Hillel vs. Shamai: A message for our times

In this age of political polarization where if two people disagree they seem to not only have problems discussing their disagreement civilly but also seem to find it impossible to even acknowledge the validity of the alternative opinion.

Jewish tradition provides a multi-faceted solution to this dilemma.  Firstly, Judaism developed the concept of machloket l’shem shamayim that is, a dispute in the name of heaven.

For example, often people have negative associations with conflict. Rabbinic Judaism, however, has always valued machloket, conflict. For example, the Talmud, the primary Rabbinic work of the first millennium, lists literally thousands of machlokot, conflicts or disagreements among the rabbis. The rabbis saw engaging in machloket as a critical part of uncovering truth. The key, however, is to engage in machloket in a constructive way—one that preserves the relationship.

But Judaism takes it one step farther in the story about the disputes between those who followed Hillel and those who followed Shamai, two larger-than-life rabbis who lived in the first century of the common era.

For those that need a reminder of the story, the students of Hillel and those of Shamai were in constant disagreement about how to observe tradition.  They each seemed always to have differing opinions and once they asked for divine intervention to determine who was right on a specific issue.  Ultimately a voice came down from heaven and said: “They are both right, but we follow the school of Hillel.”  A great example for all of us to follow to be sure.  The Lord himself directed that human beings should acknowledge the validity of the opinions of others even if one disagrees with them.

In the current state of affairs that political entities find themselves today, whether in the United States, Israel, or elsewhere, the legislators would benefit from hearing this story, understanding its wisdom and practicing machloekt l’shem shamayim.

How can this actually happen?  One way is by having the members of the clergy or others who are asked to give the opening prayer at legislative sessions to tell the story of Hillel and Shamai.  Certainly rabbis who are called upon to do so should do this and do it often.

For those unaware of this, the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer is longstanding. The custom draws its roots from both houses of the British Parliament, which, according to noted parliamentarian Luther Cushing, from time ”immemorial” began each day with a “reading of the prayers.”

In the United States, this custom has continued without interruption at the federal level since the first Congress under the Constitution (1789) and for more than a century in many states. Almost all state legislatures still use an opening prayer as part of their tradition and procedure.

According to the National Conference of Community and Justice (formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews), “accepting an invitation to lead the general community in prayer includes a genuine responsibility to be sensitive to the diversity of faiths among those in whose names the prayer is being offered.”  But at a minimum, to make the “prayer” timely.

Thus, the framework is in place in most world parliaments although not sure it happens in Israel’s Knesset.  My guess is if there was an attempt here to start every session with a prayer it would be another reason to bring down the government as a demonstration against religious coercion.

But in other legislatures it would be a lesson worthy of teaching.  That is, when a disagreement is so serious that people find it impossible to maintain friendships, or familial relations, or marriages, the story of Hillel and Shamai needs to be heard and internalized.  And it should be further noted that there is a commentary that says that the reason heaven went with Hillel was that he was willing to listen and consider the opinions of the students of Shamai.  Finally, despite their disagreements, the children of Hillel and the children of Shamai married one another, as well.  Truly a win-win situation.

Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed wrote:  “Truth does not become truer by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”  He understood the concept of machloket l’shem shamayim.  The world would be a better place if all of us did so as well.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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