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Object of the Month

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September 2018
 

Jules Leon Butensky (Russia 1871-1947 New York) Hillel and Shammai Bronze, ca. 1920

Shemini Azeret and Simchat Torah, stained glass window from former Lexington Avenue location of Adath Israel Congregation, in use 1927—1964. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Alter Peerless.[/caption]

In these first days of October, Jews the world over celebrate Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. 

In rabbinic literature the word Torah denotes both the five books of Moses and interpretations and amplifications which according to rabbinic tradition have been handed down from generation to generation and are now embodied in the Talmud and Midrash, or the Oral Law. A large bronze statue (27 inches high and 22 inches wide) in the collection of the Skirball Museum depicts Hillel and Shammai, two leading sages of the last century BCE and the early first century CE who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought, known as the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. 

The sculpture depicts Hillel seated in a throne-like chair with the Torah scroll rolled out over his lap and Shammai standing with a clenched fist and pointing to a passage in the Torah. They’re arguing over the meaning and laws of the Torah.  Hillel was a poor woodcutter who rose to become a revered teacher and the official authority of the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court system. Shammai was a great scholar and teacher as well. Although Hillel and Shammai were good friends, their ideas about what the laws in the Torah and Talmud meant were very different. Hillel was a proponent of a liberal and flexible interpretation of the law, whereas Shammai was a firm believer in carrying out the letter of the law without departing from the implications of its original meaning. 

Butensky depicts Hillel as somewhat elderly, with a smile upon his thoughtful face, sitting in repose, one hand outstretched in a gesture of assurance, his other hand on the Torah scroll. Shammai’s stance is more vigorous and insistent, with raised arm and clenched fist. Through body language, Butensky has absorbed the spirit of the period of the Jewish Second Commonwealth. 

The decisions of the school of Hillel found acceptance more readily in the body of Jewish law than did those of the school of Shammai. The debate between these schools on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology was critical for the shaping of the Oral Law and Judaism as it is today. As we celebrate Simchat Torah, and begin the cycle of Torah anew, this sculpture is a reminder of the timeliness and relevance of debate and continuing interpretation of Jewish law  in our time.