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Judaism and Civil Discourse

Jonathan Kligler
April 2, 2017

Us Versus Them, or Argument for the Sake of Heaven?

by Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

WE’VE WATCHED constructive discourse and debate break down in our country in recent years, with a trend away from the value of civil discourse -- and a lot of effort to retain it. In this effort, Judaism has a great deal to teach, for it absolutely and unequivocally puts a lot of energy into elevating civil discourse into a very high value for Jews and for all people. The rabbis of the Talmud, in particular, cherished majority rule and the debate that leads to decisions.

Let’s start with this well-known line from Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of the Sages, the central book of wisdom aphorisms that create the framework for the sprawling Talmud. The sayings in Pirkei Avot are very pithy, and like a good aphorism, leave you wanting more and open up a discussion:

A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.

What is an example of a ‘controversy for the sake of Heaven’? The debates of Hillel and Shammai.

What is an example of a ‘controversy not for the sake of Heaven’? The rebellion of Korach and his associates.

“The sake of Heaven” in Hebrew is l’shem shamayim. The best way that I can translate that into our idiom is “for the greatest good.” The opposite of “for the sake of Heaven” is “for your own aggrandizement,” for your own benefit. That’s an important pole in rabbinic thought: You want your actions not to be for the gratification of your own ego, but for the sake of Heaven, in other words, for the greatest good. The rabbis sought to set up this paradigm of two kinds of reasons to engage in a controversy: one because by engaging in this struggle of ideas, you want to come up with the best possible outcome in a complicated world; the other because you want power for yourself, you want to self-aggrandize, you have no actual interest in a collective interaction through the debate but rather simply to steamroll over your opponent and show how smart and right you are.

Leaving politics for a second, think about yourself. When you engage in an argument or disagreement, especially with the people you’re closest to, you have to check: Am I doing this in order to be right? Am I doing it because I don’t want to be wrong? Or am I doing it because there’s a real complicated issue that we’re looking for a solution to? A controversy in which our ego has taken over and is just defending itself so as not to be taken down a notch is a controversy that the rabbis would say has no lasting value. In fact, you could say it has a destructive value. The game ends, you scored ten, they scored nine, what do you want to do now? If it’s not really a game, if you’re having an argument about something substantial, and your main goal has been to show that you’re right, what is accomplished? Who needs it?

FOR THE RABBIS, debate over what is the will of God -- that is, what is the best thing for us -- is a sacred activity, a crucial mitsve. But before we talk about the controversies between Hillei and Shammai, the controversies “for the sake of Heaven,” let’s first talk about Korach, who is the rabbis’ poster boy for how not to do it.

Korach has a whole Torah portion named after him, beginning at Numbers 16. He is portrayed as either a righteous rebel against the consolidation of power, or as a populist demagogue. Korach, the son of Yitzhar, is first cousin to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. He’s a Levite. He organizes 250 people to his side, and they confront Moses with: “Rav lakhem” -- “you’ve taken too much for yourselves, for the entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst, so how come you raise yourselves up above the Lord’s assembly?” Sounds pretty righteous!

But if you examine Moses’ leadership, it’s apparent that Moses has never enriched himself through it. The Torah is explicit about this. Remember the burning bush? Does he want the job? The Torah makes clear that he is the most humble man on Earth! He is, however, the boss. He’s the one who goes up the mountain, he’s the one who saves the people from destruction, he’s the one who quells rebellions, he’s the one.

As for Korach, his language is clearly populist, but it’s not clear, at least not explicitly stated, that he has any actual interest in “the people.“Moses hears his words of rebellion and falls on his face. Isn’t it enough that God has distinguished you from the congregation because you’re Levites and you’re in charge of the holy precinct? he says. Why do you need more? And what is it that Aaron and I have done, that you’re assembling against me? Come back in the morning, and God will choose between us.

Moses also calls Korach’s followers to meet with him, but they refuse to come, saying, “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” (Numbers 16: 13).

Moses is very distressed. Do not accept their offering, he says to God. I haven’t taken a single donkey from a single one of them. I have not harmed a single one of them. And he announces to Korach that there will be a test tomorrow, by God.

What happens is that the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers, and the rebellion is over.

The rabbis, interested in the nature of controversy, sees Korach as a paradigm of self- aggrandizement. He pulls every political move to bring the people to his side, including romanticizing their mythical past: “a land of milk and honey” — in which they were all slaves! “Make American great again” -- and Korach is the one to bring us there!

HILLEL AND SHAMMAI, on the other hand, are considered to be the example of how to have a controversy that’s for the sake of Heaven. These were rabbis who lived in ancient Israel in the end of the first century BCE. They were the most famous of the pairs of rabbis who led the Sanhedrin, the great court and legislature of the Jewish people. The stories about Hillel and Shamai are not necessarily historical, although the two men seem to have had very distinctive personalities. The stories our tradition tells about them are more like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, to highlight his quality of truth-telling.

Hillel comes to Jerusalem as a poor Babylonian. Shammai is a wealthy builder. Shammai is irascible and impatient, and Hillel is incredibly gentle, patient, and forbearing. The stories about them reflect their personalities, and they are used as foils for one another. For example, in a debate about when you’re supposed to fudge the truth, they use as an example a bride who’s ugly, in an ugly bridal gown. The question is, “Do you tell her?” Shammai says, “Yes, you have to tell her!” and Hillel says, “Are you crazy? Tell her she’s beautiful!” This is the kind of debate in which Hillel and Shammai participate — with Shammai usually hard-nosed and strict, and Hillel flexible and merciful.

Each of them runs an academy and has a following. There are some three hundred Talmudic references to Beyt Hillel and Beyt Shammai, the “houses” of Hillel and Shammai. As a rule, their houses disagree, so they’re always in controversy. But the Babylonian Talmud notes:

Although the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed, the house of Shamai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women from the house of Hillel. Nor did the house of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the house of Shamai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, ‘Love ye truth and peace.’

Here the rabbis are giving us the first clue as to why the debates of Hillel and Shammai are considered to be for the greatest good: because the debaters didn’t isolate themselves from one another. They welcomed “intermarriage,” and everything that that means about mingling your families. No grudges. No dehumanizing. They agreed to disagree. All of that is reflected in other sources.

Eruvin 13b says:

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel: For three years the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai disagreed. These said that the halakhah (Jewish law) was in accordance with us! And those said that the halakhah was in accordance with us! And a heavenly voice emerged and said elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim -– these and these are the words of the living God.

Think about that for a minute. If you think Judaism is a fundamentalist tradition -- well, we certainly have fundamentalist Jews, but the Talmud is not a fundamentalist document! It just isn’t, because it holds to this principle, one of the abiding principles of rabbinic debate: “Both these and these are the words of the living God.” Yet the halakhah, the text continues, the actual practice, is going to be according to the house of Hillel. The heavenly voice, invoking divine authority, does not say, “Hillel’s right.” The debate itself is holy, the voice says, because you’re doing it to figure out how we Jews should behave. But we have to choose a practice, so we’re going to choose.

But why Hillel, the Talmud asks.

Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why is the halakhah established in accordance with the house of Hillel? Because they were polite and forbearing. And they would teach both their own views and the views of the house of Shamai when they taught. Moreover, they would place the views of the house of Shammai before their own.

Some might say that Hillel, being more “liberal” than Shammai regarding people’s imperfections and what can be expected of us, would come up with a more successful halakhah, so the “heavenly voice” is making a wise decision. But the text doesn’t here discuss the content of the debates between Hillel and Shammai. The text is only interested in explaining that Hillel’s decisions were privileged to be the ruling because of the mentshlikh way he and his disciples behaved during these controversies. The value here being elucidated is not liberalism or conversatism, but a respectful process.

Some of Hillel’s most famous teachings include, If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? . . . Do not withdraw from the community . . . Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death . . . Do not judge another judge another human being until you have stood in his place. . . . In a place where no one is behaving like a mensch, strive to be one. Do you get the flavor of this man? It is Hillel’s lineage that becomes the centerpiece of the rabbinic tradition, I’m deeply grateful for that. Hillel rises on merit, and future heads of the rabbinic court are his descendants, stretching on for 300 years! Hillel’s views will be the practice, the tradition holds, until the Messiah comes, at which point we switch to Shammai. Which is their way of saying, These and these are the words of the living God.

IN THE TALMUD and the Mishnah, as is their way, an example is given of a time when the system of mutual respect broke down.

And these are some of the regulations enacted in the attic of Hananiah ben Gorion, when the rabbis came to visit him. They did a roll call and found that the disciples of Shammai were more numerous than those of Hillel, and they enforced 18 regulations on that day.

The sages consider this day to be a tragedy. The Talmud proclaims that on that day, the House of Shammai “thrust a sword into the study house and declared: ‘Whoever wants to enter may enter, but no one may leave!’ And on that day Hillel sat in submission before Shammai…and it was as wretched for Israel as the day on which the [golden] calf was made.” (BT Shabbat 17a)

Again, this is not history: There may have been an incident, but every incident becomes fodder for the message. Did they actually thrust a sword, or even show a sword, into the study house? Did they bar the door? Did they put their strong guys by the door and say “Hey we’re calling a vote!” One way or another, they violently forced legislation through against every precept of these previous descriptions of how it’s supposed to happen. The rabbis analogize to the golden calf — that this kind of behavior is like kicking God out of the room. That day, the Jerusalem Talmud continues, was as wretched as the day the golden calf was made. It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yoshia Yenuyah. The students of the house of Shammai stood before him and they began to slaughter the students of the house of Hillel.

Now, we have no historical record as to whether there was a time, just like Congress before the Civil War, when people starting getting into fist fights and taking out their guns, whether discourse broke down so fully as to turn into violence. We don’t know. But by the Middle Ages, the Talmud is declaring, “One may not enter the house of learning with weapons.” And by the16th century, the legend there had been a slaughter of Hillel’s disciples by Shammai’s disciples turned the 9th of Adar into a fast day: “These are the days that tragedies befell our ancestors,” says the Shulkhan Arukh, “and it is worthy to fast on them . . .” The very idea that debate could break down to the point where one side would subjugate, violently or otherwise, the other, was considered worthy of fasting. We fast in order to grieve, make atonement, remember tragedy.

OUR JEWISH TRADITION unequivocally supports respectful dialogue and condemns bullying and abandonment of due process. Our tradition teaches that God’s presence is most alive in an open exchange. In non-theistic language, I would say: We are most alive in an open exchange. Energy is being shared, previously unseen possibilities emerge, life is happening, unfolding, a little scary but real, and we know it. We give up the fortress of being right, and walk out into the open field of possibility, knowing that we cannot by definition know all the answers, and that other people are the very key to our own growth. I hate doing this sometimes, because I’m right, damn it! And I hate doing it sometimes because I’m scared. Sometimes I’m lazy, and sometimes I’m too busy or distracted. Sometimes I just don’t know what to do. But none of that should stop us from emulating the great Rabbi Hillel, and humbly and honestly inviting real communication into our lives.

Let me close with a poem from the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

Hamakom She’bo Anu Tzodkim/The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper

Will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, leader of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation for more than twenty-five years, is the author of HINENI: Essays and Torah Commentaries from Twenty-Five Years on the Bimah, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. Rabbi Kligler is an accomplished musician whose works include Songs of Hope, Love and Courage.