's worth considering the reasons for this.

Rand speaks of Purpose, Reason and Self-Esteem. Why does she see this order as the proper one? Rand was a philosopher. She began from the very beginning. With life itself. In "The Objectivist Ethics" (if you haven't read it, go out and read it - it can be found in The Virtue of Selfishness), Rand shows that all life acts with purpose. And goes on to show that the distinguishing mark of man is his ability to use reason to achieve that purpose. And that Individualism/Self-Esteem is the inevitable result/reward of this process.

This is a logical order, for one who is discussing the theory and application of the ethics of Derekh Eretz. Hillel was in a different situation. He wasn't speaking to people who were interested in basic theory. The people of Hillel's time had no desire to see man and man's needs in the context of all living things. They were beginning from the standpoint that they were already there. The most logical place to begin in such a case is by speaking of a practical fact of life. The fact that only you can be relied upon by you. In addition, it's more than possible that the altruistic ideas that were incorporated into Christianity were even then beginning their insidious invasion of western culture. And that Hillel began with the strongest opposition to that "moral" conception that he could find.

Both orders were logical given their audiences. It is the commonality of the two that is striking. Hillel, and the entire Jewish world at one time, lived according to the Objectivist ethics. This ethics, which were known as Derekh Eretz, were so ingrained in the hearts and souls of the people that it wasn't even considered necessary to speak of them in a defining manner. And because of this, when the Jewish people was exiled among dominant cultures that were based on anything but Derekh Eretz, the ideas that Hillel spoke of became forgotten.

In our days, we have merited to see true Derekh Eretz restored by Ayn Rand, a Jew herself, in a way that makes it available to any who wish to learn about it.

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