This interpretive lens has lots of history in Jewish wisdom. It is most often attributed to the progressive Pharisee Hillel. The story is that Hillel was approached by a proselyte one day who asked if Hillel could teach the questioner the entire Torah while the student stood on one foot. Hillel responded, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the Law. Everything else is commentary. Go and learn that!” (see Hillel)
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
For most of the Jesus story, Jesus sides with Hillel’s more progressive interpretive lens of love. There are only two cases where Jesus departs from Hillel. The Pharisaical school of Hillel was not the only school of interpretation in Jesus’ time. Another popular sect of Pharisees was the school of Shammai. Shammai was deeply concerned with protecting Jewish culture, identity, and distinctiveness, and one of the subjects where Jesus departs from Hillel and agrees with Shammai is the subject of divorce.
The school of Hillel taught that a husband could divorce his wife for any reason at all. In a patriarchal society, this led to systemic economic injustice toward wives sent away by their husbands. On this issue, however, Jesus sided with Shammai. In one gospel he states that divorce was simply not allowed. In another, he says that it was allowed but only in the context of infidelity. Again, I believe that this teaching was concerned with the economic hardships that unconditional divorce placed on women who found themselves on the receiving end of this practice in the patriarchal cultures of the 1st Century, trying to survive.
The second area where Jesus disagreed with Hillel was also economic. Hillel was the originator the prozbul exception. A rich creditor could declare a loan “prozbul” and therefore immune to cancelation in years such as the year of Jubilee. Remember that there was no middle class in Jesus’ society. Many people depended on loans to survive. So if a year when debts were to be cancelled was approaching, many rich creditors would simply not make loans they believed they would lose on. This left many others without a means of survival. Out of concern, then, Hillel made an exception available: loans made close to the year of cancellation could be declared “prozbul” and be exempt from being cancelled. Jesus departs from Hillel in calling for a return to the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:19) where all debts would be cancelled and all slaves set free.
Other than these two cases, Jesus interpreted the Torah like a Hillelian Pharisee. And this makes a strong case for the kind of Christianity we should be leaning into today. We’ll consider this, next.
(Read Part 3)