Being Teachable in Polarized Times

Before the fall of the 2nd Temple, the Jewish community was riven by polarized debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Though some traditions portray their disputes as harmonious (b.Yev. 14b), many rabbinic texts portray them as ugly and polarized. The house of Shammai in particular was remembered as resorting to coercive tactics and even murder to implement their legal vision (m. Shab. 1:4; y. Shab. 1 :3). Polarization had become literally a matter of life and death.

Hillel’s legal framework was generally more lenient than Shammai’s, and his vision largely won out. But his victory may arguably had less to do with his particular rulings and more to do with his ability to overcome the division between his school and Shammai’s by transforming their zero-sum arguments into peaceful disagreements.  In our polarized times, Hillel’s example may have something to teach us.

A famous passage in the Talmud tells the story this way:

For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha (law) is according to our position,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is according to our position.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the halakha is according to the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught  Shammai’s opinions first. (b.Eruv. 13b, trans. Sefaria, altered)

The first part of this passage recalls the intractable debate between the houses, each convinced that their understanding of the halakha is correct. As a sign of the intractability of their conflict, only a divine voice is able to resolve it. Its resolution is famously paradoxical: “Both these and those”–the rulings of Shammai and the rulings of Hillel–“are the words of the living God.” Both are somehow true and faithful to God’s law, perhaps in the sense that both construct coherent and consistent halakhic systems. Nevertheless, “the halakha is according to the House of Hillel,” as though to say, a single community must nevertheless be governed by a single law, and it shall be Hillel’s.

Assuming the selection of Hillel’s school is not arbitrary, the implication is that Hillel understands something Shammai does not, but that this pertains to something other than systematic legal coherence. The second part of the passage raises this question: why should the law follow Hillel? The answer is at one level ethical: “the students of Hillel were kind and gracious.” But the Talmud is particularly interested in how this ethical stance shapes the way Hillel’s students teach and learn in the house of study. Not only do they teach Shammai’s views as well as their own–the implication is that Shammai did not return the favor–but they honor their opponents by teaching their views first. (Take this with a grain of salt, since ending with your own views may be the more effective method of demonstrating their superiority!)

Hillel’s insight is not about the importance of tolerance or pluralism in the abstract–his school does not teach just any view–although it leads to a kind of tolerance and a kind of pluralism. Instead, what Hillel understands is that even his opponents are teachable. In this connection it is worth remembering another famous set of stories in b. Shab. 31a about how this pair respond to Gentiles who want to learn Torah, but ask in a way that betrays their stubbornness or ignorance. One Gentile wants to convert but learn the Written Torah only, without the Oral. Another asks to learn the Torah while standing impudently on one foot. A third wants to convert in order to be come High Priest (which is impossible for a convert). In every case, Shammai angrily sends the Gentile away, while Hillel converts him firstand then teaches him, inducing him to revisit his inappropriate initial terms of engagement. Hillel sees, as Shammai does not, that even non-Jews, and even those whose motives or understanding are questionable, can be taught.

Surely the same spirit leads Hillel, in the classroom, to teach Shammai’s rulings generously alongside his own. After all, if someone is teachable, it is surely in part because they have already learned something. So Hillel cannot simply reject Shammai’s insights out of hand, but must somehow incorporate them. Moreover, if someone is going to learn, where else can they begin than from the very beliefs they already hold? So Hillel’s curriculum begins with Shammai, helping his own students understand how to think their way into Shammai’s rulings–as a necessary condition for thinking their way out! Hillel’s students must have been well equipped for engaging sympathetically with their opponents, and as a result, all the more secure in their own convictions. And Hillel does all this, despite the fact that Hillel’s school was the victim of violence at the hands of Shammai’s. (This accords, of course, with what Hillel taught one of those converts: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”)

By assuming that his opponents are teachable, Hillel could disagree with Shammai while including his school within a broader community of learners. By contrast, through their coercive tactics, the school of Shammai assumes that their opponents are beyond the reach of teaching and learning–either because they lack the capacity to learn, or because there is no time to teach them. No doubt when faced with certain kinds of fools or certain situations of urgency, it can be too late for learning. But Shammai’s error was to systematically give up on the teachability of a substantial portion of his community, long before it was really necessary to do so.

Hillel’s practice suggests that we should delay as long as possible dismissing someone as a fool or foreclosing conversation out of urgency. Once we give up on teaching and persuasion, there is no recourse but to coercion and violence.

There is an interesting coda to this dispute. A later tradition tried to account for the difference between Hillel and Shammai in eschatological terms–that is, in terms of the proper time to which their respective approaches apply.

In the time of the Messiah, we will follow the law according to Shammai. Hillel represents kindness and Shammai severity. When the Messiah comes the advantage of the severity will be revealed and therefore the law will be in accordance with the House of Shammai. The House of Shammai comes from such a high level that this present world is incapable of withstanding, and only when the Messiah comes will we be able to follow their opinion. (Miqdash Melech to Zohar Bereishit 17b, trans. Sefaria, altered)

In this view, Shammai’s severity–presumably both in his particular rulings and in his pedagogy–is a consequence of confusing our time within history with the time of the Messiah at history’s end. In the Messianic age, when “the Law will be written on their hearts,” learning (at least, the kind of learning that begins with sin and ignorance) may indeed be superfluous. A historical age, by contrast, is always a time in process, a time in which learning is possible (and necessary). Those who find themselves still waiting for the fullness of the Messianic age must also wait generously on others.

In our own polarized times, this is a lesson we should all take to heart.

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