ELSIE K. RUDIN JUDAICA MUSEUM
Hillel and Shammai
Longtime members Merna Hausman Miller z”l and Richard Miller have donated an important bronze sculpture of Hillel and Shammai to the Elsie K. Rudin Judaica Museum of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck. This gift represents at least three generations of a founding family of the temple. Samuel and Vera Hausman were founders; Merna was confirmed at Temple Beth-El, as were their three children who are now adults and living elsewhere. Hillel and Shammai includes a plaque dedicated to Samuel Hausman, a philanthropist not only to Temple Beth-El of Great Neck but to other charitable institutions as well, from “his friends in the Leather Goods Industry.”
Hillel and Shammai is a dramatic bronze piece evoking the history of two great Jewish rabbi philosophers of the first century of the common era. Each founded his own academy. Not only did these two famously argue, but their students and followers continued their argumentative philosophies for several centuries. Two of their most famous arguments were about the placement of the mezuza on the doorpost and about the direction that the Chanukah lights were lit in the Chanukiah. In both instances, Hillel won the arguments and two thousand years later we still follow his way. Hillel was reputed to have been more liberal in his views and quieter in personality, while Shammai was more strict and with a fiery temper.
Hillel and Shammai was created by acclaimed sculptor Jules L. Butensky (1871-1947). Although born in Lithuania (or Russia, depending upon the day of the week), Butensky was considered to be an American artist. At 18, he entered the Imperial Academy of Art in Vienna and, about 1904, emigrated to America. Financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff arranged for a commission by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Butensky to recreate his Universal Peace sculpture in monumental form which was unveiled in 1911 and is still in the Met’s collection.
Butensky’s Hillel and Shammai, while powerful, realistic and filled with the drama of the two philosophers discussing text, also indicates the Art Nouveau sensibility of elongated sinuous forms popular during the period of the early 20th century.
Temple Beth-El and its Elsie K. Rudin Judaica Museum are, indeed, very fortunate to have this piece in its collection representing the important period of Jewish history of two thousand years ago and the artistic excellence of an American Jewish sculptor of Art Nouveau. It is also a wonderful example of a family’s longtime devotion to our synagogue, a teaching tool about Hillel and Shammai, but more importantly a teaching tool about Jewish philanthropy. We are grateful to Richard Miller for this gift.