“You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

Whitewashed History: The Tragedy of 9 Adar

The House of Hillel & The House of Shammai

Every Jew has heard the ancient stories of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai and their opposing views in the early codification of Jewish law.

We learned that Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai disagreed on virtually everything.  They even disagreed about whether it was wrong to tell a bride on her wedding day that she is beautiful, even if it isn’t true.

Shammai said it is a sin to lie to a bride.

Hillel stated that lying is allowed in certain circumstances, including to a bride who was not “beautiful”, on her wedding day.

Modern Judeo-Christian society generally follows the teachings of the House of Hillel: every bride is told that she is beautiful.

Arguments For The Sake of Heaven

When I was a child, I learned that the debates of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were “arguments for the sake of heaven”.  While both the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were correct, the House of Hillel was more correct.

Why? The House of Hillel considered the House of Shammai’s position before considering their own views and was seen as more thoughtful, gentle, and modest.

It is conventional Jewish wisdom that the Hillel/Shammai debates are examples of Jewish tolerance at their best.  We think of these deliberations as the Jewish version of the modern Lincoln/Douglas debates.

Unfortunately, much of what we learned was untrue because it was incomplete.

The Tragedy of 9 Adar

On 9 Adar (a date in the Jewish calendar that corresponds to February 24, 2018) the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai could not agree on eighteen interpretations of the law.

Instead of “arguing for the sake of heaven,” the Houses of Shammai and Hillel decided to kill each other.

Some 3,000 students of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai died in a riot that started over the disputed eighteen issues of rabbinic law.  I have found no record of the count of injured and wounded.

The Relevance Of 9 Adar

Why have I decided to discuss the tragedy of 9 Adar?

We know that history repeats itself: if we don’t learn how to discuss contentious issues in a civil manner, American society will end like the ancient Houses of Shammai and Hillel.

It isn’t enough for us to be as “good” as the House of Hillel.  Considering opposing views before our own isn’t the same thing as debating in a constructive manner.

While the House of Hillel is thought to be more thoughtful in its rulings than the House of Shammai, both Houses created their own “echo chambers” that reinforced their beliefs. Then after they were convinced of their positions, they voted (much like today’s U.S. Congress).

Political debate in the United States has become partisan rather than patriotic and exists in an environment, much like the time of Shammai and Hillel.  Different groups live in their own information bubble, deliberate between themselves, and once convinced of their position, fight with the other side.

To Live A Life Well Lived

“A life well lived” cannot exist in the safe cocoon of a self-reinforcing echo chamber: we must do better than the House of Hillel.  We should consider and feelings of others before our own, but also constructively engage with those who we disagree with before a disagreement turns violent.

And, lest we believe that the United States is immune from political violence,  one only needs to study the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the 1960s and 1970s.

9 Adar is not a proud moment in Jewish history. But before we can learn from history, the actual history must be taught and understood; not a whitewashed version.

Mark Sunshine

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