Hillel and Shammai by the Forward

Nobody canceled Shammai. Our tradition demands we respect the argument.

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.

One of my favorite characters in Jewish tradition is Shammai, the scholar whose rulings on ritual almost always lost out to Hillel’s.

There’s a lot to admire in Shammai’s way of thinking. Take Hannukah for example. To commemorate the miracle of a tiny bit of oil — really only enough for one day — lasting eight, we light candles, adding one each night for the eight-day festival. Hillel came up with that, saying it would build momentum over the holiday, ending with a full menorah.

But Shammai thought it made more sense to start with eight and work our way down to a single candle, reflecting the diminishing of the oil. You might think of him as the original strict constructionist.

Nobody canceled Shammai. Our tradition demands we respect the argument.

The thing I truly love is not Shammai himself, but that two millennia later, we still talk about Shammai, even though he lost the arguments. That’s a core tenet of Jewish tradition: We talk about the argument. We see inherent value in the argument itself and respect all sides of it.

For too many generations to count, Jews have learned about both Hillel and Shammai, and their respective followings, who were frequently at odds in the Talmud. We study their diverging interpretations of umpteen seemingly arcane aspects of Jewish law (like how many fringes should be on the corners of the religious garment men wear; Shammai actually won that one: four). They’re said to have been “friendly adversaries.”

The idea is not that individual Jews are free to pick and choose between Hillel and Shammai — or any rabbi of the Talmud or today — as it suits them for each particular occasion. Though both their rulings are said to be “words of the living God” in a famous passage referred to as eilu v’eilu, these and these, the prevailing concept is lo titgodidu, do not make factions. Whether to follow Hillel or Shammai was not the individual’s choice but that of the higher authorities. And ultimately, only Hillel became president of the Sanhedrin, essentially the leading authority of the era.

But Shammai did not disappear — or, in today’s parlance, he was never canceled.

The operations of the United States Supreme Court, in some ways, echo this Talmudic tradition. Yes, majority rules, even in a 5-4 decision. But in constitutional law classes, students are equally responsible for understanding the dissenting opinions. We seek out the Shammais, wrestle with the alternative interpretations. The presumption is, these are smart people who take this stuff seriously; both sides have worthwhile viewpoints, Eilu v’eilu, these and these are the words of the living God.

That’s what’s missing from too much of our politics and public discourse today: the quest to empathetically understand the opposition. The imperative to engage with the other argument. The very concept of the friendly adversary.

Someone scolded me the other day for violating Twitter’s “etiquette” because I tagged into a thread a person who was being criticized on it. I did this unknowingly, but the etiquette reveals so much about what’s problematic on that and other social-media platforms.

Isn’t it better to flag people — and their followers — that you are critiquing their point of view, to essentially invite them to engage your criticism? Wouldn’t that be more likely to lead to a respected, constructive dialogue about the ideas, rather than a mean-spirited, gossipy teardown of the idea-holder? Didn’t we learn way back in middle school not to say things behind people’s backs you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to their faces?

This defining people out of the debate goes way beyond Twitter.

I got an email this week suggesting The Forward do a story on why Adas Israel Congregation, a synagogue in Washington D.C. had not kicked out Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, “stripped them of membership and put their preschool kids on the street.”

Nobody canceled Shammai. Our tradition demands we respect the argument.

To be clear, the writer was not passing on an insider tip that there was a spicy debate brewing at Adas over Javanka — it turns out that the family are not even actually members of the synagogue, though they do have children enrolled in its preschool. Rather, he was suggesting we go “fishing,” as the email put it, by calling up the “known progressives” on its board. I wrote back that it was hard to imagine any shul kicking people out because of their politics — and that if mine did I’d quit faster than anyone could say Amen.

“I wouldn’t want them in my shul,” the emailer put it bluntly. “It’s not politics per se — it’s the specifically hateful policies that they stand for and in support of.” All I could think was how lucky my parents had been not to have been kicked out of their synagogue for the “specifically hateful” stories some people thought I wrote as Jerusalem bureau chief of The Times.

What if Hillel’s followers had kicked Shammai out of shul? What if Shammai’s had somehow managed to kick Hillel out?

Hillel was, generally, the gentler of the two scholars, the more empathetic. His rulings were more accessible, more livable and thus more lasting. It was that, rather than some intellectual superiority, that is generally seen in our tradition as the reason he won the day.

Take, for example, the mandate to compliment a bride. Shammai will not abide even the smallest white lie: “If a bride is lame or blind,” he is to have said, you should not lie and say she is beautiful. Hillel counters: “Every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.” This tested much better in polling.

Hillel was also much more lenient on what are reasonable grounds for divorce. And Hillel said that if you forgot to say grace after meals and didn’t realize until you had left the place where you ate, you could say it where you were — whereas Shammai insisted you had to get yourself back to the table.

Perhaps most famously, when a prospective convert came with the ridiculous request to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot, Shammai threw him out.

Nobody canceled Shammai. Our tradition demands we respect the argument.

Hillel, of course, managed to capture the tradition’s essence in a sentence. Don’t do to your neighbor what you would not want done to you, he said. The rest is commentary: Go and study it.

Study the commentary. Read the dissent. Remember the argument. Engage the people you criticize. Respect the Shammais.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article mistakenly said that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are members of Adas Israel Congregation. They send their children to its preschool, but are not members of the synagogue.

Jodi Rudoren is the editor-in-chief of the Forward.

Nobody canceled Shammai. Our tradition demands we respect the argument.

Author

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, the nation’s oldest independent Jewish news organization, in September 2019 after more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. She is helping lead a transformation of the storied 123-year-old institution, a nonprofit that went digital-only in early 2019.

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Nobody canceled Shammai. Our tradition demands we respect the argument.

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