Lessons from Hillel and Shammai on Engaging a Divided Community

Art by Arthur Szyk

By Eric D. Fingerhut

As the weekend of the presidential inauguration approaches, Hillel, like many Jewish organizations, is welcoming to Washington both those who are coming to celebrate the inauguration of a new President, as well as those who are coming to march in solidarity against many of the new President’s proposals. The strength of conviction that both of these groups within the Jewish community demonstrate, and the lack of understanding that some in each group have for some on the other side, has made me think a lot about one of the best known stories involving Hillel the Elder, our organization’s namesake.

The story recounts a debate between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel over the interpretation of a particular point of halakha. The debate lasted three years. Finally, a heavenly voice announced “eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim” – both teachings are the word of the living God – but “the law is in agreement with the School of Hillel”.

The story raises the obvious question – why, if both interpretations were correct, was the interpretation of the School of Hillel followed? Why weren’t both considered equal options for practice? The answer, according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s translation, is that the view of the School of Hillel was followed because “they were kindly and humble, and because they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and even mentioned the teachings of the School of Shammai before their own.”

When I teach this story to students, I emphasize several points. First, the debate between Hillel and Shammai was long and intense, lasting for generations. So this is certainly not the first time in history when core disagreements are dividing the Jewish people without a resolution in sight.

Second, it does not appear that either side actually convinced the other to change their mind. So we need to learn to live with disagreements, to not expect that we are going to persuade those with whom we disagree to adopt our point of view instead of their own, and to understand that sometimes our view will prevail and sometimes it will not.

Third, though the Schools of Hillel and Shammai were opposed to each other on many points of law, they shared a commitment to the whole community and its basic goals, values and decision making processes. They were both members of the court of Jewish law. They both cited the same body of sources, and they both wanted what was best for the Jewish people. In today’s terms, they were “in the tent.” Their debates prove that well intentioned, well informed people can reach different conclusions from the same set of facts.

Fourth, as Rabbi Telushkin writes, “the unwillingness of the Shammaites to study and consider the Hillelites views might explain why they later grew violent in their opposition to the School of Hillel. Associating only with like-minded people, reinforcing one another’s views without ever hearing a credible exposition of opposing views, might have caused them to think that one who thought differently from them were not only wrong, but evil.” It seems clear (at least from my Facebook news feed) that there are those on both sides of the current political divide in the American Jewish community who could benefit from taking this insight to heart.

I have had the privilege of serving our country in both the Ohio Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. As the years pass since I last served, it is clear to me that the most lasting moments of personal growth and satisfaction were when I got to know someone who came from a very different background and perspective than me, and when I built a relationship of mutual respect with that colleague. There is such joy in these moments of intellectual pursuit and personal connection. As in the story of Hillel and Shammai, I believe that our tradition values understanding over agreement.

This is the value shared as well by my colleagues, the Hillel professionals working on over 550 campuses across North America, and in 17 countries across the globe. We are the School of Hillel, the students of Hillel the Elder. This week, as debates intensify in this country, we will recommit ourselves to helping the students and the communities we serve understand that vigorous debate over important issues and challenges to the status quo is part of our Jewish tradition, but that listening and learning to understand the other side of an argument is part of who we are as Jews. Whether it is through our award-winning Ask Big Questions program, or partnerships with organizations like the Interfaith Youth Core, we will work to build communities of shared values that include people with policy differences. We will insist that all debates within our campus communities proceed with civility, respect, and the humility that comes from understanding a point of view other than your own, and we will work harder than ever to achieve our vision of inspiring every Jewish student to build an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.

Eric D. Fingerhut is president and CEO of Hillel International.