Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for the ‘Beit Shammai’ Category

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…


Why Discussions of Pluralism are so Boring, and Intellectually Sloppy

In Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai, Peace, Pluralism, Truth on May 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm

What is the difference between a good Drasha (Rabbinic homily) and a bad one? A good drasha demonstrates an honest attempt at understanding a problem in the text, the byproduct of which is a powerful insight.

A bad drasha starts with the insight and contrives textual corroboration as an afterthought. The intent of the former is understanding. The intent of the latter is to use the text as an approbation for an idea conceived independent of the text. For example:

Rabbi Abba Bar Shmuel said: For three years The House of Hillel and The House of Shammai argued. One side said ‘The law is like us!’ The other side said, ‘The law is like us!’ A heavenly voice came forth and declared: These and these are the words of the living God, and the law should be decided as Hillel says!

But after it is declared that these and these are the words of the living God, why did the House of Hillel merit having the law decided like them? Because they were gentle and humble and they would teach the words of the House of Shammai, not only would they teach their words, but they would quote Beit Shammai before they would give their own opinions. (B. Talmud Eruvin 13b)

I can’t tell you how many times that the agreeing to disagree of Hillel and Shammai are brought to “prove” that pluralism has always been part of our tradition. This is not an honest reading of Hillel and Shammai, or the heavenly voice who endorsed both of their opinions. Hillel and Shammai both agreed on the Divine authority of the Torah. They often disagreed on how to interpret it. Much like Supreme Court justices who believe in the integrity and authority of the Constitution, but disagree on what it means.

This is a plurality of opinion, but it’s not our pluralism. Our pluralism means that everyone respects each other even though they agree on virtually nothing–not even whom is considered to be a Jew. This source has nothing to say about that kind of pluralism and therefore would never challenge a traditional thinker to be more open minded regarding others. It might, in fact, have the opposite effect. Because the insight preceded the text, the text does not prove the insight, and therefore this qualifies as a paradigmatic example of a bad drasha.

Does this mean that there are no sources that might challenge a traditional thinker? No, it just means that if one wishes to challenge someone on their own terms, he needs to do so with their tools and not rush to super impose his values on an ancient text. For example:

How great is peace, that even the Torah misrepresented Sarah’s words in order to bring harmony between Abraham and Sarah , as it is written, “And Sarah laughed quietly saying after I have been without season and my master is old.” Later when the story is repeated the narrative changes, and instead of “my master is old” it says, “and I [Sarah] am old.”( Derech Eretz Perek Shalom)

A simple understanding of this statement is that even though truth is the seal of God, nevertheless, it takes a back seat to peace. It is worth sacrificing truth in favor of harmony, for this is what the Torah did for Sarah, so that Abraham would not be angry at her. This source allows one to interact with perceived heretics for the sake of peace which is a greater value. This is not because one acknowledges the other’s truth, but because it is better to get along than it is to be belligerent. It may or may not be a religious imperative, but it is an honest reading of a text which cannot be easily dismissed. It also doesn’t give the pluralist everything he wants because what he wants is a modern value that does not exist in traditional sources.

It is, however, a step forward and the most honest approach given the differences that we face. If getting along in spite of formidable differences is a religious, read Orthodox value, the nature of discourse could be fundamentally transformed.

For the Hebrew sources, a translation and commentary on both texts for downloading, click here.