NiSh’ma: Machlochet, Marriage EqualityBy :
While marriage equality for same-sex couples has been a defining struggle of the past 20 years, disputes around marriage date back thousands of years. Why does the Talmud highlight the fact that, despite their fundamental disagreements, the two most famous rival schools of Jewish legal thinking — Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai — allowed their children to marry one another?
Marriage adds a public dimension to an intensely personal bond between two people. The houses of Shamai and Hillel treated one another with love and friendship — evidenced by their willingness to marry one another. What bound these schools — which disagreed on philosophy and legal principle — together was their commitment to building deep relationships founded on respect for one another. They bridged their disagreements by looking out for one another. In fact, to avert the rival school from contracting a marriage it believed to be impermissible, they notified one another when any such circumstances arose.
Marriage poses many challenges for two different people in living together. Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai modeled how differences need not cause divided hearts. Privately, in our marriages, and publicly, in our communities, disagreement abounds; for instance, profound questions of religion or our views on Israel often divide and destroy. The central challenge that our text poses is to find a way, despite our disagreements, to treat one another with love and respect, both in our private and our public lives.
NiSh’ma: Machlochet, Communal NeedsBy :
Amitai Adler: The respectful relations between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, spoken of numerous times throughout the Talmud, represents the beautiful ideal of machlochet l’shem shamayim, dispute for the sake of heaven — what the rabbis define in Pirkei Avot as respectfully disputing Torah for selfless reasons rather than conducting disrespectful disputations about personal or political power. As David Bilchitz notes, “Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai modeled how challenges and differences need not cause divided hearts.”
Machlochet l’shem shamayim is, perhaps, the quality most needed and most lacking in the Jewish world today. Between the various Orthodox communities, between the committed halakhic and committed non-halakhic, non-Orthodox communities, there is little in the way of compromise or mutual respect. One would be hard pressed to imagine a Reform Jew feeling comfortable with a daughter marrying a Chabadnik or a Ner Yisroel Litvak family feeling comfortable eating anything at the table of a Conservative Jew; or the rabbinut in Israel accepting a non-Orthodox (or, these days, even non-Haredi) conversion.
We are grievously failing both Hillel and Shammai with our failure to appreciate and embrace machlochet l’shem shamayim. Our first steps toward that re-embrace should be to remember that we all have sparks of kedusha (holiness) within us, which draw us together. And then, we might consider how we understand that holiness and connection within.
NiSh’ma: Machlochet, Focused on Higher PurposeBy :
An acquaintance of mine recently quipped: “I wouldn’t care if my child married a non-Jew, but a Republican — no way!” In our polarized country, I suspect the sentiment is not uncommon: Some Americans feel more in common with those of another faith community than with co-religionists who have a strikingly different worldview or political orientation. By contrast, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were willing to have their children “intermarry,” despite intense disagreement on matters of ethics and halakhah. Disagreements aside, it seems that they also were able to stay focused on a higher purpose: helping the Jewish people to live according to God’s will.
Not every opinion is worthy of our respect — certainly, not the torrent of bigoted and hateful speech that was unleashed in the past election cycle. Such speech must be condemned and marginalized. But, like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we must find our higher purpose and engage in vigorous debate across the many divides in our nation to build a society in which all people live with dignity. There are reasons we have not done so, among them, that our neighborhoods and social circles tend to be homogeneous. We seldom truly engage with people from backgrounds sharply divergent from our own. And yet we assume that our own narrow experience provides sufficient knowledge from which to ascertain the right solutions and the right leaders for our society. The outcome of the election should both humble and embolden us to reach across the divides and seek a broader, more inclusive conversation. That may be the only path to creating a just society.