Hillel, Comma, Open, and Beit Shammai

Once again HIllel has found itself in the news due to several recent events: Eric Fingerhut’s refusal to speak at J Street, and the response of the students there, as well as Hillel’s threat to sue its Swarthmore chapter over declaring itself an open Hillel, to which Swarthmore students responded by changing their name.

It is unfortunate that Hillel has decided to abandon its Jewish values in favor of making an idol of certain opinions that some of its donors have decided trump any other consideration. Hillel has always been a beacon of pluralism, welcoming students of all sorts – regardless of which movement they belong to, regardless of whether they believe in God, their Jewish status, and in fact, I believe that Hillel does not even have a policy regarding students who might believe in the messiahship of Jesus. Despite  a history of openness, Hillel has decided that on one particular topic, students are too naive to -in an academic environment, one which, presumably, is intended for them to be exposed to opinions of all kinds, some noxious and some valuable, some foolish and some brilliant- hear and decide for themselves what to think about the policies of Israel’s government.

The Babylonian Talmud, the enormous document which collects the thoughts, arguments, legal decisions and aggadic – narrative material describing the rabbis’ thoughts about all kinds of topics- discussions of the rabbis, is not a document that shies away from controversy. In it is found not merely the final decisions of what law wins out, but the arguments of not merely both, but often many more than two, parties to the debate on a particular topic.

The talmud in a number of places expresses its opinion on the results of suppressing opinions – both positively and negatively. In tractate Eruvin (13b) we learn read the famous passage regarding Beit Hillel – the school that follows the rulings of Hillel:

“For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’.Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) spoke, announcing, ‘Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. Since, however, both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and not only that, but would teach Beit Shammai’s opinions before their own.”

Elsewhere in the Talmud, we see the results of excluding the minority voice. Many of us have heard of the story of the Oven of Achnai – but very few read it to the end. The story begins with a group of sages sitting around debating whether an oven, once taken to pieces, can be restored to a state of wholeness (this is no accident – it is a subtextual argument abut the Jewish people, as well). In the course of this argument, all the rabbis except one – Rabbi Eliezer – argue for a particular outcome. Eliezer calls on miracle after miracle to prove his point, but the other rabbis reject them – even rejecting a voice from heaven- stating that the Torah is not in heaven, and that majority thus rules.  Most of the time  when we read this story, we end it here: “Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'”

But in fact, this is not the end of the story, but its middle. What happens next is that the rabbis vote to excommunicate the holder of the minority opinion. When Eliezer is informed of this, “the world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up. ” But that isn’t all: everything that Rabbi Eliezer’s eyes fall on are burned up, and Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi – president of the Great Sanhedrin – ultimately dies.

In other words, the outcome of excluding from the community the person who holds a minority opinion is to nearly destroy the world, and to actually destroy a good part of it.

How ironic is it that an organization whose dedication to pluralism is such that it took the name of the rabbi who founded a school dedicated to hearing both their own teachings and those of the school who disagreed with them? How disappointing that they have been unable to live up to that standard: for Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, too, each believed that the future of the Jewish people relied on them.

The sages, too, knew disagreement. And their response was to make sure we understood the consequences of silencing the minority.  I hope, surely, that we can learn that lesson before it is too late.

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