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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


There is a rather interesting halacha on the books which refers to “tircha d’tzibur” (inconvenience caused to the general public). Its narrow application would refer to synagogue service where additional non-obligatory devotional prayers are eliminated in order to avoid undue hardship for the community. Although this halacha is fairly limited in its scope it ought to be broadened to encompass situations where as a result of the minorities insistence on marginal halachic adherence to “humras” (unreasonably strict interpretation and application of a Jewish law) and where the general public will suffer, the halacha should be trumped by the concerns of the public. Let us not forget that when these and other halachot were codified Jews weren’t living with the general public, but among themselves, either in forced ghettos or in self contained communities. Those responsible for the development of halacha in this new age, where there is an independent State of Israel and where in the Diaspora most Jews live and work among the general non Jewish population, hasn’t the focus, the keen understanding and awareness, and will to adjust halachic mores and values to fit in to this new paradigm.

Precisely because the Jewish community has developed into a new and unparalleled model where a sea change has engulfed the way we live and think it ought to be obvious to the leading lights of the rabbinical academies that in spite of what 19th century French philosopher and political thinker, Alex De Tocqueville feared the tyranny of the majority the opposite has happened: the tyranny of the minority known as Minoritarianism.

One of my pet peeves with ultra Orthodox Judaism is its rigid adherence to unreasonably strict halachic standards regardless of the consequences to others. Typically ultra orthodox Jews who haven’t cloistered themselves away and feel enlightened enough to mix with the general public still manage to alienate themselves from the public, due to their insistence on following their rigid understanding of halacha regardless of the handicap this will cause to the general public. A classic example of this is the recent brouhaha in the IDF where a fine officer is being asked to resign because of the manner in which he enforced the IDF’s sense of honor and respectful behavior. The incident involves a haredi soldier (cadet) “being forced” to attend a performance where a woman performer was singing, allegedly contrary to Jewish law. The soldier abruptly walked out of the performance because of the halacha proscribing him from listening to a woman singing (kol isha) resulting in his dismissal from the officer’s training course by the commanding officer. The soldier is appealing and asking for the dismissal of the commanding officer claiming that "the reason I joined the army and this particular regiment was my desire to serve in the IDF and contribute to the people of Israel, while maintaining Jewish Law without any compromises”.

The operative word in this quote is “compromises”. In truth, compromise is certainly permitted under Jewish Law. As a matter of fact the sages believed that there are only three things that one has to die for: adultery, murder and idolatry. Everything else can be negotiated or compromised. Everything is subject to interpretation, negotiation and compromise. Our sages were not rigid as so many of the discussions and arguments between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai will attest to. Hearing a women’s voice isn’t a cardinal law within the hierarchy of the “taryag” (613) mitzvoth and is barely on the radar screen, but picked up by the ultra orthodox as a humra.

The problem is that haredi Jews are living in a bubble where they think that they don’t have to compromise. They believe that they ought to force the majority to their will. In a way it isn’t that much different than the Muslim communities mission to have every soul bend to the will of Allah. In our case there is a haredi desire (mission) for everyone to bend to their interpretation of halacha.

Certainly this particular situation demonstrates that compromise should have been encouraged by the rabbis in order to ensure the discipline necessary within the IDF isn’t compromised. No one was asking this haredi soldier to eat prohibited foods or to desecrate the Shabbat. In question is a problematic and dubious prohibition, which many orthodox Jews don’t subscribe to or abide by. The irony in this is that where de Tocqueville was worried about the tyranny of the majority we have the reverse where a small minority is terrorizing the majority.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ghetto in a Ghetto

The security wall soon to be completed around Jerusalem conjures up Ghetto and having come back from Israel recently I have had this ghetto obsession. I realize, of course, that Israel isn’t a ghetto in the conventional sense of the European ghettos that our ancestors lived. We aren’t herded into a confined area, nor are gates locked and a curfew maintained nightly. We are an independent country, enforcing our own laws and enter as well as exit the country when we please. As an independent nation we are masters of our own collective destiny. When necessary, to protect our citizens and our independence we raise hell with our Muslim neighbors. Nevertheless, I keep on wondering whether Israel has become another ghetto, but this time larger, self sufficient and more potent than our previous experiences as ghetto dwellers, thus giving the word ghetto a new meaning. I can’t help but think that if it were true it would be one of the cruel ironies of Jewish history. After all, the whole point of the Zionist enterprise was to free us from the ghetto mentality, to build the new Jew in a new land. Yet, when coming back from my past visit I couldn’t shake this intuitive feeling that I just experienced what my ancestors must have felt in the European ghettos.

In the European ghettos we were locked in at night, subjected to horrific indignities and intolerable discrimination at the hand of the government and good Christian neighbors. Sometimes, and not infrequently, Christian neighbors ganged up on us, a “free for all” by the “pogromchiks” when they decided to have some fun with us on our own turf. They would storm our villages, pillage, rape and murder, and then recede for a while until the next time. But you all know that. What you may not realize however is that a similar pattern has unfolded in the moledet. We aren’t at liberty to pass passport control at any of the exit points to travel to the immediate neighborhood without special entry visas to the Palestinian territories. We can’t travel at will to neighboring countries which border Israel, underscoring our minority status in a very hostile environment as we were once before in Europe. Add to that the constant barrage of rockets from Gaza and we have pogroms operated through remote control. When we go in to clear out the “pogromchiks” we are condemned by the world with a resounding: “shut up Jew, stop complaining, be happy you’re allowed to breath.”

That’s the macro ghetto, the nation of Israel living daily in the shadow of an angry and cruel neighborhood and an antisemitic United Nations. But then I wonder about the micro ghetto, you know, the ghetto within the ghetto. The ultra orthodox communities haven’t yet reconciled itself to joining the larger community and seek to separate itself socially, physically and culturally from the greater corpus of the Jewish people. It seems that the greatest of the culprits is non other than in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the new tram that will be starting operations shortly has been shrouded in controversy from its very inception. There were those that claimed that it wouldn’t meet the transportation needs of a significant Jerusalem population and therefore the budget wasn’t justified. Others maintained that it would destroy the businesses in the city center since it would shift population away from the commercial center that has been ensconced there for a hundred years. These arguments had merit and were worth consideration. Now however, a new and totally unnecessary controversy has arisen around the tram. Will the tram provide the necessary separation between men and women, and will there be provisions for public prayer? So when the municipality made arrangements that the last car would be designated as the haredi car where only men would be seated the question arose if it was appropriate for them to have the second car, which meant that they would be seated behind women! Pathetic and insulting to a country that prides itself in being counted among the enlightened West.

And if this wasn’t enough, Jerusalem haredim are seeking to establish a new market place because the classic and historical one, the Shuk Mahane Yehudah sponsored the Balabasta Festival, which according to the rigid Puritanical standards of the haredim wasn’t halachically appropriate, not measuring up to the standards of the “Badatz” sniff test. The new and improved market will have separate shopping hours for men and women. Frankly it sounds quite colorless, and a significant deviation from Jewish religious standards – even haredi standards.

In my youth I lived in Jerusalem having attended university there and was well integrated in this universal city. Then, it was a cosmopolitan city, an intellectual magnet for students, artists and professionals. It wasn’t a ghetto. It attracted the best and the brightest from all over America and Europe. Since those halcyon days, Jerusalem has been slipping backward with no end in sight, preferring the backwater flavor of a shtetl, a ghetto, where there is little room for intellectual curiosity and growth beyond which is offered in a yeshiva. A ghetto within a ghetto.