When they were having their animated disagreements so many centuries ago, could the wise Jewish sages Hillel and Shammai have imagined how much we would still look to them today to help us navigate our fragmented world?
Mishna Avot, a third-century collection of teachings, reminds us that “any mahloket (disagreement) that is l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven) will continue to exist, but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not continue to exist. What is a disagreement that is for the sake of heaven? This is a disagreement of Hillel and Shammai.”
In our world that is both full of beauty and goodness and yet also permeated with divisiveness and polarization, Hillel and Shammai remind us that it was, and is, possible to hold opposing views while still respecting and learning from one another. A disagreement for the sake of heaven is one in which the parties are motivated by a genuine desire to seek the truth of the matter. There is no selfishness or lust for power. Rather, the disagreement is approached with humility, curiosity and a willingness to listen.
I recently completed an eight-week Mahloket Matters alumni fellowship through the North American branch of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. I had previously studied at this pluralistic yeshivah (place of study) in Jerusalem, which is itself exemplary in demonstrating diversity, inclusiveness and a willingness to face challenging issues in respectful, cooperative and productive ways. What attracted me to applying for the fellowship was the topic – civil discourse. We would be delving into how to navigate difficult conversations and disagreements. When we all met, virtually, at the first class, we found that we shared a common concern about the fragmentation and jagged edges in our world, as well as a desire to learn and to equip ourselves with more skills to better navigate the types of thorny issues we face in our world.
Our studies were grounded in Jewish texts, which provided wonderful launch points for many of our discussions. We shared thoughts and ideas about what it means to have a disagreement l’shem shamayim and tried to bring those ideas forward to today. As Hillel and Shammai taught us, it is possible that sometimes both sides can be right and still hold opposing views. It’s also possible to debate an issue without harming relationships. Entrenched positions leave little room for genuinely listening to the other side or having the humility to admit that one might be wrong, qualities much needed for any truly healthy and productive disagreement.
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, may their memories be blessed, perhaps provide a more contemporary example of Hillel and Shammai. They were judges who held vastly different views on many issues and yet had a warm and lengthy friendship, never mind a shared love for opera, which they often indulged in together. In a statement that Bader Ginsburg released to the public on the death of Scalia in 2016, she said: “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots – the ‘applesauce’ and ‘argle bargle’ – and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.”
Over the eight weeks of our studies, our diverse group from all over North America questioned, challenged, debated and confronted a multitude of issues, from moral foundations to creating our own mini Sanhedrin(Jewish High Court), taking on the role of judges and tackling some controversial issues from all angles. It was an enriching and meaningful experience, the fruits of which we are each now able to bring back to our own communities, with the hope that the small ripples we create through sharing our learning will radiate outwards and help, even in small ways. Help to smooth some of the sharp edges, soften rigid positions and create the safe spaces people need to have productive and healthy disagreements that create the fertile potential for new solutions to emerge – all for the sake of heaven.
Elisheva Grayis a lay leader and active member of the Victoria Jewish community and an alumna of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated how the chanukiyah’s candles should be lit. (photo by Gil-Dekel via commons.wikimedia.org)
The following is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter of Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, published by the Meaningful Life Centre.
“The School of Shammai says: on the first day, one lights eight lights; from here on, one progressively decreases. The School of Hillel says: on the first day, one lights a single light; from here on, one progressively increases.” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Visit, or simply pass by, a Jewish home on any of the eight evenings of Chanukah, and there will be the lights burning in the doorway or window proclaiming the celebration of the Chanukah miracle to the street and to the world at large. They will also be proclaiming which night of Chanukah it is. On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a different number of flames is kindled, expressing that night’s particular place in the festival. On the first night of Chanukah, there will be one flame illuminating the street; on the second night, two flames, and so on.
Actually, the Talmud records two opinions on how each Chanukah night should identify itself and radiate its unique light into the world. This was one of the halachic issues debated by the two great academies of Torah law, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The sages of Hillel held that the Chanukah lights should increase in number each night, in the familiar ascending order. The sages of Shammai, however, were of the opinion that eight flames should be lit on the first night, seven on the second, and so on, in descending number, until the eighth night of Chanukah, when a single flame should be lit.
The Talmud explains that the sages of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the “upcoming days” of the festival – the number of days still awaiting realization. Thus, the number of lights decreases with each passing night, as another of Chanukah’s days is “expended.” On the first night, we have eight full days of Chanukah ahead of us; on the second night, seven days remain, and so on. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the lights as representing Chanukah’s “outgoing days,” so that the ascending number of flames reflects the accumulation of actualized milestones in our eight-day quest for light.
In practice, we follow the opinion of the Hillel school, and an ascending number of lights chronicle the progress of the festival. This is even alluded to in the very name of the festival: the Hebrew word Chanukah forms an acronym of the sentence “chet neirot vehalachah k’veit Hillel” (“eight lights, and the law follows the School of Hillel”).
Our acceptance of Hillel’s perspective on Chanukah is also expressed by the name traditionally given to the eighth day of Chanukah – the only day of the festival to be distinguished by a name of its own – Zot Chanukah.
The name Zot Chanukah is based on a phrase from that day’s Torah reading, and literally means, “This is Chanukah.” This is in keeping with the Hillelian vision of Chanukah, in which the final day of Chanukah – the day on which all eight days of light have been actualized – marks the climax of the festival. Only on the eighth day can we say, “This is Chanukah. Now we ‘have’ the entire Chanukah.” (From the Shammaian perspective, the first day of Chanukah would be Zot Chanukah.)
What is the basis for these two visions of Chanukah? And why is the view of the School of Hillel so decisively embraced, to the extent that it is implicit in the very name Chanukah, and in the name given to its culminating day?
There are two primary ways in which one might view something: a) in light of its potential, or b) by its actual, manifest state. We might say of a certain person: “He has tremendous potential, but his actual performance is poor.” The same can be said of a business venture, a relationship, an experience, or anything else. Or, we might say: “There’s potential for disaster here, but it can be contained and prevented from actualizing.”
Some of us are potential-oriented, which means that we would admire the person, invest in the venture, stick it out with the relationship and treasure the experience – depending upon its potential. Some of us are more actual-oriented, viewing things in terms of their actual, tactual impact upon our reality.
This is a recurring theme in many of the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. For example, the sages of Shammai consider the moment of the Exodus to have been the eve of Nissan 15, when the people of Israel were free to leave Egypt, while the sages of Hillel place the moment at midday of the following day, when the Jews actually exited Egypt’s physical borders. In another debate, the sages of Shammai consider a fish susceptible to ritual impurity from the moment the fisherman pulls his catch out of the water, since at this point the fish has been removed from the environment in which it might possibly live; the sages of Hillel disagree, contending that as long as the fish is actually alive (though its potential for continued life has been destroyed), it is immune to contamination, as are all other living plants and animals.
This is also the basis of their differing perspectives on Chanukah. The School of Shammai, which views things in terms of their potential, sees the first day of Chanukah, with its potential for eight days of light, as the point in which all eight days are “there.” After one day has “gone by” and passed from potential into actuality, there are left only seven days in their most meaningful form – the potential form. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the actual state as the more significant. To them, the eighth day of Chanukah, when all eight dimensions of the festival have been actualized, is when the festival is at its fullest and most “real.”
We are creatures of the actual. We cannot live on potential nourishment, or be emotionally satisfied by potential relationships. On the whole, we judge people by their actual conduct, as opposed to their potential to behave a certain way. Reality, to us, is what is, not what might be.
This is largely due to the fact that we are physical beings. It is a most telling idiosyncrasy of our language that “immaterial” means “insignificant”: if we cannot touch it or see it, it’s not real to us. Also, because of our finite and limited nature, we possess potentials that we will never actualize because we haven’t enough energy, resources or willpower to carry them out, or simply because we won’t live long enough to do so. So, the existence of a potential or possibility for something is not enough, for how do we know that it will amount to anything? Indeed, we often judge a thing’s potential by the actual: if this much has been actualized, this “proves” that there is potential worthy of regard.
Envision, however, a being who is neither physical nor finite; a being not limited by space, time or any other framework. In such a being, potential does not lack actualization, as everything is “as good as done.” On the contrary: potential is the purest and most perfect form of every reality – the essence of the thing, as it transcends the limitations and imperfections imposed upon it when it is translated into physical actuality.
For G-d, then, the potential is a higher form of being than the actual. This is why we say that, for G-d, the creation of the world did not constitute an “achievement” or even a “change” in His reality. The potential for creation existed in Him all along, and nothing was “added” by its translation into actuality. It is only we, the created, who gained anything from the actual creation of the world.
So, when the sages of Shammai and Hillel debate the question of which is more significant from the perspective of Torah law, the actual or the potential, they are addressing the more basic question: Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? When Torah law enjoins us to commemorate the Exodus, when it legislates the laws of ritual impurity or when it commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights, does it regard these phenomena from the perspective of its divine author, in whom the potential is the ideal state, or from the perspective of its human constituency, who equate real with actual?
Whose Torah is it, ours or G-d’s? Both Shammai and Hillel would agree that it is both.
The Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d. But, as we proclaim in the blessing recited each morning over the Torah, G-d has given us His Torah, for He has delegated to mortal man the authority to interpret it and apply it. Thus, G-d did not communicate His will to us in the form of a detailed manifesto and a codified list of instructions. Instead, He communicated a relatively short (79,976-word) Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), together with the Oral Torah – a set of guidelines by which the Written Torah is to be interpreted, decoded, extrapolated and applied to the myriad possibilities conjured up by the human experience.
So, while the entire body of legal, homiletic, philosophical and mystical teaching we know as Torah is implicit within the Written Torah, G-d designated the human mind and life as the tools that unlock the many layers of meaning and instruction contained within its every word.
The Torah is thus a partnership of the human and the divine, where a kernel of divine wisdom germinates in the human mind, gaining depth, breadth and definition, and is actualized in the physicality of human life. In this partnership, our human finiteness and subjectivity become instruments of the divine truth, joining with it to create the ultimate expression of divine immanence in our world – the Torah.
Which is the more dominant element of Torah, divine revelation or human cognition? Which defines its essence? What is Torah – G-d’s vision of reality or man’s endeavor to make his world a home for G-d? At times, the Torah indicates the one; at times, the other. We have the rule that “The words of Torah are not susceptible to contamination.” A person who is in a state of ritual impurity (tum’ah) is forbidden to enter the Holy Temple; but there is no prohibition for him to study Torah. Why is he forbidden to enter a holy place but permitted to think and speak holy words? Because the Torah is not only holy (i.e., an object subservient to G-d and receptive to His presence) – it is divine. It is G-d’s word, and the divine cannot be compromised by any impurity.
On the other hand, another law states that, “A teacher of Torah who wishes to forgive an insult to his honor can forgive it.” This is in contrast to a king who, if insulted, has no right to forgive the insult, and has no recourse but to punish the one who insulted him. For a king’s honor is not his personal possession, but something that derives from his role as the sovereign of his people; one who insults the king insults the nation, and this is an insult that not even the king has the authority to forgive. Yet does not one who insults a Torah scholar insult the Torah? How does the scholar have the right to forgive the Torah’s insult? The explanation given is that “the Torah is his.” He who studies Torah acquires it as his own; G-d’s wisdom becomes his wisdom.
Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? Both descriptions are valid; both are part of the Torah’s own self-perception. In certain laws and circumstances, we find the divinity of Torah emphasized; in others, its human proprietorship.
Thus, in a number of laws, the schools of Shammai and Hillel debate which definition of Torah is the predominant one. The sages of Shammai believe that in these particular applications of Torah law, the divinity of the Torah predominates. The Torah’s perspective is synonymous with G-d’s perspective, meaning that the potential of a thing is its primary truth. The sages of Hillel see these laws as belonging to the “human” aspect of Torah, so that the Torah’s vision of reality is the human, actual-based perspective.
The human festival
In the great majority of disputes between the sages of Shammai and Hillel, the final halachic ruling follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. Halachah is the application of Torah to day-to-day life. In this area of Torah, it is the human element which predominates; here, reality is defined in terms of the actual and tactual, rather than the potential.
But nowhere is the supremacy of the Hillelian view more emphasized than in the debate on Chanukah, where the very name of the festival, and the name given to its final day, proclaim that “the law follows the School of Hillel.” For Chanukah is the festival that, more than any other, underscores the human dynamic in Torah.
As noted above, the Torah consists of two parts: a) the divinely dictated words of the Written Torah; b) the Oral Torah, also communicated by G-d, but delegated to man. In the Oral Torah, G-d provides the guidelines and principles, while human beings follow these guidelines and apply these principles to derive and express the divine will.
The Oral Torah has two basic functions: to interpret the Written Torah and to legislate the necessary laws, ordinances and customs required to preserve the Torah and Jewish life through the generations.
Most of the festivals are explicitly ordained in the Written Torah. This is not to say that there is no “human element” involved in the biblically ordained festivals: the Oral Torah is still required to clarify each festival’s laws and observances. For example, the Written Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah and take the “four kinds” on Sukkot, but the Oral Torah is needed to interpret the oblique biblical allusions that tell us how a sukkah is to be constructed and which plant species are to be taken. Still, the festivals themselves were instituted by direct divine revelation.
There are two festivals, however, that are rabbinical institutions: Purim and Chanukah. These belong to the second function of the Oral Torah – to institute laws and observances that derive not from a verse in the Written Torah, but which arise out of the historical experience of the people of Israel.
These, too, are Torah, for they were enacted in accordance with the principles revealed at Sinai. Before reading the Megillah on Purim or kindling the Chanukah lights, we say: “Blessed are You, G-d … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah,” or “… to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” G-d is commanding us to observe these mitzvot, for it is He who granted the leaders of each generation the mandate to institute laws, ordinances and festivals. Yet, in these festivals, it is the human aspect of the Torah which predominates, while the divine aspect is more subdued.
Of the two rabbinical festivals, Chanukah is even more “human” than Purim. Purim was instituted during the era of prophecy, when G-d still communed directly with the greatest individuals of the generation. The story of Purim was written down and incorporated within the Holy Scriptures that are appended to the Written Torah. Thus, while Purim is technically an Oral Torah festival, it is closely related to the Written Torah.
Chanukah, however, occurred several hundred years later, when prophecy had ceased and the canon of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible) had been closed. It thus belongs wholly to the Oral Torah – to the predominantly human aspect of the partnership. So, Chanukah is the environment in which the Hillelian perspective on Torah – Torah as it relates to our tactual experience of the world in which we live – reigns supreme.