Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hillel and Shammai Revisited

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were the two premier schools of thought in the century that encompassed the destruction of the second Temple. These schools stemmed from two great thinkers, one strident, the other more insightful, emerged out of the chaos created in the dissolution of the Sanhedrin by Herod. While their relationship was collegial both contributing to the halachic discourse and enrichment of the community their progenitors as expected, had a more difficult time adjusting to a world where there was no Temple. These two schools of thought different as they were from each other in practice and philosophy had the community’s interest at heart. But beyond that each of them based their halachic positions on a principled understanding of text as well as a passionate love for their people. I mention this to set the record straight for those who may have read Shmaryahu Rosenberg’s op-ed in the Forward (“A Rabbinic Tea Party Precedent”, September 23, 2011) in which the School of Shammai was portrayed as a collection of delinquents and hooligans.

Rosenberg’s op-ed did a great injustice to the School of Shammai. He has interpreted the actions of that school through the lens of contemporary American politics, comparing the School of Shammai to the Tea Party movement associated with the Republican Party. If nothing else, the School of Shammai was committed to halachic solutions to real problems effecting real people who witnessed the annihilation of their spiritual center. Politics was not on the agenda, nor were they reacting to a groundswell of opinion or a popular movement. They were principled in their decisions, so much so that the Talmud suggests that until the bat kol (heavenly voice) is heard their point of view is as valid as the School of Hillel. Great scholars were supportive of the School of Shammai as evident by the support of the acclaimed sage Rabbi Tarfon. The Talmud Bavli (Shabbat 25b) in discussing who is considered a rich man sites Rabbi Tarfon of the School of Shammai who declaimed without chagrin that a rich man is ”one who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields and a hundred servants to work them”. This was quite different than the School of Hillel who believed a rich person was one who was satisfied with his lot, however small. The school of Shammai had no ulterior political or tax motives for saying this, but a sincere literal and lucid understanding of what it meant to be wealthy. The School of Hillel, being more politically correct perhaps of course, saw wealth as a metaphorically. Needless to say the School of Hillel never defined “rich”, rather defined what it means to be fulfilled or content.

Both approaches were acceptable to the sages and it is for this reason that they said not once that “elu v’elu divrei elohim chaim” (both this and that are the words of the living god), meaning that neither Hillel or Shammai have a monopoly on halachic interpretation. The use of “elu v’elu” referring to both schools would rule out the notion that the School of Shammai were extremists as Rosenberg would have us believe. Ultimately the School of Hillel superseded the School of Shammai perhaps because the bat kol finally came out in Yavne after 70CE in favor of Hillel. Perhaps however there was another reason. The School of Shmmai was noted as understanding text literally while Hillel saw text only through the prism of interpretation, reasonableness and creativity. Thus when the Torah informs us to read the prayer “shema” when “you lie down and when you rise up” the School of Shammai understood it literally. They believed it should be read in a prone position at night, while the School of Hillel understood it to mean that before you go to sleep read the shema and when you wake in the morning. One doesn’t have to be in a prone position to read the “shema” according to the School of Hillel but Rabbi Tarfon agreed with Shammai’s rendering of the text and would lie down before reading the “shema”.

The difference then between the two Schools was the following: The school of Shammai understood the text literally without the need for interpretation. The School of Hillel, more creative and imaginative, wished to probe deeper into what the text really meant and what its adherents were supposed to get out of the text. None of this meant that the School of Shammai was abusive or applied physical force to have their way. Rosenberg’s portrayal of the School of Shammai as intolerant and prone to hooliganism as evidenced by one famous instant that he sites is ridiculous. Of the 350 controversies between the two schools only once was there recorded behavior unbecoming of Talmudic scholars which they were.

The two schools emerged as an answer to the vacuum left when under Herod the Sanhedrin was disbanded as stated previously. In addition and no less important, the battles between the Sadducees and the Pharisees were coming to a close with the destruction of the Temple. The use of the word Pharisee was discouraged and ultimately dropped from usage because of its connotation; the rabbis wishing to end the in fighting known as “sinat chinom” (hateful for no reason) as well as any other forms of derisive behavior. The School of Shammai was part of this effort and to suggest otherwise is misreading Jewish history. Rosenberg’s reading of Shammai is flawed when he says “what Shammai didn’t understand is that the process of democracy itself has a value far beyond the laws decided through it, and circumventing it leads to extremism and disaster”. Perhaps Shammai didn’t grasp the value of a democratic system “a la” Western Democracy. Of course not. They were living in the Middle East two thousand years ago in the shadow of a destroyed Temple with hardly any infrastructure left and unprecedented carnage their lives in shambles without a clear grasp of what was to become of them. Their interest wasn’t democratic process; their concern was the very survival of the Jewish people.