David Z. Vaisberg
Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham

A Crisis of Conversation

Sermon delivered at Temple Emanu-El of Edison NJ on Friday December 4, 2015, Human Rights Shabbat

When we think of arch-enemies, who do we think of? Superman and Lex Luthor? America and the Soviet Union? Harvard and Yale? Or, maybe, the great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai and their schools of students to follow were at odds with each other for centuries. When one would issue one ruling, the other would argue the opposite. They debated, they fought, and they countered. 
 They even disagreed when it came to Chanukah candles— Shammai said, we should start with all eight candles on the first night, and reduce the number until there are none left. Hillel, who we know would win, argued the opposite. Start with one, work our way to eight. And they didn’t just disagree for the sake of disagreeing– each approach had firm logic. Shammai’s reasoning was based on Sukkot sacrifices outlined in the Torah. The first Chanukah celebration was actually the Jews celebrating Sukkot two months late, as the Temple was unavailable to them at the actual holidays due to Antiochus and his armies. Hillel used a different principle– the Jewish teaching that we never decrease holiness in this world. To diminish the Chanukah lights each night would reduce any sense of holiness over the period of the holiday. Instead, he argues for a slow build-up towards eight. (BT Shabbat 21b).

If Hillel and Shammai both had sound arguments, what made Hillel the winner? The Talmud tells us that both teachings were correct according to God, but Hillel’s would take precedent because of the way his students behaved. We’re told that unlike Shammai’s students, Hillel’s were kindly and humble, and they taught Shammai’s rulings along with their own, and always first. (Eiruvin 13b). It was not because of what Hillel’s school argued that they won, it was about how they treated those with whom they argued.

There’s a very important concept in our tradition. Maḥloket. It means disagreement, something with which we are very familiar. There are two main types of maḥloket: there’s the regular maḥloket, where two parties disagree and argue for the sake of disagreement and argument. And then there’s maḥloket b’shem shamayim- literally, a disagreement for the sake of the heavens. A disagreement where we are arguing for something higher, and though the parties are at odds with one another, they recognize that their opponents are human beings, reflections of the divine, and that there is value and truth to their opponents words, even when they still fundamentally disagree.

Shammai certainly argued for the sake of the heavens, but he did not recognize that there was value to Hillel’s also sacred arguments. Therefore, Shammai remained in maḥloket. Hillel, on the other hand, recognized that though they disagreed, there was truth and integrity in his opponent. Hillel understood that when we’re all fighting for something truly important, we can only really bring holiness into this world when we respect and include each other.

In our world today, particularly in our nation, there is far too much maḥloket and too little b’shem shamayim. There are so many who believe themselves to be preaching the words of the living God, figuratively and literally, but so few willing to recognize any truth in those with whom they disagree.

This Chanukah-bound Shabbat we observe Human Rights Shabbat along with more than 150 other congregations, because we know that during this dark time of the year, it is through fighting for the fundamental rights of all human beings that we best shine light into all corners of the world.

One topic being addressed tonight by many of these congregations is one of the major humanitarian crises of our time, and one over which there is a maḥloket so polarized in our nation that in its current state there is no room for God and no likelihood of a workable humanitarian solution. I am referring to the Syrian Refugee crisis. Millions have fled their homes out of fear for their lives and most are suffering in holding patterns as they wait for nations, including our own, to open their doors to them. And while they wait we argue. Not teaching our opponents ideas first, not recognizing that there are genuine arguments on both sides, just arguing, and refusing to come together in sacred compromise.

In order to approach holiness, and get anywhere near a solution, this maḥloket must be turned into a maḥloket b’shem shamayim. Let us begin right now, acknowleding and giving respect to both sides of the debate from a Jewish perspective.

First, let’s tackle the side of reluctance. As I understand it there is a major concern of security and a very legitimate fear of a people who live among and look like the Islamist terrorists wreaking havoc and devastation around the world and in our backyards. To welcome tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees, no matter the security measures taken, poses a risk. And this risk stands out to us, particularly in light of Wednesday’s terrorist attacks in California and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. In Judaism, we have an obligation to look out for our safety and guard against those who seek to kill us.

Though most refugees do not seek to kill us, it is always possible that there will be a few who slip through the cracks and make their way in. And while the likelihood of a terrible consequence to let in those seeking refuge from violence is small, the consequences could be significant, and the associated fear is very real. It is our obligation to safeguard our neighbors and families.

And, even if none of these refugees were to be potential terrorists, we know that many of them do harbor ill-will towards the State of Israel, and perhaps toward the Jewish people. Do we really want to support their entry into our backyards?
 There are very real arguments in connection to letting in so many refugees, and even though some of us may disagree with them, we must acknowledge that they are issues of honest concern.

Now, let’s look at the argument in favor. ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצריים. And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19). This message is so fundamental to our identity as a Jewish people that, according to the Talmud, the Torah warns us against wronging the stranger 36 times. Many other commandments only appear a few times. Why 36 times for this? We’re commanded to love the stranger so many times, according to the Talmud, because, wickedness, prejudice and fear are part of human nature, and it takes extra effort to overcome them (BT Bava Metzia 228:2). In other words, when it comes to those who are we consider as “others,” we have a predisposition against them. We must fight that urge 36 times over.
 I’ve seen that fear here. A few weeks ago my colleague Imam Raouf Zaman and I hosted a Q&A session on Judaism and Islam. While everyone was very welcoming, there was a sense of discomfort in the room from many of the non-Muslims. Not because they thought that Imam Raouf was in league with terrorists, but because Islamic terror was fresh on their minds, only two days after the Paris attacks and in this room are people who we don’t know who are much closer in relationship to the terrorists than we are. He did speak out very clearly against radical Islam and terror, but many of us were too caught up in our very human fear to hear it. The fear is very real, but to succumb to that fear, logically and according to our tradition, is highly problematic. It is problematic because to assume that every Muslim leader knows why Islamist terrorists act as they do is to assume that every Christian clergyperson has an in depth understanding of those who would open fire at Planned Parenthood. The only difference here, is that we know Christians and we don’t know Muslims. They are others—strangers—and it is part of human nature to fear them.

But to embrace this fear—this Islamophobia—is not the Jewish thing to do. In fact, it is the Egyptian to do. We often invoke the message of being strangers and slaves in Egypt, but rarely do we remind ourselves of the reason the Egyptians enslaved us. Exodus 1:9-11 reads, “And he [Pharaoh] said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise form the ground. So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them.”

Because Egyptians feared us and what we might do in event of war, they did everything they could to prevent us from thriving. Today, in a war against radical Islam, we fear all those who could, potentially, side with them. And as Jews we’re presented with a choice— do we follow the path of safety and security based on a fear akin to Pharaoh’s, or do we take the chance that most refugees are simply looking for a better and safer life— fleeing violence just as we fled hunger—and do what we can to show our love?

I believe that the second approach is the better one, but that does not mean that the first argument is not sound or legitimate. Fear, concern, and a need to feel safe in an increasingly volatile world is very legitimate. Regardless of whether we believe arguments to be factually correct, when we enter this kind of debate, we must remember that each side has integrity, and is speaking with emotional truth. It is only when we all work to understand the needs of those with whom we argue that we can find common ground and come to a solution together. It is only through recognizing that God is with me, and with you, that our maḥloket becomes a maḥloket b’shem shamayim.

There are many concrete ways that we can make a difference in the plight of Syrian refugees, regardless of what we think ought be done. We can call or write our politicians and let them know what we think. We can support Syrian families regardless of where they’re going by donating to Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or by giving to some of the Reform congregations in Canada that are actively sponsoring several families.
Equally important to these concrete actions though is participating in conversation here at home. How are we in America going to respond? We’re all in this together, responsible for our safety and our souls. When we take a position and refuse to recognize the other, we inevitably get stuck in gridlock, helping neither security nor soul. Let us all try this week to have maḥloket b’shem shamayim. Let’s try finding someone with whom we disagree. We’ll share our viewpoints, we’ll try to understand each other’s positions, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll think up a good compromise and share it.

Generally it is good to engage in these sacred disagreements, but in situations like this where human lives are on the line, it is so very important.

I want to share with you a different interpretation for Hillel and Shammai’s arguments about which way to light the candles. Shlomo Ephraim Luntchitz, a 16th century rabbi from Prague (Olelot Ephraim, Vol II, no. 44) taught that rather than representing sacrifices and holiness, the candles represent body and soul. Shammai, knowing that Chanukah celebrates an odds-defying military victory, saw the candles as the human body of our enemies, dwindling away from Jewish light and power. Hillel, on the other hand, understood these candles to represent our souls; the more we put ourselves out into the world, the brighter our spiritual light will shine.

This Human Rights Shabbat, and this Chanukah, let’s commit to bringing holiness into our midst by recognizing the divinity in all human beings, including those suffering throughout the world and those close by with whom we disagree. May we make every maḥloket in this nation a maḥloket b’shem shamayim, so that good and real change in this world might finally come to fruition.

About the Author
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey.
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