When the loyal opposition reduces corruption

Over the course of time, any religion that has inspired people for more than a few centuries will develop variations in its perspectives and its insights. This is especially true for the major world religions, because they span more than one civilization; and they have lasted for more than one historical epoch.

Judaism, as the longest lasting monotheistic religious community, gives evidence of this more explicitly than any other religion I know.

Even within Orthodox and traditional rabbinic thought, there is not only lots of variety, but very frequently opposing statements are juxtaposed, as if to call our attention to the important Jewish concept that internal opposition by individuals or by minority groups, due to seeing things differently, is not a sin.

Thus, the Mishnah (the first code of rabbinic oral laws) records hundreds of examples of disagreements and debates between different Rabbis. The Talmud (a major expansion and development of the Mishnah code) records thousands of differing views.

The Talmud further emphasizes their differences by juxtaposing some contrasting rabbinic statements as if the Rabbis were personally debating each other, even though they they may have lived in different generations. These Rabbis were not afraid of different interpretations of how Jews should behave.

In the first century the rabbis were divided into two major schools; the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, which differed from each other in more than 400 points of Jewish law. The two schools were very tolerant of each other, except for one time when the Shammai school forced the Hillel school to follow the Shammai way on 18 points of law.

Two centuries after the destruction of the Temple, when most of the other various sects and parties of the first century had disappeared, “Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. Each said: The law is according to our views.

“Then an echo of a divine voice declared, “Both are the words of the living God, but the law is fixed according to the school of Hillel. Since both are the words of the living God what entitled the school of Hillel to have the law fixed (in 90% of the disagreements) according to their rulings?

“Because they were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings and also the rulings of the school of Shammai, and even more, they taught the school of Shammai’s rulings before they taught their own.” (Talmud Eruvin 13b)

So, the moral qualities of personal humility, and respect for dissenters, are more important than simply ‘seeking the truth’.

The Mishnah is divided into 63 subsections. One of them, Eduyot, a collection of over 100 disputed Halakic rulings, is largely focused on some of the Hillel-Shammai debates. Note there is no name calling, and the stricter group does not claim the permissive group is less Jewish.

Actually, starting with the Hebrew Bible itself, there is in the Jewish tradition a well established distrust of all kinds of human power, even those of Jewish spiritual leaders, because most such attempts to use power have unexpected, unpredictable and even dangerous outcomes.

This attitude is succinctly expressed by the British historian and moralist, Lord Acton, (d. 1902) who wrote in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

An excellent example of this comes from the Biblical Book of Judges. After Gideon’s victory over the Midianites, the people offered him hereditary rule but he replied: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.” (Judges 8:22-23)

Israel should live in a special relationship with God, directly under God’s sovereignty, with no earthly king needed to enforce the establishment view.

So, two or three generations later, Prophet Samuel was rightly displeased when the Jewish People again asked for a king, and God, too, was displeased. “They have not rejected you” God said to Prophet Samuel, “but me, that I should not reign over them.”

Nevertheless, God orders Prophet Samuel to give in, but first he should impress on the Jewish People what a king would do to them: “He will draft your sons and they shall run before his chariots, and he will draft your daughters for cooks and bakers, and he will take your fields and give them to his servants.”

Moreover, Prophet Samuel cautioned them that once the system they craved was set up, they could not get rid of it so easily when it had become corrupted: “And you shall cry out in that day because of your king; and the Lord will not hear you.” (1 Samuel 8:1-22)

Elie Wiesel, in his acceptance speech for being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on April 19, 1985 said, “I belong to a traumatized generation…that we humans are so smart that we can really know THE WHOLE TRUTH is a vastly overvalued concept.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find, or make a reason, for every thing one has a mind to do.” and

“Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” and

“When you are testing to see how deep water is, never use two feet.”

And in a wonderful adaptation of a second century rabbi’s teaching: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is powerful? One who governs his passions. Who is rich? One who is content.” and who is that? Nobody.” Benjamin Franklin

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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