Hillel, Hamlet, and the Human Condition—a Talk by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman at Beth JacobBy
Hillel, Hamlet, and the Human Condition—a Talk by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman at Beth Jacob
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University (YU), spent a weekend in Los Angeles. He met with YU parents and supporters at a dessert reception at Beth Jacob Congregation, spoke at Beth Jacob on the subject of “Hillel, Hamlet, and the Human Condition,” and was a scholar-in-residence at YULA’s community-wide shabbaton.
In his talk at Beth Jacob, Rabbi Dr. Berman raised the big questions: “Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is our place in society?” He called three volunteers to reenact a scene from Hamlet, “the greatest play ever written,” where Hamlet looks at the skull of the king’s jester, Yorick, and contemplates the futility of the human condition. The play’s protagonist, Hamlet, lived in a society which expected him to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle. Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, Rabbi Dr. Berman explained that Hamlet hesitated to fulfill this mission because he recognized the futility of life and did not see the point in killing his uncle. The skull in Hamlet is a symbol of meaninglessness.
Rabbi Dr. Berman contrasted this attitude toward life with the Jewish perspective, expressed by Hillel, who found a skull floating in the water. Hillel’s response was, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.” Unlike Hamlet, Hillel declared that life is meaningful.
Rabbi Dr. Berman shared two interpretations of Hillel’s words. The first one is that Hillel made a theological comment – he stated that G-d is just. Rabbi Dr. Berman cautioned against using the concept of divine justice to blame people for their suffering. Often, things happen in the world that appear unjust to us, and we don’t understand why. But what’s crucial, he explained, is to have the sense of tzidduk hadin, to know that “somehow, some way, there is justice. There is G-d in the world, in good times and bad times.” The knowledge that G-d is with us is comforting in times of tragedy.
Another interpretation, given recently by Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish philosopher, is that Hillel was not speaking about divine justice at all, but simply commenting on human condition. “History, left to itself, echoes crime,” explained Rabbi Dr. Berman. “The cycle of violence continues.” He asked what we can do to break the cycle.
Citing the Rambam, Rabbi Dr. Berman said that the appropriate response to death is teshuvah. “We respond to evil by adding more goodness to the world,” he explained. “When there is darkness we add light… That is why we are here.”
The story of Purim follows this pattern of response. “Purim is a time when Jews were going to be destroyed,” said Rabbi Dr. Berman. “How do we celebrate Purim? We give gifts to people, we give charity to the poor.” In response to tragedy, we ask ourselves what we can do to make life better for someone else.
Today, our contribution of kindness to a world wrought with discord is more important than ever. “We as a community need to model the goodness we can add to the mix,” said Rabbi Dr. Berman. He concluded with examples of acts of kindness which he’d witnessed at YU and with his own children.
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With all due respect to Rabbi Dr. Berman, Nietzsche is not right about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which in fact gives support to the doctrine of divine justice. The contemplation of the skull in the play is intended to be a version of memento mori (remember that you die), a motive for humility before God’s judgment of souls. It is not a symbol of the futility of life. And Hamlet tells us why he hesitates to kill his uncle–not because life is futile but first because he wants to avoid damnation, and second–Hamlet’s great fall–because he wants damnation for his uncle. From that fall into sin Hamlet is recalled by divine providence later in the play. Rabbi Berman is right that Hamlet is a great play. But Shakespeare and Hillel are closer in religious sensibility than the rabbi’s comment above implies.