This week my thoughts turn to Hillel and Shammai. I am not thinking about these famous first century rabbis because of their wisdom but instead because of their relationship. They stood on opposite sides of virtually every issue they faced. They led competing schools of Jewish thought.
The Talmud reports that their disciples argued for years. In fact, they never resolved the debate about whether it was good or bad that God made human beings. Given that their arguments were for the sake of heaven, a divine voice weighed in and determined that both of their opinions were valid and were apt reflections of God’s living words. Still, Jewish law almost always follows the opinions of Hillel.
Why? It is because, the Talmud reports, he would not only share his own interpretations but first the opposing opinions of Shammai. The lesson is clear. One’s opponents must always be given honor and respect. Perhaps, it was also because Hillel was known to be a nicer, and more open, rabbi. Shammai, in contrast, is described as sterner and given to rebuke.
That is the Talmud’s record of their debates. 2,000 years later we are left with the impression that their disagreements were friendly, and civil. These days, I wonder if this was in fact true. Did they speak ill of each other in the quiet of their own homes? Was Shammai sometimes given to fits of rage over Hillel’s liberal interpretations? Was his strict mindset unnerved by his opponent’s openness? Was Hillel equally perplexed by Shammai’s propensity to turn people away who wanted to learn? Did he worry that his fellow rabbi might end up leading a congregation of one?
Did they ever sit down at the same table together? Did they ever share a meal?
I do not know. And so, I wonder if the Talmud has softened the tensions between these leading, intellectual giants. I wish I could ask them how they got along. I wish I could seek their guidance for how to maintain a sense of collegiality and friendship with those whom I vehemently disagree.
I worry that if we cannot sit down at the same table, if we cannot discuss the issues and ideas that divide us then the threads that bind together our community, and country, will be forever broken. The most basic of human needs is eating. The most basic of human activities is eating meals together. This is what binds families together. This is what draws friends together.
This is what creates community. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is my fellow American. No matter how distasteful her politics might be she must be allowed to eat in the same restaurant as I do. It may be emotionally satisfying to throw her out, but I do not want to be party to such incivility. Protests, yes. Lots of them. And more to come, I am sure. But breaking bread together—even if at a table’s length—must always continue.
If not, we run the risk of living in a country riven with sectarian divisions. A recent study of millennials indicated that an increasing number would refuse to marry someone from the opposing political party. If a Democrat will not marry a Republican and a Republican will not marry a Democrat, then we have become sects.
It is a tragic thing that our political leaders have forgotten that compromise is what serves us best. Democrats are not meant to be winners. Republicans are not supposed to be victors. Americans are to be the only champions. Compromise heals a country. Politicians’ commitment to their own ideologies, and bases, is what drives their decisions rather than what might be best for the entire country of Republicans, Democrats, Independents and even those who do not vote, or cannot vote.
It requires greater courage to include those with whom we disagree than to throw them out. The Torah records. The prophet Balaam was sent to curse the Israelites. They were a threat to his king and his followers. When Balaam saw them, and met them face to face, he was unable to pronounce curses. Instead he offered blessings. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24)
It a sad thing that President Trump does not seek to unite the country. It is satisfying to shun political opponents. It is gratifying to point out the apparent hypocrisies of opponents. The cheers of like-minded followers feed the insults, the nods of approval confirm our pre-conceived beliefs. But Twitter is not a forum for debate. It does not provide an opportunity to engage with the ideas of opponents.
For that we require the table. For that we require some good wine and some good food. For that we require some laughter and even shared tears. And then can we can begin the arguments for the sake of heaven.
I would like to imagine that Hillel and Shammai shared many such meals.
That, at least, is what I promise always to continue.