Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Musings on “These, and these are words of the living God.” Disputes for the sake of heaven…

In Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai, Uncategorized on March 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

The Passing of Rabbi Menachem Froman, and his tireless pursuit of peace, and his total commitment to love have made me confront my own inadequacies, and limitations. I never knew him, but he did live on the borders of my consciousness. I loved his audacity. Imagine a founder of Gush Emunim proclaiming that he didn’t care whose flag waved over his town, he just didn’t want to move. How was it that such a man was not chased out of town? The settler who befriended Abu Amar. A man with such presence and conviction so filled with love, he was untouchable. Too idealistic to be taken seriously, to unworldly to get a colonoscopy that almost certainly would have given him many more than his sixty-eight years. Undaunted, Rabbi Menachem soldiered on. To understand how the majority of Tekoa’s settlers who endured Rabbi Menachem’s betrayals, one needs to understand the traditional culture of dispute that has sharpened the minds of so many for lo these long years. Certainly, the Rabbi’s credibility rested on his unassailable commitment to the Torah, the land and his love of all Jews. In the end, his character and integrity were more important than his positions. Yet, even if people were disposed to see beyond what they regarded as naive, was there religious precedent for such tolerance?

Immediately, Hillel, Shammai, and the Talmudic dialectic come to mind. Two dramatically different temperaments that led them to such different truths. Yet, before choosing a cosmic victor, the heavenly voice declared, “These and these are words of the living God!” A feel good aphorism that was proclaimed, nay, abused, but never really understood by the bigoted adherents of diversity. Everybody’s right! Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Deconstructing meaning until there is none, we self righteously inflate self satisfied pillows with the feathers of broad mindedness.Resting comfortably, we slumber so soundly, all conflict remains, each side brandishing a fragment of truth. Is that really what Hillel and Shammai teach us?

In Pirkei Avot, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai represent different sides of the argument that will endure. A question not often asked is why do we want disputes to endure? Is not resolution possible? Two sides of the same truth? Heady stuff. Borne out of Hillel and Shammai’s personality, and life experience, two schools of Halachic thought are born, and they are ultimately viewed as heads and tails, two sides of the same coin. One side, however will be selected as more authoritative, while the other will be there pointing out the imperfections of the one favored. Shammai is perceived as more exacting while Hillel is considered more generous.

In Kabbalistic terms Hillel represents the quality of chesed while gevurah
Is the province of Shammai. Beit Hillel understands that they are more in touch with those around them, more realistic regarding what might be a reasonable expectation. Shammai does not see the point in accommodating people when the law’s job is to require obedience. Who’s serving whom, after all? In a perfect world, the Zohar says, Shammai will get his due, but this flawed morass of humanity must suffice with the forbearing nature of Hillel and his minions.

Beit Hillel has the good sense and manners to elucidate their rivals positions before invoking their own. This is not merely good manners, but the embodiment of “These and these are words of the living God”. It is an admission that even if they feel more correct, the entire truth remains evasive. For the coin to be complete, it can’t just be heads. In fact, when both claim that the “Law is with us” no monopoly of the truth is implied, but Beit Hillel’s argument is that our temperament is more compatible with the people because we are connected. Thus the sages comment, “That one’s opinions should always be intermingled with those around them.” The favored ruling should therefore be with the generous spirit, and not the exacting one.

For those who seek no accommodation, but want to embody the strict nature of the law without favor, they are entitled, and even lauded for the commitment. It is only when the spirit of Beit Shammai, the spirit of the stringent, chooses to eradicate the validity of those who seek accommodation where the deference offered by Beit Hillel is scorned and ridiculed as less than adequate, that things become distorted. As if Beit Shammai says unequivocally, that they understand why they deserve such deference, but how on earth can they in good conscience reciprocate. For so long, this imbalance has been accepted by both sides. It stands to reason that the more exacting is more authentic, and so the deference of Beit Hillel, should be expected. But isn’t the model presented by Chazal through these two disputants cautioning us against this assumption?

Both sides are learned, both sides intentions are honorable, both sides share language, and both submit to the Torah’s authority. These contenders agree upon way too much, to dismiss the other.
The Talmud states that they need each other. God lives in both of them.

Why is it now that when one side does not abide by the stringencies of the other it is perceived as less committed and that the shared value system of Hillel and Shammai come into question. Ironically, the sages who are interested in promoting the Torah bear witness to Beit Hillel’s perspective as the one most suitable to the way we live while Beit Shammai is relegated to the future more perfect world.

It is Hillel who understands that the word Machloket does not mean dispute, but two different portions, each one part of the same whole. No matter how different, each is connected by compatible language, commitment, and scholarship.

I marvel at the fact that it is these unique personalities that evolve into schools of thought , and are never fully separate from those origins. That the Sages are aware of this and fully acknowledge that in the end all concepts are never fully objective, but always connected to and limited by the feelings and the behavior of the individual, is profound. Moreover, their bias is for the humble and generous spirit of Hillel.

Just like Hillel, it was Rabbi Froman’s shared commitments that allowed him to remain as the spiritual leader of Tekoa.

To be continued…