Hillel said: do not separate from the community; And do not trust in yourself until the day of your death; And do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place; And do not say something that cannot be understood that in the end it will be understood; And do not say ‘when I am free, I shall study;’ perhaps you will not be free.
According to Aristotle, “man is by nature a social animal.” In one of the most cited psychology papers of all time (with over 31,000 citations), Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary formulated what they call the “need to belong.” People have a drive to connect and be a part of relationships and groups. This need is very powerful and shapes many aspects of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Other theorists add that even our sense of self is first constructed through our social interactions (see Srivastava, 2012). The importance of relationships in education and development was highlighted by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky when he argued that all learning is mediated through social processes.
In this mishna (Avot 2:5), we are introduced to Hillel’s list of five “don’ts.” While some commentaries assume this is a different Hillel than the Hillel we encountered in chapter one of Pirkei Avot, most assume it is the same person. If we recall from Avot 1:12, Hillel emphasized love and social cohesion: “be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” While Hillel’s list of five “don’ts” can be read as five disparate statements, I think it will be illustrative to read them as indicative of a broader social theory. To a large extent, this mishna can be seen as a reflection of Hillel’s previous statement, focusing on relationships and ethics, here formulated negatively as what not to do.
Scholars and mystics sometimes desire to remove themselves from society in order to learn in-depth and introspect. They prefer the quiet and the isolation. Other people serve as distractions and detract from their lofty goals. They may be more productive if they live a reclusive lifestyle. Rabbi Shem Tov (quoted in the Midrash Shmuel) contends that Hillel’s statement of “do not separate from the community” is directly critiquing this approach. While one could criticize such people for abdicating responsibility they should feel for the other, Rabbi Shem Tov’s reasoning is more self-focused. Since people are social by nature, we cannot grow and develop physically, spiritually, or intellectually without the help of others and society more broadly. The ascetic impulse is wrong because it underestimates the individual’s need to belong.
Next Hillel says, “And do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Some commentaries understand this as a warning to always be on guard from the evil inclination. No matter how settled we are in our personalities, there is always a danger of changing for the worse. Rabbi Yosef ben Shoshan culls an added insight by connecting this clause to the first. We shouldn’t overly rely on ourselves because we have a tendency towards self-deception. Psychologists identify several self-serving biases that distort our self-perception, leading us to overlook our own flaws and present ourselves in an unjustifiably positive light. One way to overcome such biases is through being part of a community. In healthy social relationships, our friends can serve as mirrors to increase our own self-awareness, allowing us to improve more effectively. Rashbatz adds that there is also a positive aspect to social pressure. Fear of social consequences can be an effective motivator to avoid ethical and spiritual violations. Therefore, Hillel is telling us that a benefit of being part of the community is that the social bonds serve as a preventative measure to avoid sin.
Along the same lines, Hillel’s third comment gives advice that, if followed, will help us maintain relationships: “And do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place.” One area that social psychologists study is called social cognition. This concept incorporates how “people perceive, think about, interpret, categorize, and judge their own social behaviors and those of others” (APA Dictionary of Psychology). In order to make sense of the social world, our brains try to decipher the complexities of other people and make conclusions that will help us decide how to interact with them in the future. This act of judging others can easily be misused and abused. An overly judgmental stance towards others will likely lead to social difficulties and a lack of love and cohesion. Even more, the process of judging is subjective and flawed. Our assumptions and guesses about others’ motivations are distorted by a myriad of factors. Until we have experienced the same exact situation, we will likely mis-judge. As Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka notes, “Since you can never really place yourself in the biological-sociological-psychological position of others, it is impossible for you to judge and condemn them. Your task is not to judge, but to graciously accept others and willingly interact with them.”
Hillel’s fourth clause, “And do not say something that cannot be understood that in the end it will be understood,” is somewhat cryptic and has been explained differently by the commentaries, but each with another social message. Rambam encourages presenting concise, and precise information. We shouldn’t say something confusingly, hoping people will work hard to understand our meaning. Rather, we should speak clearly and directly. Chasdei Avot explains that the message is for someone who is planning on rebuking others. If we are fairly certain that the critique won’t be heard or followed, it is better not to say the reproof in the first place. Rabbeinu Yonah cautions against revealing information that shouldn’t become public. Even if just disclosed in private, we need to be aware of the possibility and likelihood that the information will be spread. Acknowledging the social dynamics of communication, this advice promotes prudence since the tendency is for rumors to spread quickly.
Finally, acknowledging that social responsibilities can preoccupy one’s time, Hillel’s final caution is “And do not say ‘when I am free I shall study;’ perhaps you will not be free.” One way to interpret this idea is that despite our social obligations we need to take advantage of whatever free time we have to learn. This dynamic of balancing personal and social responsibility is reminiscent of one of Hillel’s previous statements: “If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself who am I?” We can’t be isolated from others, but we also need to find time for our own learning. The closing of that previous Mishna is particularly pertinent: “If not now, when?” overlaps directly with the ending of this Mishna. Don’t procrastinate. Take advantage of all the opportunities we have to grow.
However, instead of reading this ending statement as being in tension with the previous focus on social relationships, we can read it as accentuating the importance of social learning. Coming full circle to the beginning of the Mishna, we may tell ourselves that in order to learn we need to be free of social obligations and connections. We need to be alone and isolated so we can have quiet and peace of mind. However, Hillel is once again stating that this is the wrong approach to learning. We are social beings. We have a need to belong. We grow, develop, and learn better when we are connected to others. Don’t say when we are free from others we will learn. Rather, we should take advantage of all of our opportunities to learn with others and learn from others.
With this reading, Hillel is supplementing his previous focus of loving peace and loving mankind with cautionary messages aimed at underscoring the importance of social relationships. Following his advice will help us stay healthily connected to others, enabling us all to grow intellectually and spiritually, as individuals and as a community.