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Why Can't We Be Friends?

February 23, 2016

The 9th of Adar: Ancient Episode with Contemporary Implications

When it comes to conflict resolution and coexistence, the Jewish record is decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, our rabbinic and Talmudic sages left a legacy of reasoned debate and the concept of “disagreements for the sake of heaven.” On the other hand, there are plenty of examples in Jewish history when desperate factions couldn’t bridge divides, even when threatened by mortal enemies.

The schools of Hillel and Shammai are often held up as shining examples of constructive dialogue. In many ways, their disagreements served as a model for the tradition of Talmudic debate. Two thousand years ago, the students of the two great sages disagreed on how the teachings of the Torah should be understood and applied in contemporary society. (In general, Hillel’s interpretations are considered more lenient and less severe. In Rabbinic literature, the “majority opinion” usually sided with Hillel.) Despite the frequency of disagreement, the two camps broke bread together, intermarried, carried on a respectful debate that focused on the issues at hand and refrained from personal attacks.

There’s only one problem with this model of Jewish unity. The Talmud tells us that, on the 9th of Adar, perhaps in the second century CE, a disagreement over 18 regulations – we don’t know which ones – resulted in violence. Details are scarce. One Talmudic source tells us that Hillel’s students were held hostage and humiliated. Another says that Shammai’s students killed 3,000 of Hillel’s students.

“Whether it is legend or it actually happened, we don’t know,” says Rabbi Nathan Martin, RRC ’06, director of student life at the college.

Centuries later, rabbinic authorities declared the 9th of Adar a fast day, though it is not one that is particularly well known or understood.

“We are fasting because of our inability to find constructive ways to solve disagreement,” Martin explains. “Let’s see if we can find more constructive ways to engage each other and figure out what that looks like.”

In the last few years, the Jerusalem-based Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution has sought to use the 9th of Adar to promote discussion. Check out this cool video from Pardes about Hillel and Shammai.   

On February 22 – which actually fell on the 13th of Adar – RRC was one of dozens of Jewish institutions worldwide to partake in an examination of the day. Rabbi Martin led students in a lunchtime discussion of a series of rabbinic texts that focused on the calamitous incident. 

“What is healthy conflict versus destructive conflict?” posed Martin. Put another way: What qualities separate a disagreement that is for the sake of heaven versus one that has no higher purpose – and in fact may even lead to a destructive outcome?

The students wrestled with texts from the Mishnah, Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds and later commentaries. Among the ideas the students offered is that motivation really matters: Are the actors driven to win in an argument, or are they really interested in the greater good, the greater truth? Are the debaters really listening to one another?

The Mishnah asks us, “Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such as was the controversy between Hillel and Shammai.”

Today, there’s no shortage of controversies in the Jewish world. We disagree vehemently about politics, about the policies of the Israeli government, about the meaning of the state. We argue over the best approaches to the reality of intermarriage and who has the correct interpretation of Jewish tradition. We even clash over who is considered a Jew. .

Whatever happened between the students of Hillel and Shammai, the rupture didn’t lead to total war. And, in fact, the relationship and the debates continued after the 9th of Adar. Perhaps that means there is hope for us today. The students of Hillel and Shammai weren’t perfect and clearly fell far short of their ideals. Neither are we close to perfect.

“Are we open to admitting that we may just be wrong?” the narrator of the Pardes video asks. “Can we acknowledge that, sometimes, we may just both be right?”




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