Hillel and Shammai (Rosh Hashanah 5774)

You may have heard stories about the ancient sages Hillel and Shammai. During the 1st Century B.C.E. Hillel and Shammai shared leadership of the Sanhedrin, the deliberative body and high court that determined all matters of Jewish practice and behavior. Hillel was a poor immigrant from Babylonia who came to the Land of Israel to study in the academy. Shammai was a successful builder and wealthy patrician.

In the stories the Talmud tells about Hillel and Shammai, Shammai is stern and irascible, while Hillel is patient and embracing. Here is perhaps the most famous story about the two men:

It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “take me as a student for conversion, but on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while standing on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod he happened to have in his hand. When the heathen came before Hillel with the same request, Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Later when the heathen had become a Jew, he met two other converts who had experienced similar treatment at the hands of the two sages. They said to one another, “Shammai’s severity drove us away, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.” Hence the sages say: A person should always be as flexible as Hillel, not as inflexible as Shammai. (BT Shabbat 31a)

Clearly, our tradition favors Hillel’s point of view, to our great benefit. Hillel’s disciples and descendants, known as the House of Hillel, became the leaders of the Jewish community in the centuries that followed. Hillel’s most famous teachings became the foundation of Jewish wisdom and life:

Do not withdraw from the community;Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death;Do not judge another human being until you have stood in his place;Do not say, “It is impossible to understand this,” for ultimately it will be understood;Do not say, “When I have the free time, I will study,” for you may never find that free time.

And: In a place where no one is behaving like a mensch, strive to be a mensch.

And: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

And much more. Shaped by Hillel’s teachings, Judaism preaches tolerance, humility, inquiry, responsibility and kindness.

But what of Shammai and his disciples? Do they disappear into the waste bin of history? On the contrary, they continue to debate with the House of Hillel, and the ongoing relationship between these two opponents becomes the testing ground for some of the key principles that Hillel preached. That is, how are you to treat someone with whom you disagree? How do you approach conflicting viewpoints without demeaning your opponent?

In our society today this is a pressing question, and Judaism has much to teach us. The manner in which the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai do and sometimes do not resolve their conflicts becomes the foundation of our tradition’s important teachings on creative conflict resolution. In fact, the Talmud’s teachings on this subject presage and support the current wisdom in the field of conflict resolution.

The primary text is this aphorism from Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of the Sages:“A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, whereas 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.” (Mishnah Avot 5:17)

For the sake of Heaven, l’shem shamayim, is an idiom that means “for the greatest good”. It literally means “in the name of heaven”, and should be contrasted with “in the name of myself”. That is, the Mishnah asks, are you engaging in controversy for the sake of a greater good, or for the sake of making your name greater? The famous rebel Korach does not appear to have the needs of the community in mind when he challenges Moses for leadership. His controversy will have no enduring value, and will only be self-serving and even destructive. But the controversies of Hillel and Shammai, undertaken in the service of approaching truth and determining what is best, are constructive debates in the best sense.

The Talmud elaborates on the relationship of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:“Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed, the House of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the House of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. This is to show you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace”(Zechariah 8:16).”

The narrative continues with this amazing story: “Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed. These said the halacha is in accordance with us, and those said that the halacha was in accordance with us. A heavenly voice emerged and said. “Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the halacha is in accordance with the House of Hillel.”

“Both these and those are the words of the living God.” This is one of the things I love about Judaism: humans are not in possession of absolute truth or justice. There can and often should be more than one correct position when trying to resolve a complex problem. Furthermore, both conflicting positions are the words of the living God; that is, we really figure out how to live through a vigorous exchange of ideas. Or one might say, God is most present in our lives not in the smug and static endorsement of our own positions, but in the meaningful exchanges we have with others. The process is at least as important as the final decision, for in fact in the human realm there is no final decision, only temporary ones that require regular reevaluation: both these and those are the words of the living God. Judaism teaches that God, YHVH, Life Unfolding, is most present when genuine communication is taking place.

Elsewhere, the Talmud explains how Hillel and Shammai’s relationship worked. In one case both Hillel and Shammai ultimately retracted their opinions in favor of a third opinion. The text then explains that it was important to record this in order “to teach future generations that a person should not [stubbornly] adhere to his words” (Mishnah Eduyot 1:4).

Thus the Talmud teaches us that receptivity to other opinions, the ability to admit when one is wrong, adherence to the principles of intellectual integrity and a devotion to truth are all key characteristics of one who is entering a dispute “for the sake of Heaven.”

But we still need to address another curiosity in the Talmudic narrative: “A heavenly voice emerged and said. “Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the halacha is in accordance with the House of Hillel.” The Talmud asks the obvious question: “Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why was the halacha established in accordance with the House of Hillel?” The Talmud continues: “Because they were polite and forbearing when insulted and would study both their own views and the views of the House of Shammai. Moreover they would place the views of the House of Shammai before their own.” (BT Eruvin 13b)

My colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg elaborates: “The [Talmud’s] startling answer is that the law is according to the House of Hillel not because of their superior analysis, but based on the House of Hillel’s tone and style of communication, their way of conducting themselves in the midst of a conflict.” The Talmud determines, in fact, that in every recorded case in which the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagree, (and there are scores of them), the decision follows the House of Hillel. Judaism permanently privileges the House of Hillel because of the manner in which they approached conflict, and the fundamental respect they showed to those on the other side of a dispute.

But the Talmud also always records the opinion of the House of Shammai, even though that opinion has been rejected. The Talmud also declares that all decisions follow the opinion of the House of Hillel only until the Messiah comes, at which point the opinions of the House of Shammai will take precedence. Humans have no final lock on truth – every decision is, as it were, only a draft policy, as we forever strive to approximate true justice in our individual lives and in our society. If we understand our fundamental limitations, we will understand Hillel, patient, humble, flexible Hillel.

One more Talmudic example: it appears that the relationship between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai were not always peaceful. The Mishnah relates, “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 explains, 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)

Later Jewish authorities declared that this incident took place on the 9th of Adar, and declared that henceforth it should be a day of fasting and penitence.

Our Jewish tradition unequivocally supports respectful dialogue and condemns bullying and abandonment of due process. It should be apparent that my thoughts have turned to this subject as I watch with dismay as our government grinds to a halt, held hostage by those who reject the very idea of respectful dialogue and creative compromise. But as much as that arena grips my attention, Rosh Hashanah is not the time to pontificate and condemn; I suspect if Hillel were here today he would gently remind me of that. Rosh Hashanah is the time to look in the mirror. How do I deal with conflict in my own relationships, both intimate and communal? Do I try to ram through decisions? Am I able to think about the big picture, the greatest good, as I deliberate? Do I stop and ask myself, “why are you arguing about this, anyway?” Do I attempt to understand the other person’s point of view, and articulate it?

Our tradition teaches that God’s presence is most alive in an open exchange: “both these and those are the words of the living God”. 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, dammit. 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.

I will close with two poems. The late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:The Place Where We Are Right – Hamakom She’bo Anu Tzodkim

From the place where we are rightFlowers will never growIn the spring.

The place where we are rightIs hard and trampledLike a yard.

But doubts and lovesDig up the worldLike a mole, a plow.And a whisperWill be heard in the placeWhere the ruinedHouse once stood. And the Persian poet Rumi wrote:Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doingThere is a field.I will meet you there.

Shana Tova.