Our tradition has always embraced disagreement.
One might think that the most famous rabbis of disagreement were Hillel and Shammai.
In the first century BCE the Babylonian Hillel migrated to Israel and worked as a woodcutter as he studied. He lived in such poverty that he was unable to pay the fee to study Torah. It is said, because he was known for his kindness, gentleness and concern for humanity, (in other words he was a mentsch), it was decided to abolish the Torah study fee.
His contemporary was Shammai, born-and-bred in the land of Israel. He worked as a builder, was a man of some wealth, and was also a teacher of Torah. His views on everything were strict, usually because he worried about the assimilation of the Jews into the Roman world. He was considered dour, quick-tempered and impatient.
Two more different personalities would be difficult to find. But at the end of the day, they served on the same Sanhedrin and mixed in the same intellectual cohort. Colleagues. They agreed on many basic issues of Jewish law, though they came at the law from different perspectives.
So why might one think that they are the most famous rabbis of disagreement?
Perhaps because their disciples were often in conflict. They followed the philosophies of their founders. Hillel based his rulings on his concern for every individual’s welfare, while Shammai was concerned with the strictures of the law. The Talmud records 300 cases of disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.
A disagreement is also the central theme of our Torah portion Korach. Korach, Datan and Abiram stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of raising themselves above the community. All of Israel, argues Korach, Datan and Abiram, are holy. Moses responds by suggesting that God will decide who is holy, who is worthy of leadership, by accepting or rejecting incense offerings that they bring.
Our portion does not hide that the Moses and Aaron’s leadership, did, endure its challengers. The rebellion, the arguments against our esteemed Biblical leaders, are there for us to struggle with, argue over and see. Our tradition has never been one that glosses over disagreements or writes them out of history.
This week at the National Assembly of the United Nations, the United States, represented by Nikki Haley, laid bare a disagreement with the most recent resolution condemning Israel for excessive force at the Gaza Border. The resolution, Nikki Haley articulately pointed out, was biased against Israel, and did not take into account, or condemn, the irresponsibility of Hamas not looking after its own population in Gaza nor did it condemn Hamas’s constant attacking of Israel through rockets and terrorist attacks.
In Haley’s words: “The nature of this resolution clearly demonstrates that politics is driving the day. It is totally one-sided. It makes not one mention of the Hamas terrorists who routinely initiate the violence in Gaza….”Advancing peace is not the goal of this resolution … (It blames everything on Israel.”
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was arguing for an acknowledgment of dual narratives. That neither side was totally blameless. But to ignore the rockets and attacks on Israel by Hamas was to present a bias towards only one part of the story. As such, the U.S. could not support or vote for this resolution.
Like Nikki Haley’s words this week, our tradition has always embraced duality. And in doings so, it has always acknowledged the counter-argument along with the argument. We know both the positions of Hillel and Shammai. We know Korach’s objections, Moses response and God’s judgement.
I recently finished Yossi Klein HaLevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”, free for download in Arabic. I opted to pay full price for the English version on Amazon!
This book is a follow up to Klein HaLevi’s less-well-known volume he wrote years ago, where he journeyed and documented the narrative and story of Palestinians. In between books, the intifadas, and dashed hope for peace. He has finally reached a psychological place where he can pick up the dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian once again.
The book’s purpose and structure is just as its’ title suggests. It is 9 letters to his Palestinian neighbor who lives across the protective wall that divides Jerusalem and deters terrorists. The wall that he can see out his window from his home.
There are many striking things about this short volume. One of the best books I have read in a long while on the dispute.
First, how beautifully Klein HaLevi details our Jewish history, our physical and spiritual connection to this land. This book is written to create an understanding in the Arab world, to ask them to look beyond their biases, to understand that the Jewish people have a right to Israel that is true and just. In doing so it does not shy away from condemning Arab anti-semitism but also asks for an openness of mind and for a consideration of the truth he has to articulate.
The second beautiful thing that Yossi Klein HaLevi does in this volume, is acknowledge that the Palestinians also have a narrative. And that it is not, an either one narrative is true or another narrative is true. He advocates that two opposing narratives can exist and both be true. And that is a place that Jews and Palestinians need to arrive at for productive peace talks, for a two-state solution to happen, for our peoples to live together, legitimately, in our land.
Our tradition has always embraced disagreement.
One can move forward in disagreement when one has a great purpose in mind. Rather than becoming rooted and stuck in one’s narrative versus another’s narrative – keeping an eye on a higher goal can create a productive dialogue.
For three years there was a dispute between House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, the former asserting, “The law is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “The law is in agreement with our views.” Then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, announced, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “These and those are the words of the Living God,” adding, “but the law, it is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”
At the end of the day, when the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed, they were both right and they would go home and break bread. A way forward was found that could be lived with. But both had truths.
Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim. When we finally realize that being right does not necessarily make the other person wrong, we can truly listen to each other and move forward in productive creativity, onto new and beneficial realms, that is somewhat fair and will benefit all.