How to Argue, Discuss, and Disagree… in a Jewish Way
Hillel and Shammai were two schools of ancient Jewish scholars named after the sages who founded them. The two schools are famous for their vigorous debates on topics concerning Jewish law, ritual, and belief – debates so prolific that the Mishnah, the first major work of rabbinic literature from the year 200, records more than 300 disagreements between the two schools.
One of their famous debates is the one about how to light the menorah on Hanukkah. Beit Shammai (House of Shammai) says you start with a full menorah and each day reduce the light until Hanukkah ends; Beit Hillel (House of Hillel) says you add light to your menorah until Hanukkah ends. As you may know, the house of Hillel proved more persuasive – and each night of Hanukkah, we add light to our menorah.
Here’s another one: If you forget to say Birkat HaMazon, the prayer after finishing a meal, should you return to the place you ate the meal to recite the prayer, or should you recite the prayer at the place where you remember? Jewish law sides with Beit Hillel, advising to recite the Birkat HaMazon when and where you remember.
Another: On a bride’s wedding day, should you tell her she’s beautiful, no matter what? Beit Shammai says to praise the bride as she is, beautiful or otherwise; Beit Hillel says to greet each bride with, “Kallah nana v’hamudah,” “She is a beautiful and gracious bride.”
With hundreds of disagreements, you might think the two scholarly houses would’ve detested one another – the Montagues and Capulets of rabbinic literature. Not the case.
Although they disagreed often and even contentiously, the two houses got along and even admired each other. The Talmud says:
“Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals, sisters, marriage, divorce, money, valuables, and more…Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai…This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, ‘Love, truth and peace.’” (Yevamot 14)
The debates were intense, the issues fierce, but despite it all, the houses came together. They didn’t let their debates cause a breach between the community, which could have led to their division from one another.
It’s even taught in rabbinic literature that the arguments between the houses are considered arguments machlochet l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.
Our sages speak of two kinds of controversy: Arguments l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, are positive, enriching, and life-affirming, like the debates of Hillel and Shammai. The other type of controversies are lo l’shem shamayim, not for the sake of heaven – those that are divisive, turf-driven, with no negotiation or dialogue, those in which others aren’t treated with respect and dignity.
Rabbi Leora Kaye writes that an argument for the sake of heaven demands profound respect for other human beings, even if their viewpoints are fundamentally and unequivocally the polar opposite of our own. The beauty of this idea is that our tradition encourages us to engage. After all, “Two Jews, three opinions” isn’t an expression from out of the blue!
Jewish tradition – and much of Jewish life – is built on argumentation and disagreement. We’re supposed to dive into the deepest issues of our day. And while they might feel archaic or petty or silly to us today, the arguments of Hillel and Shammai were indeed crucial for the society in which they lived. Their debates were crucial, relevant, legal, political, and personal.
And today? Well, I wish we could celebrate debate within society today, insisting that the tone and arguments be carried out in a passionate, thoughtful, and civil manner. We should insist that every discourse be done with respect and a sense that compromise is no vice; that changing one’s mind because of new information is not a failure or flip-flop.
We should not seek to demean those who disagree with us. We should not sling mud at good individuals simply because they have a worldview different than our own. And, while we might not select our politicians for how they treat others, the moral standard of our elected officials sets the tone for the behavior and dialogue for all of us.
Perhaps the best way to impact the national discourse is for each of us to hold up our disagreements in the manner of a macholchet b’shem shamayim. As we think about our holiday tables – sometimes places of disagreement – how can we aspire to be models of arguments for the sake of heaven?
1. Anavah / Humility
When we argue, do so not only with respect, but also with humility, using “I believe” and “I feel” statements and not presuming to tell other people what they are thinking.
If others tell you, try to avoid a knee-jerk reaction, recognizing instead that you may need to ponder their view to clarify your own. When presented in a constructive way, hearing divergent viewpoints can help everyone learn and grow.
2. Kavod / Honor
When in a disagreement, remember that it often takes risk to disagree with people. We should strive to honor their courage, especially when they’ve put themselves in a vulnerable place.
If you’ve ever been the only voice thinking one way in a room of people who think another, you know how difficult this position can be – and yet, we should hold the right for all opinions, even when we disagree.
3. Kedusha / Holiness
Judaism teaches that each person has a spark of holiness within them. Rabbi Eugene Borowitz taught about sitting on the New York City subway, looking at all the people and whispering to himself “image of God, image of God, image of God.”
If he was able to find holiness in each and every person on the subway, certainly we can find the holiness in the people with whom we disagree.
4. M’pnei Darchei Shalom / For the Sake of Peace
We don’t need to pick every battle – and sometimes it’s OK not to engage. In the debate about the bride, Beit Hillel decided that there are some topics simply not worth arguing about. The values of shalom (peace) or shalom bayit (peace in the home) are important ones, and it’s OK to say, “This time, I’m not going to engage.”
Our speech matters! About this, our tradition is firm. We are taught that our tongues should be as honest as our scales. May all our endeavors strive to be for the sake of heaven.
Watch the recording of this sermon as it was presented before a congregational audience – complete with on-the-spot debates about some of the topics deliberated by the houses of Hillel and Shammai.
Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit serves Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.