One of my favourite Jewish books is a collection of essays called Great Schisms in Jewish History, edited by Raphael Jospe and Stanley Wagner (KTAV, 1981). Over the years I have returned to this book many times. It does not recount every incidence of conflict over the millennia of Jewish history; that would be impossible. It limits itself to those divisions in Jewish life of such magnitude that they could be considered convulsive. I am particularly interested in whether the schisms described in the book permanently divided the Jewish people. For example, the division between the Hasidic movement and those who opposed it continues to this day, but both sides see each other as members of the Jewish community. The schism between the Karaites of the 9th Century (who saw the Hebrew Bible as inerrant; they can be described as “fundamentalist” in a way which rabbinic Judaism cannot) and rabbinic Judaism ended with rabbinic Judaism seeing Karaites as almost completely outside of the Jewish community. There are still Karaites, but they are only marginally Jews.
Dealing with disagreement, particularly on issues that are considered crucial to group identity, is a perennial problem, and of course that’s true of every group, not just Jewish ones. One of the features of early rabbinic Judaism is its acceptance, and indeed its encouragement, of multivocality, of disagreement. The early rabbis considered the destruction of the Temple to be the result of sectarian bickering and mutual hatred – baseless hatred, as it is often referred to. This led the early rabbis to be careful of allowing argument to be overly divisive, to give a sense that one side of the argument were completely right. In the three-year long dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, as recounted in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b), both had good arguments for their positions. Finally, a heavenly voice gave the judgement: “these and these (both) are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel. Our sages then ask the obvious question: if both are the words of the living God what was it that entitled Beth Hillel to have the law fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beth Shammai, and were even so (humble) as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before theirs.”
This willingness to hold a strong opinion in a dispute without erasing the other side is the defining character of Jewish life from the earliest rabbinic times until today. And the underlying concern is that of respect for one’s fellow. It is also an acknowledgement that the institution in which the dispute is taking place has its own value, a value greater than the particulars of the disputes that occur within it. What, after all, was the dispute between Hillel and Shammai? It was the crucial issue of the validity of a Sukkah: “If a man had his head and the greater part of his body within the sukkah but his table in the house, Beth Shammai ruled [that the booth was] invalid but Beth Hillel ruled that it was valid.” As important as this issue was to the disputants (and it would have meant a great deal to them,) the principal lesson we learn from the Talmud is not the answer to it, but rather the way in which the discussion was carried out.
It is not easy to listen to someone making arguments that are (as we think, anyway) obviously and completely wrong, and to put oneself in the shoes of that person and try to understand their arguments, not just in order to refute them, but to truly understand not just the arguments, but also why these particular issues are so important to them. Opening ourselves to that understanding helps humanise arguments that can so easily escalate into anger and divisiveness. The early rabbis knew this: these and these are the words of the Living God. As Rashi comments on this passage, “The sages of the House of Hillel studied their own rulings and those of the House of Shammai.”
Rabbi Gershon Silins