Latest update: December 8th, 2011
The twelve-member bipartisan congressional “super committee” on spending cuts formally conceded defeat late last month, after failing to reach common ground on the issues of tax increases and spending cuts.
Republicans vehemently opposed tax increases, particularly on the wealthiest Americans. Democrats refused to cut into federal retirement and health care benefits without such tax increases. Republicans want to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts that lowered individual rates and are due to run out at the end of 2012. Democrats want the tax cuts for the rich to expire.
Naturally, while each committee member had sworn solemnly to work together for the nation’s long-term economic wellbeing, it once again became clear that finger pointing and partisan territorialism would rule the day.
Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), told CBS: “It’s been enormously frustrating for me and for many of my colleagues. As I said, we’ve got 12 good people that worked hard on this. But on the other side, there was an insistence that we have a trillion-dollar tax increase. There was an unwillingness to cut any kind of spending at all unless there was a huge tax increase.”
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) told NBC that Republicans were not telling the truth about the talks. “I say to my Republican colleagues: we are here all day. We are ready to do $1.2 trillion, not less than it. That’s what we were told to do. That’s the law.”
Of course, this self-serving political jockeying raised the ire of the American people. “The failure of the super committee is not just a failure of 12 members of Congress, who I believe genuinely tried to cut a deal but were rebuffed by their party leaders. It is a failure of political leadership on both sides of the partisan aisle,” said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller.
“Both parties chose their own electoral livelihoods over the good of the country, and it is outright shameful…. This might be the most self-serving, mediocre and uncaring set of legislators in Congress in the last 50 years.”
According to Frank Newport, Gallup Poll editor-in-chief, the American people largely agree with Schiller’s view. “We gave Americans a choice: ‘Do you blame the Republicans more, Democrats more – or both equally?’ And 55 percent of Americans said: ‘We blame both equally.’ ”
He added: “[Most Americans] think the [super] committee should have compromised more…. Americans, by almost a two-to-one margin, said they should’ve compromised more to reach an agreement – even if they had to move in on their principles.”
The country, he said, is “very down on anything relating to Congress. Its overall approval in our Gallup update in November is 13 percent, which is tied for the lowest in our history here at Gallup. And almost any measure we put in front of people asking them about competence or trust in Congress and the legislative branch is at historic lows.”
What bothers so many Americans about the present congressional entanglement is not simply the fact that each side fundamentally opposes the other with regards to addressing our ailing economy and reducing the national deficit. Rather, it is the way they demonstrate their position, with a mocking contempt for the other side of the political aisle and an absolute unwillingness to engage in an open minded dialogue that might result in some form of breakthrough. It is as if their political agendas are more important than the nation they have been elected to serve.
Certainly the Jewish people are no strangers to this form of machlokes. We are familiar with the self-serving variety, and have observed how disagreements between sides result in chasms that far exceed the scope of the original feud. We have experienced machlokes on every level: ritualistic, ideological, philosophical, etc. and like the debates that have embroiled members of the super committee, many of these disagreements have remained unresolved, in some instances for decades, centuries and even longer.
However, there is another form of machlokes, one that is couched with the utmost respect and reverence, in which the common goal of the disagreeing parties is to clarify God’s word so that we can serve Him the way that He wants to be served. Such a machlokes is the kind we learn about in our Torah texts, and which fuels our own passion toward understanding and fulfilling our roles as Jews.
It should be noted that this latter form of machlokes, the kind that has become permanently entrenched in our holy texts as halachic or philosophical areas of dispute, was not always existent in Klal Yisrael. For many centuries following the giving of the Torah at Sinai, any potential machlokes was brought before a body of judicial scholars for a timely and final decision.
Previously, dissention was rare in Israel…. When a man needed to inquire about a particular matter he made his inquiry of the local court (of twenty-three judges)…. If its members knew the proper practice, they told him. If not, he, together with the most proficient judge of that court went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Mount. If its members had a relevant tradition, they stated it. If not, they together with the most expert judge of that higher court went to the court situated at the entrance to the Temple Court…. If the members of that highest court had a tradition on the matter, they stated it. If not, the three men proceeded to the Great Sanhedrin (of seventy-one judges) in the Chamber of Hewn Stone…. The inquiry was then put before them. If they knew the ruling, they stated it. If not, they decided the matter by vote…. From there the ruling spread throughout Israel. [Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b]
After the passing of Antigonus of Socho (c. 250 BCE), the leading disciple of Shimon HaTzaddik, his students, Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, assumed control of the Sanhedrin. They were appointed nasi (president) and av beis din (dean), respectively, of that great body. These two men formed the first of five zugos, or pairs of Torah scholars, who would oversee the transmission of the oral law for the next four centuries, up until the destruction of the Second Temple.
In general they steered the nation in a unified manner. However, they sometimes disagreed in areas of halacha. In fact, the earliest argument recorded in the Talmud, regarding whether to perform semicha, or leaning on an animal sacrifice brought on a festival, took place between the members of the first zug (Chagiga 2:2). Additional arguments between the zugos are recorded in Tractate Avos, as well as in other tractates.
But when the disciples of Shammai and Hillel, who had not studied sufficiently [due to volatile conditions], increased in number, there were so many differences of opinion in Israel that the Torah became as two Torahs. [Sanhedrin 88b]
In 33 BCE, Hillel the Elder established a yeshiva that attracted many of the finest scholars of the time. Its members became known as Beis Hillel, or the house of Hillel. Previously, Hillel’s colleague Shammai had organized his own yeshiva. It was smaller and was called Beis Shammai.
Two primary factors contributed to this new, multi-yeshiva arrangement. The first was the great esteem in which the Torah community held Shammai. Out of deference to him, an independent yeshiva was maintained. Following his death, the two “houses” would come together under one roof, with each maintaining its own unique, scholarly approach.
A basic disagreement existed in terms of how to best formulate halachic decisions. Beis Shammai maintained that superior acumen and rigorous attention to detail were more important than whether it did or did not enjoy the numerical edge. Beis Hillel, on the other hand, continued to insist upon the Torah’s directive, “the verdict should always follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2).
The founding of these two great houses of Torah study ushered in a new era in Jewish history, the Tannaitic Period. For the next two and a half centuries these great scholars would clarify the immense body of the oral law. Eventually, during the days of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the final codifications would occur, resulting in what became known as the Mishnah.
He who wishes to be stringent with himself and follows both the stringencies of Beis Shammai and those of Beis Hillel, to him apply the words “The fool walks in darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:14). On the other hand, he who adopts the leniencies of Beis Shammai as well as those of Beis Hillel is a wicked man. Rather, one must follow completely either the opinions of Beis Shammai, with its leniencies and its stringencies; or the opinions of the school of Hillel, with its leniencies and its stringencies. [Tosefta, Yevamos 1:13]
The Era of the Second Commonwealth was one of the most tumultuous periods in our long history. In a relatively short period spanning but 420 years, the Jews experienced the warring and outside control of three world superpowers (Persia, Greece and Rome), not to mention a century of stormy Hasmonean rule. In those four centuries, the Temple was initiated, built, defiled, renovated and greatly enlarged. At the end it would be destroyed. Turmoil was a constant, in the forms of burdensome taxation, intense Hellenization, Pharisee-Sadducee conflicts, civil war, rebellion, intense persecution of the sages, the rise of Christianity, the Temple’s destruction and exile.
The impact of this turmoil was felt keenly in the Torah community, leading to much disagreement and confusion relating to numerous details of our oral tradition. As we noted above, the first four zugos argued on only one point, relating to the performance of semicha on Jewish festivals. Hillel and Shammai themselves had disagreed in only four additional areas of halacha (Talmud, Shabbos 15a). However, the number of controversies would increase exponentially in the period that followed, eventually exceeding three hundred disputes.
The rulings of each house of study reflected the personality, views and approach to Torah study of their respective founders. Beis Hillel became known for its leniency, Beis Shammai for its strict interpretation and application of the law. (In all cases Beis Hillel adopted the more lenient opinion, with the exception of the twenty-three disputes enumerated in Eduyos 4.)
Every argument that is undertaken for the sake of Heaven shall endure. However, one that is not for the sake of Heaven shall not endure. What is an example of a disagreement that is performed for the sake of Heaven? The dissension between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a disagreement that is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy begun by Korach and his followers. [Avos 5:17]
The Talmud (Yevamos 14b) informs us that though Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were in disagreement in many key areas of Jewish law (“What one forbade, the other permitted”), they nevertheless maintained peaceful, amicable relationships with each other, practicing the injunction “Love truth, but also peace” (Zechariah 8:19). They did not abstain from marrying women of each other’s families, nor did they abstain from using the other’s potentially impure utensils, despite the fundamental differences that separated the two groups in these pivotal areas.
For three years there was a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, each one stating that “The law is in accordance with our views.” Then a divine voice announced, “The words of each are the expressions of the living God, but the law is according to Beis Hillel.” Since both are the expressions of the living God, what entitled Beis Hillel to have the law determined according to its rulings? They were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings as well as those of Beis Shammai. Even more, they taught the rulings of Beis Shammai before their own. [Talmud, Eruvin 13b]
Most of the debates between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were decided in favor of the former. Numerous factors contributed to Beis Hillel’s “favored” status over its Talmudic counterpart:
• Nasi at its head – The nasi led Beis Hillel; the av beis din led Beis Shammai. After Shammai’s passing, they would join together in one house of study, under the nasi’s direction.
• Majority – Beis Hillel comprised most of the scholars of the time. Only a minority studied under Shammai. When the disputed matters were put up to a vote, Beis Hillel possessed the necessary majority to confirm its position.
• Final Editing – The primary editor and codifier of the Mishnah’s text was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, a descendent and student of Hillel.
Still, Beis Shammai is mentioned first in every debate. Since that yeshiva was founded earlier, Shammai’s opinions had already made their way into the Talmudic discussions. “The original Mishnah did not move from its place” (Talmud, Yevamos 30a). Statements and rulings issued by Beis Hillel were only added to those already present.
Following Shammai’s death, significant structural changes occurred affecting the leadership of the Sanhedrin. The position of av beis din was terminated. All scholars now sat in one assembly, under the leadership of Hillel. In addition, the position of nasi now became a hereditary position, beginning with Hillel’s son Shimon. It would remain within the family for over 400 years until the position was ended by the Romans in 425 CE.
This latter amendment was brought about to ensure the chain of strong Torah leadership in those troubled times and in subsequent generations. (They would remain in that position well after the Temple’s destruction and the banishment of countless Jews from the Holy Land, proving yet again the great endurance of the Torah and its representatives.) Hillel’s descendants were automatically elevated to the position, effectively taking the decision out of the ruler’s hands, thus minimizing outside interference.
As noted above, there are two kinds of machlokes, one that is for the sake of Heaven and one that isn’t. Let us always strive to be in the former camp, to ensure that we are not driven by selfish motives but from a true desire to advance our collective purpose in this world.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at email@example.com.
About the Author: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212-470-6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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