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At Rutgers, a 2,000-year-old lesson in tolerance
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At Rutgers, a 2,000-year-old lesson in tolerance

Rabbi applies wisdom of Hillel to modern life

Noted author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin joins student and lay leaders and staff for a dinner discussion before an appearance for Rutgers Hillel. Photos by Debra Rubin
Noted author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin joins student and lay leaders and staff for a dinner discussion before an appearance for Rutgers Hillel. Photos by Debra Rubin

When Rutgers Hillel students met with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin before the prolific author’s Oct. 20 talk at the Rutgers Student Center in New Brunswick, the discussion was wide-ranging. Touching on subjects covered in his many books, he introduced topics from Jewish law and history to Jewish immigration to America.

But at the dinner at Hillel with staff and students, Telushkin pointedly chose to focus on one specific issue: tolerance and respect for others.

With the Sept. 22 suicide of a Rutgers freshman, whose sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room had been videostreamed over the Internet, still fresh in people’s minds, the topic was particularly timely.

“The Hebrew word for tolerance — savlanut — is the same as for patience,” said Telushkin. “It is also related to the word for suffering because to be tolerant of those with whom we disagree is hard.”

Jews too often neglect to show respect and tolerance for others, core values of Judaism, even when dealing with those of other Jewish denominations, said Telushkin.

In an expression of his disdain for the divisiveness of such an attitude, when a student began to ask his opinion as an Orthodox rabbi, Telushkin quickly responded that he refuses to put a denominational label on himself, despite having received Orthodox ordination.

Instead, he cited text showing how all Jews are connected to one another and highlighting the dangers of allowing differences to cause rifts in the community.

He cited religious, political, and cultural figures in Jewish history who are revered but were once reviled by other equally respected figures of their day. In retrospect, he said, all contributed to Jewish learning and continuity.

Later, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 students and community members in the graduate student lounge of the Rutgers Student Center, Telushkin reinforced his theme. He asked those gathered what they thought is the most frequently desecrated of the 613 mitzvot. Audience members suggested the laws of kashrut, Sabbath observance, and others.

“‘In justice shall you judge your fellow human beings’ is the most violated of the 613,” said Telushkin. “People make unfair assumptions. We make certain moral generalizations. We all do it.”

Telushkin came to the Rutgers campus to discuss his latest book, Hillel: If Not Now, When?, about the renowned Jewish sage from whom the international Jewish collegiate organization took its name. The senior associate at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership said that Hillel’s famous talmudic quote – given in response to a potential convert who asked for an explanation of Torah “while standing on one foot” — “What is hateful unto to you, do not do unto your neighbor; the rest is commentary” remains as relevant now as it was 2,000 years ago.

The Rutgers program kicked off a national tour of 10 Hillels arranged by Lynne B Harrison of Union, a board member of Hillel International and a major leader and supporter of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Harrison helped promote the Rutgers appearance and secure financing, said Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer.

Harrison, who joined students and staff, told NJJN she believed the message of Telushkin’s book should be heard by young people.

“There is a real synergy in that we want students to learn about the heritage and values that have been part of Judaism for millennia,” said Getraer, “and Rabbi Telushkin is one of the greatest communicators in the world today concerning Jewish ethics.

“The book is not only about our namesake but about being grounded in tradition, yet being open to the world. It is a message that should resonate with every individual because it is what Hillel the campus organization and the sage are all about.”

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