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Kol HaChadoshot

What's news and 'nu' in the Beth David community

July / August 2019

In Search of Hillel

An observation from several decades of active engagement in the rabbinate is triggering a mid-career disappointment. This observation may be reflective of the smaller sized communities where I have been privileged to serve, and it may also be nothing more than a sensitivity over which I need to take greater ownership with lesser expectations of my denominational colleagues. It is the magnified sense of urgency and insistence that sometimes dominates and derails halachically oriented deliberations. Maybe it is rooted in the dynamic style of Talmud study that is distinctive to yeshiva classrooms where voices are raised for emphasis and volume is a misused barometer for veracity. I fear, that in the pursuit of truth, something has been lost.
     It is not that I frequently find myself at odds with colleagues that I truly respect, it is that I struggle at understanding why a raised voice has become a legitimate vehicle of expression and why it is seemingly okay to interrupt a speaker when that speaker's voice challenges the preconceptions and comfort zones of others at the table. I fear that there are times when leaders are actually prisoners of their constituency, and the passions that emerge in collegial debates are really more about fear of dealing with backlash than about the virtue of the truth.
     Yes, I know, that within families and intimate relationships it is not uncommon that etiquette is sometimes sacrificed on the altars of individual agendas. People will yell in spaces and places they consider safe; and unintentionally I hope, bullying tactics might be employed to help one voice gain primacy over the others. But why do I see this more within the ranks of the self-righteous than among the others? Is it nothing more than the fishbowl of my small professional world, or has the modern-day pursuit of halachic authenticity fallen prey to similar foibles and antics that cost Beit Shammai so dearly in the eras when the tenets of rabbinic Judaism were being debated, formulated and established?
     I am coming to think that the first and last passage of Talmud to be taught to and studied by any person seeking a career or vocation in communal leadership should be the Talmud Eruvin (13b) explanation as to why the halachic tradition almost always favors the positions of Hillel over those of Shammai. On that page, Rabbi Abba conceded the halachic legitimacy of both the more strident and stringent positions of Shammai as well as the more accommodating and generous positions of Hillel; yet, opined Rabbi Abba, tradition should and would follow the precedents set by Hillel. The basis for the Talmud's decision had more to do with Hillel's methods than with Hillel's conclusions. Hillel rarely took a position until he first understood the position of Shammai. Hillel rarely spoke until he first listened to the words of Shammai. Hillel never issued a ruling without first acknowledging the position of Shammai. In the timeless words of Talmud, "eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chayim - these and those are both reflective of Heaven's living will"; but Hillel is the school to follow because of the practice through which he and his disciples came to their conclusions.
     With eloquent grace, Talmud laced means with ends so that one not be separable from the other. The destination is not disproportionately more important than the journey travelled. God, it would seem from the Talmud, is at least as concerned with how communities set policies as Heaven might be impacted by what those policies might be. So I wonder - if Hillel could be a presence when rabbis and communal leaders debate the weighty issues of today and tomorrow, how might the deliberations and final decisions be impacted?
     Therefore, let it be proposed that a place of discourse not be a sanctuary for rudeness, bullying and disrespect. Let every truth be validated, even those that bewilder and defy expectations and norms.
     If leaders need to be looking over shoulders, neither they nor the rest of us will be able to move forward without stumbling. Such was not the way for Hillel. Such should not be the way for us.

Tue, November 19 2019 21 Cheshvan 5780