Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dissention in the ranks

In two of the midrashim about Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, and in one of the midrashim about Jonathan ben Uzziel, we are directed to consider the role of disagreement among the learned in matters of halachah.

Today, it is usual in the rightward end of the Jewish community to brook no disagreement, to ignore the great tradition we have of multiple views and multiple voices. The rabbis were not unaware of such tendencies in our community. Although the oven of Achnai is often trotted out as a parable of how we have the power to write the Torah in our ow image and God laughs, in fact, if read properly from the very beginning to the very end of the sugiya, it becomes clear that the point is actually a critique of the tyranny of the majority.
Here the tack is slightly different. While the first of the beit hillel and beit shammai midrashim clearly criticizes those who are not sufficiently learned interpreting Torah (because it creates multiple opinions, and thus "two Torahs" - which is problematic because one cannot live by two non-consonant sets of rules) the following two midrashim are also clear in their criticism of those who allow the disagreements between the learned who study for the sake of heaven to separate the community. in one, beit Hillel is preferred because in teaching, they preserve both sets of rulings, presenting the opponent's rulings first, and doing so in a pleasant manner. In the second, the fact that they continued to marry one another, a point which might be well taken by certain factions who go out of their way to annul conversions of Jews they don't care for (anyone other than themselves, mostly) and judge their children not Jewish - completely contrary to halacha. The entire point of mentioning that beit Shammai and Beit hillel continued to marry each other is to point out that in the one most clear example of where differences must come to the fore, they found ways to make their community one.
This fits well with the second of the midrashim about Jonathan ben Uzziel, in which he teaches the deepest secrets of the Torah, to the extent that God protests - and Jonathan ben Uzziel answers that he did it so that dissention would not increase in Israel. Ben Uzziel wants to say that by revealing the deepest secrets of the Torah, Jews will know "the truth" and so will not have multiple opinions, nor be wrong in their interpretation, but God stops him, saying that humans may not know all that is in the Torah - we cannot know the time of the messiah's forecoming. I suggest that this is actually a hint from God that in fat, while dissension is not to be valued, disagreement is. If we know all, then we are not longer engaged in relationship with God - we have lost something precious. Pure knowledge i not always, in itself, the most valuable thing - and unity of thought is not necessarily what God wishes from us - even when it is unity in pursuit of God's desire that drives us.

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