And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1)
The ghosts of two gentlemen walk together through an olive grove near the Temple. One, Hillel, takes a deep breath of the fresh air and smiles for that reason, or for no reason at all. The other, Shammai, walks with hunched shoulders, his mouth pursed tight as if he were weaned on a pickle.
Hillel: Why must we constantly argue about rules?
Shammai: Because you’re wrong.
Hillel: Perhaps. But as we are no longer earthbound, why don’t we let our respective schools dispute?
Shammai: Okay by me. My guys have the votes. Any issue that comes up before the Sanhedrin, the School of Shammai wins.
Hillel: By virtue — and I use the term loosely — of your disciples having made common cause with the Zealots.
Shammai: Against the Romans. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Hillel: I fear that attitude may not always redound to the cause of peace around the Mediterranean.
Shammai: We’re comfortable with it.
Hillel: Yes. The question is, are you ever uncomfortable with your positions?
Shammai: I admit I prefer our rigor to your loosey-goosey, “can’t we all just get along” attitude. As does a majority of the Sanhedrin, I might add.
Hillel: “Might makes right,” my friend?
Shammai: Of course not. As it is written, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” (Exodus 23:2)
Hillel: Ah, but of course you do not believe you do evil…
Shammai: I was a righteous man. As righteous as you.
Hillel: And yet some seed we planted has borne bitter fruit. As it is written, “When the haughty of heart multiplied, dissensions increased in Israel. When the disciples of Shammai and Hillel multiplied those who had not served their teachers sufficiently, dissensions increased in Israel and the Torah became like two Toroth.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 47b, B.T. Sanhedrin 88b)
Shammai: I can’t help it if the kids didn’t study enough. But not to worry. That’s what the Eighteen Articles are for. When they pass, all disputes will cease. And the School of Shammai will prevail. (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4)
Hillel: But that’s not the point really, is it?
Shammai: Of course it is. We disagree about the meaning of Torah. We argue. We vote. There’s a winner, a loser, and soon we shall have returned to a time with only one Torah.
Shammai senses that Hillel is uncomfortable.
Shammai: Don’t take it so hard. Your reputation is secure.
Hillel: It isn’t that. Um…you don’t know what happens after that, do you?
Shammai: Not really. That’s as far as my interest took me.
Shammai: I don’t like the sound of that. Ah, what?
Hillel: Well, I’m afraid a second Gameliel will become president of the Sanhedrin. All disputed points will come up for review. And…
Hillel: I’m afraid we’ll have the votes. As it is written, “The words of both schools are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel.” (Talmud Eruvin 13b)
Shammai broods a moment, and then nods with resignation and understanding.
Shammai: I should have been nicer.
Hillel: You were fine. As you said, “Receive every man with a friendly countenance.” (Pirke Avot 1:15)
Shammai: I said it; you did it.
Hillel: Come on; it won’t be that bad.
Shammai: Easy for you to say. Now the Torah follows your orders.
Hillel: That’s what you always got wrong, the difference between the Written and the Oral Torah. You thought you were interpreting the Written Torah when, in fact, you were writing the Oral Torah.
Shammai: Say what?
Hillel: Everything is in the Written Torah, absolutely everything. Right. It’s infinite. It’s like Borges’s Aleph. It contains universes without end. And frankly it is not reducible to human comprehension. That’s why we have the Oral Torah. It’s human. Capacious, but not infinite. We can play tug-of-war with the Oral Torah forever, no harm done; in fact, that’s the point. It changes. And the Written Torah abides. It’s like “War and Peace.” They’ve made two-dozen movies based on that book. Each one is worse than the last. But you know what? Hasn’t hurt the book at all.
Shammai: Hmmm. Well, at least you did keep in the part about Beit Shammai’s words being words of the living God, too.
Hillel: Of course. That’s the most important point.
Shammai: What? Charity?
Hillel: No. That everyone can see the ongoing argument, that disagreement is built in, and even the argument that loses is valued. The battle goes on forever.
Shammai: Yeah, and you win ’em all.
Hillel: No, Beit Hillel is perfectly willing to lose battles. Beit Shammai never was.
Shammai: Do you remember the one about whether to tell a bride she’s beautiful on her wedding day, even if she’s a miskeyt?
Hillel: Yes. You said there is never an excuse for lying.
Shammai: Of course. As it is written, “Keep thee far from a false matter.”(Exodus 23:7) But you said every bride is beautiful on her wedding day. (Talmud, Ketubot 16b-17a) You were right on that one.
Hillel: See? You’re learning.
Jeffrey Fiskin lives in Hollywood, Calif., with his wife and children.