The Law is in Accordance with Beit Hillel

They were two, very different, men. Each was an outstanding scholar of impeccable integrity and deep piety. One man’s name was Shammai. The other scholar’s name was Hillel. Both Shammai and Hillel founded schools, known as Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, that left a profound impression upon Jewish Law and Jewish History.

One point upon which they differed was the order of lighting the Chanukah candles. Beit Shammai was of the opinion that one starts with eight candles, and each night one lights one less candles. Beit Hillel averred that one starts with one candles and adds a new candle each of the ensuing nights of the festival. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) discusses different rationales for the two opinions. However, it seems to me that they are emblematic of the philosophies of Shammai and Hillel, founders of the two schools.

Shammai was profoundly sensitive to his role as the bearer, and transmitter, of the traditions of the Oral Law as he had received them from his teachers, and they from their teachers, all the way back to God’s Revelation at Sinai. He was, therefore, zealous for the integrity and accuracy of Jewish Law, and (most appropriately) was conservative in its interpretation and application. It is, therefore, most appropriate that his disciples viewed Jewish religious history as a type of ‘Decline of the Generations,’ starting with a blaze of fire and trumpets at Sinai; with the fire growing ever dimmer and more vulnerable as ever greater distances separate us from that formative event.

Hillel was no less conscious of the sanctity, and fragility, of the Tradition that he had received from his teachers, Shemaiah and Abtalion, or of the fact that teaching Torah meant expounding God’s Will, something that one undertakes only with a significant measure of trepidation. Hillel, however, differed with Shammai on one, very significant, methodological point. Where Shammai felt duty-bound to pass on Tradition in a more careful fashion; Hillel employed traditionally received rules of Biblical interpretation to expand the boundaries of Halakhic discourse and possibility, beyond those that he had received from his teachers. As a God-fearing Jew, he realized that interpretation also had its limits and that man should not have the temerity to force his own views on God’s. However, he apparently believed that one must use rules of interpretation that were part and parcel of the Oral Tradition, in order to elicit its hitherto unrevealed dimensions of meaning and their practical implications. It was, therefore, apt that his disciples should advocate expanding and increasing the lights until they blaze forth in glory on the eight day.

In a world of unparalleled religious challenge, where Traditional Jewish Life and Values are besieged and attacked from without and within, it is no surprise that Shammai’s philosophy has taken hold of much of the Orthodox World. After all, we are still speaking of God’s Torah and the obligation of those who adhere thereto, to protect and preserve it. In its present manifestation, however, adhering to the path of Shammai has meant not only preserving the lore of millennia, but of drastically narrowing the same tradition that they claim to preserve. The result is that vast areas of Jewish Law and Lore that could, by every Orthodox criterion, be employed to address unprecedented challenges are written off and ignored in the name of caution (Agunot and Conversion come first to mind, but there are many others). Tragically, those who pay the greatest price of this policy are observant or traditional Jews (who make up the vast majority of Israeli Jews), a price that ir all too often paid in the persons of their alienated children.

In the course of the past year, a courageous group of Rabbis,  Yeshiva Heads, To’anot Rabbaniot, and Yo’atzot Halakhah have banded together to form an organization that they have appropriately named ‘Beit Hillel.’ Their goal is, officially, to develop rabbinic leadership that is attentive to the needs of the entire Jewish community in Israel. On a deeper level, however, their goal is precisely that of its eponymous forbear. It aims, responsibly and with Fear of Heaven, to widen the parameters of Torah and Halakhah, and to restore its capacity to function in a complex society. Its members, among whom I am proud to count myself, hope that by exposing the dazzling capacity of the Torah to encounter and engage the world, it will not only retain its adherents but will establish bonds with those who have yet to engage it.

As was true both of Hillel and his disciples, there will be clear limits to where it can go. Yes, Beit Hillel’s published opinions appear lenient. That, however, is a function of the fact that regnant rabbinic opinion has pushed things to such a degree of stricture that stating the Law as it is appears lenient. Nevertheless, restoring the Torah in its plenitude can only advance the cause of Judaism and deepen Israel’s identity as a qualitatively Jewish State (while giving it the tools to respectfully engage the democratic side of the Israeli equation).

The Talmud put an effective end to the decades long controversies between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel when it declared (in the name of a Heavenly Voice): Both speak the words of the Living God, but the Halakhah is in Accordance with Beit Hillel’ (Eruvin 13b). In the absence of a Heavenly Voice, the contemporary Beit Hillel is asserting that, with all due respect to those Orthodox authorities whose religious sentiments and halakhic methods differ, the sensitivities and methods of Beit Hillel must today be advanced, for the greater glory of God and His Torah.

After all, הלכה כבית הלל.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.