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‘Renaissance mensch’ inspires at JFSA kickoff

More than 600 people attended Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s talk — and laughed at his perfectly delivered jokes — at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s 2011 Campaign kickoff at Congregation Anshei Israel on Wednesday, Nov. 17.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Not only is Telushkin an Orthodox, observant Jew, said JFSA Vice Chair Larry Gellman in his introduction, he’s a “Renaissance mensch.” Telushkin is the author of “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History,” the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past 20 years, and nine other works of nonfiction. He has also penned “The Unorthodox Murder Mystery of Rabbi Wahl” (part of the Rabbi Daniel Winter mysteries) and co-wrote screenplays and episodes of TV shows such as “Touched by an Angel.”

Telushkin, who serves as spiritual leader of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, was in Tucson to help inspire Jewish community support of Federation programs, including its new Local Emergency Assistance Fund to assist those in dire need. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the key principle of the Torah,” said Telushkin, telling the audience that he planned to contribute to LEAF.

Discussing his latest book, “Hillel: If Not Now, When?” Telushkin noted that Rabbi Hillel, who was the best known rabbi of the Talmud, didn’t quote “love your neighbor as yourself.” Even 2,000 years ago, he said, Hillel understood that the quote “was in danger of becoming a cliché. Good insights don’t seem as fresh anymore when they become widely known.”

What does “love your neighbor as yourself really mean?” Telushkin asked. “Does it mean that you should mourn the death of a neighbor as much as someone who is close to you?”

Hillel did teach the Talmudic precept “what is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen.” He understood that everyone has character flaws, and that we shouldn’t discuss the “intimate details of another’s social life,” said Telushkin, asking the audience, “Isn’t that what we do when we go to parties?”

Another important precept that Hillel taught was “‘If I’m not for myself who will be for me?’ We all need to have self-esteem,” said Telushkin.

Noting Hillel’s genius 2,000 years ago in advocating that “a bad-tempered person cannot teach,” Telushkin told the audience, “think about teachers you had, who loved the material. Maybe they were strict but they cared about you. Think about teachers who belittle children,” who lack Hillel’s “moral imagination, caring about the needs of individuals.”

Telushkin related the story of a rabbi who as a boy was called in with his parents to see the school principal, who remarked that the student was “mildly retarded” within the boy’s earshot. Years later, that rabbi discovered he was dyslexic. When the prospective rabbi attended yeshiva, reading only one line of Talmud at a time and discussing it, “he felt smart for the first time,” said Telushkin.

Studying the Talmud and other Jewish texts is essential for gaining a Jewish kup, or head, he said. Hillel’s rhetorical question “If not now, when?” is also cited by those in the political sphere in an effort to address moral and psychological needs, said Telushkin. He also asked the audience to consider how the question applies to their personal lives, advising everyone to close their eyes for 30 seconds.

Later, the rabbi asked people to raise their hands if they had read “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, in which the protagonist Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930s segregated Alabama. Finch’s 10-year-old daughter, Scout, asks her father why he took the case. “‘If I didn’t rise to this challenge,’ Finch tells her, ‘I never could tell you what to do,’” said Telushkin. He noted that the book’s lessons of “don’t write anybody off” and “don’t separate yourself from the community” both derive from Hillel’s teachings.

“If you pick up a book written 2,000 years ago with such insights, I would say it’s remarkable,” Telushkin concluded. “If the Jewish community just listens to Hillel we’ll continue to flourish.”