Monday, October 11, 2010

Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shamai: A Partisan Paradigm

Mid term elections are right around the corner and the rhetoric is heating up and accompanied by negative campaigning to the extreme. As I follow the development of the Tea Party Movement and keep track of the daily polling I can’t help but be reminded of the great debates two thousand years ago, prior to and after the destruction of the Temple. The debates then, as now revolved around social issues critical to the nature and fabric of society. The mid term elections are a referendum on the changes that Obama and the democrats have brought to the country hitherto. Will there be more taxation and larger government with an emphasis on a European style of socialism, or will the republicans persevere hitting the reset button, redirecting the country back to its roots whose foundational values is anchored in capitalism.

As our election process is somewhat civil so too were the struggles between the Hillelites and the Shammaites. There were times however that these two tectonic plates weren’t as civil as Pirkei Avot would have us believe. Around the time of the revolt against Rome (66-70AD) there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer, a scholar par excellence and exponent of the school of Shammai and Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, distinguished rabbi and teacher from the Hillelite ideology. Rabbi Joshua taught that righteous non-Jews as Jews have a share in the world to come (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2). Rabbi Eliezer however, ruled that gentiles, no matter how righteous have not a place in the world to come. On the basis of this heated and irreconcilable disagreement the students of the School of Shammai physically attacked students from the School of Hillel (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4). Tempers ran high because all of this was on the backdrop of the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the gentiles. Imagine that a ruling was made whereby gentiles would have a place in the world to come, this after experiencing the destruction of the Temple. The intention of the Shammaites was to prevent a majority of Hillelites from attending the critical decisive session where this issue would be ruled on. By preventing the ascendance of a Hillilite majority the Shammaites were able to push through eighteen regulations some of which designed to further separate Jews from gentiles. Hillelites saw this day “as bad as the day the Golden Calf was forged” (Jerusalem Talmud 1:4).

Coincidental to these events, and on the backdrop of these tumultuous times one of the most interesting stories of the Talmud is credited to have taken place. Briefly the story relates that a heavenly voice, the bat kol, recognized that while the differing positions between the two schools of Hillel and Shmai both have merit, the ruling, according to the bat kol is with Hillel. The bat kol reasoned that the School of Hillel was kinder and more humble presenting a more reasoned approach (Eruvin 13b). The school of Hillel, before giving their rulings would study and consider the ruling of Shammai too. The beauty of Hillel was that they recognized that there isn’t one immutable truth because as the bat kol said “elu v’elu, divrei elokim chaim”. What gave validation and legitimacy to the Hillelites was their willingness to study the teaching of the other side and wherever possible to discover the “partial truths” of the opponent. Shamaites were arrogant, and unwilling to study the teachings of Hillelites maintaining that they had nothing new to offer and nothing to learn from them.

I am reminded of this interesting, albeit esoteric chapter of our history because of the tone and rhetoric beginning to infiltrate the campaigning across the country. People from both sides of the political spectrum seem to be tone deaf and incapable of listening and learning from the other side. Beit Hillel not only thrived but also ultimately morphed into normative / rabbinic Judaism, precisely because they were attuned to and respected differing opinions and ideas. Both political parties would benefit by giving heed to that bat kol heard two thousand years ago.


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