Civil Discourse

Disagreeing, Agreeably!

Every so often, the Jewish world is rocked by a new religious war. On one side are the innovators, reformers, deviators, and on the other, the traditionalists, the [usually self-appointed] “keepers of the flame”. This is not a new phenomenon, but rather one which is a natural product of life in a religious society. Even in the rare biblical setting of a nation directly addressed by God, Korah and his followers challenged Moshe’s leadership. That phenomenon has intensified after the Maccabean revolt, and since then, dissenting opinions and Halakhic disputes have shaped Jewish history. 

I do not wish, for now, to take sides in current or past disputes, though, as you very well know, if I feel that a certain Halakhic decision can help people I will explain and promulgate it. Today I would just like to offer an advice to the attackers, those who publicly denounce other rabbis for their rulings or teachings, and do not shy from tarnishing their reputation, using verbal violence, taking the battle to social media, and soliciting letters of rebuke from religious leaders. My advice is based on historical perspective and it is very simple:

Violence does not work!

Already King Solomon said (Proverbs 25:15): ולשון רכה תשבר גרם – one can convince the most stubborn person with soft words. The opposite is also true – the more aggressive and demeaning the attack, the more one is likely to become entrenched in his position. Unless the attackers are able to physically annihilate all of their opponents, as the Catholic church did with Christian heretics, the dissenting opinions are likely to resurface and outlive the critics. One such famous case still lives with us, namely, the dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. In tractate Shabbat (1:4) the Mishnah laconically reports that eighteen decrees were decided by the school of Shammai on one day, by the rule of the majority:

ואלו מן ההלכות שאמרו בעליית חנניה בן חזקיה בן גוריון כשעלו לבקרו

 נמנו ורבו בית שמאי על בית הלל וי”ח דברים גזרו בו ביום

This innocent statement seems to report of a pleasant legal process, in which the final determination depended on majority, but Talmud Yerushalmi provides some details which were omitted by the Mishnah, thus spoiling that image:

תנא רבי יהושע אונייא: תלמידי בית שמאי עמדו להן מלמטה, והיו הורגין בתלמידי בית הלל

תני ששה מהן עלו והשאר עמדו עליהן בחרבות וברמחים

Rabbi Yehoshua Onaya said: the disciples of Shammai stood [at the door] downstairs and would kill the disciples of Hillel [who tried to enter the hall].

It was taught: six of them were able to get in, but the rest were blocked by swords and spears.

The school of Shammai might have achieved a temporary victory, but it is well known that the ideology and rulings of the school of Hillel eventually prevailed. The Talmud (Eruvin 13:2) provides an explanation:

מפני מה זכו בית הלל לקבוע הלכה כמותן – מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו

Why did the disciples of Hillel have the merit that their Halakha prevailed? Because they were pleasant and humble…

The insight of the Talmud is still valid today. Before criticizing others for their religious behavior, opinions, or rulings, let us be willing to hear and ask questions, study the circumstances and consequences, and, if we decide to disagree, do it agreeably. This is the only way for you to guarantee that your path in Judaism and way of life will continue to exist in the future.

In the Name of God?

There are those who argue that the disagreement between Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel is praised in rabbinical sources as a desirable one, conducted for the love of God –לשם שמים.  Since the name of Shammai and Hillel is often invoked in discussions about disputes, I would like to examine this statement in depth. Let us start with asking how is it possible for anyone to praise the dispute between the two schools, when, as the Yerushalmi clearly states, it led to bloodshed? It is well-known that if one is told “kill that person or you will be killed!” he should sacrifice his life rather than kill the other person. How is it then conceivable that scholars will be killed for objecting halakhic rulings. Not only that, the rulings in question were neither ones of life and death, nor were they biblical. They are eighteen decrees, twelve of which deal with impurity, one with Shabbat, and five with restrictions on relationships with non-Jews. None of the eighteen justifies murder.

As a matter of fact, R Aharon HaCohen of Provence (13c) writes that:

בט’ בו [באדר] גזרו אבותינו תענית על מחלוקת הלל ושמאי

On the ninth of Adar a fast day was declared to commemorate the dispute of Hillel and Shammai.

The contradiction between this statement and the one praising the dispute could be understood as a historical development. There was originally only one disagreement between the two scholars, Shammai and Hillel, and that dispute was welcomed. There were later other disagreements, but the two scholars treated each other respectfully. It was after they both passed away, that the dispute between their disciples escalated to an armed conflict with casualties, and for that a fast day was declared.

Jewish Agency vs. the Treasury

What was that first dispute about? It is recorded in the Mishnah (Hagigah 2:2) as an ongoing dispute between four generations of religious leadership in Israel. On one hand, Yose ben Yoezer, Yehoshua ben Perahya, Yehudah ben Tabbai, and Avtalyon ruled that one does not need to place his hands on his sacrifice, and on the other hand, Yose ben Yohanan, Nittai of Arbel, Shimon ben Shattah, and Shemaia say that placing one’s hands on the head of the sacrifice is necessary. In the fifth generation, it seemed as if this strange stalemate has finally come to an end, with the peaceful agreement between Hillel and his lesser known colleague, Menahem. 

We are not told what they agreed on, since before people could exhale in relief for the end of the dispute, Menahem mysteriously disappeared from the rabbinic arena and was drafted, as the Mishna reports, to the Roman army. He was replaced by Shammai, who immediately rekindled the old dispute and declared, contrary to Hillel’s opinion, that one does not have to place his hands on the sacrifice. 

It is obvious that the five generations of leaders wanted to keep the dispute alive, but why?

My late teacher, Rabbi Prof. Meir Simcha Feldblum, explained that the dispute had far-reaching consequences for the fine balance between Jews of the Diaspora and their brethren in Israel. Those who lived abroad used to send sacrifices and donations to the Temple in Jerusalem. If the ruling was that one must place his hands on the sacrifice, a significant source of income for Israeli economy would have been lost, since many Diaspora Jews would not have been able to travel to Jerusalem. On the other hand, if the ruling was that one does not have to be present, it would encourage people to stay abroad and not migrate to Israel. 

The dispute was one which could perfectly fit into today’s reality, where some elements in the Israeli government want to lure immigrants, while others focus on investors. For that reason, the dispute was maintained alive for many generations. There was no clear answer, and the rabbis wanted to let the people have an option.

In conclusion, when we praise the dispute of Shammai and Hillel, we do not refer to violent disagreement, or to any other type of religious discord which leads to animosity and divisiveness. The model we should emulate is one which allows for different opinions to coexist, in order to allow people to choose. An attack on those who disagree with us, even when we claim it is done in the name of God, is never justified.

Context and Distortion

Allow me now to share a personal story:

Of the twenty-five years I have spent in the Americas, thirteen were dedicated to working with the Syrian community. The community is famous for its strong family and friendship values and has created an amazing network of educational and philanthropic institutions. There is one institution, however, which is more organic and popular, and whose members range from toddlers to grandparents. I am referring to ballgames. Every Shabbat afternoon, weather permitting, the streets of Brooklyn and of Deal, NJ, are filled with adults and children playing basketball, baseball, football, tennis, and even hockey (not a ballgame, technically!). 

Several years ago, I was approached by a member of my congregation in Brooklyn who requested that I write an article to explain why playing ball is allowed on Shabbat. The problem was that those enthusiastic players are observant Jews who respect the Shabbat, but there were rabbis who rebuked them, with fire and brimstone, basing their criticism on the Shulhan Arukh. 

I did as he requested and provided the sources showing that there is no problem with playing ball on Shabbat, and that the objection of the Shulhan Arukh had to do with the material of which balls were made in his time (pig intestines), which rendered them disgusting and therefore untouchable on Shabbat. I also explained that my purpose in the article was to justify the players, instead of causing them to feel like sinners. If there are opinions in Halakha which allow playing ball on Shabbat, we should rely on them, I argued. 

The retaliation came swiftly. A local rabbi published a class, both in audio and in writing, in which he criticized my ruling and claimed that those who play ball on Shabbat “will burn in hell”. (It turned out that many of his supporters and donors fall into this category, so the written text has been removed, but the audio remained). He also had the sources to back up his claim, in the form of a Halakhic ruling from the 17th century.

Since my whole purpose was to create a safe religious environment for ball players, and I had no interest in toxic and divisive debates, I met with that rabbi at the time. The majority of that conversation is still off the record, but one detail I would like to share. 

I asked the rabbi how he could have quoted the said ruling out of context, and for that he had no reply. It was an obvious case of clipping a Halakhic text and using it to attack colleagues and congregants, and that should not be done. To clarify, let me present the text:

שו”ת מהריט”ץ החדשות סימן רב: ועתה מחדש קמו עמדו בחורים עמדו לשחוק בשבת וביום טוב, ובשכר, שיש להם גוי מי מפסיד ומי מרויח, ולמחרת השבת פורעים זה את זה. ומעון השחוק נמשך שהולכים ושוחקים בגילוי הראש כולם, ובאים לידי שבועות לבטלה בחי ה’ ובהשם לאלפי אלפים, ולידי כעס, וכמעט נוקבים שם השם. ואחר כלות השחוק אוכלים ושותים במרתף גויים ובאיסטיריאהא וקונים פירות וכוסלואיי על מנת לפורעם למחרת השבת…

There are now young people who play ball on Shabbat and Holidays, for money. They hire a non-Jew to write bets, and they pay each other on Sunday. Because of these games they do not cover their head, they swear falsely and in the name of God, and are not far from blasphemy. After the game is over, they eat and drink in non-Jewish puns and eateries, and buy fruits and snacks on credit…

The author, Rabbi Yom Tov Tzahalon, emphasizes in his ruling that the problem is gambling, and that this would be forbidden even during the week. He also says that one should not waste time which could have been dedicated to studying Torah, but clearly states in the same text that playing for fun, without placing bets, is allowed. (several years later, when that same rabbi found himself attacked for his activities on Shabbat, I wrote an article to justify his actions, but that is a matter for another post)

This is but one example how a Halakhic text can be manipulated to serve a political agenda and to be used in power struggles. My request and plea with the rabbis is: please, make the well-being of the community and the individuals your top priority. If you disagree with the ruling of a colleague, let your followers know it, and let them make the choice. After all, that is why God has granted us the power of free will.

Last word:

This article was written in the wake of the unprecedented attack of several men on Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the chief rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in London. The excuse for these attacks was a class RJD delivered on the theme of homosexuality. 

I have listened to the full class, and while I do not necessarily agree with all the statements or the analysis of certain texts, I wholeheartedly support RJD and his sincere concern for a large contingency of the Jewish Orthodox world, which has been marginalized and ostracized in recent decades, namely the LGBT community.

The two rabbis who launched the attack are based in London and Brooklyn and have evidently seized the opportunity to bring down someone who poses a threat to their centers of control and influence. The method used by both is ancient yet viciously effective: 1. Take words out of contexts; 2. Stir emotions and fear; 3. Find people in positions of power who will accept your version of events and/or who could benefit from the attack.

We should realize that while that method works for the rabbis who launched the attack, as well as the rabbis in Israel who joined them despite their limited (or non-existent) command of the English language, it is detrimental not only to RJD, but to many others who are affected, directly or indirectly by the hatred and vitriol spread by those rabbis.

First, it affects members of the orthodox LGBT community, especially in the Sephardic world, who have just recently started to feel less targeted and persecuted. I deal constantly with teens, young adults, parents, who are caught in the web of fear and prejudice. Can you imagine having to convince a mother not to kick her son out of her house because he is gay, or hearing a parent admit that after long years and a fortune spent on conversion therapy he now understands that his son’s orientation is not a choice, and that he regrets putting him through such suffering. 

But these rabbis have set the clock back! Are they willing to take responsibility for even one life lost, as were dozens in the past year alone in the orthodox world, because of bullying, depression, and rejection? Are they willing to take responsibility for the lives of teens who, without moral and emotional support from family and community, will live a life of substance abuse? Did they ever bother to talk to LGBT teens or their parents in an honest, unbiased manner? I guess not, as one of these rabbis has been reported to say the following of some teenagers in his community who came out: “we should put them back in the closet, lock it, and throw the key away!” – if he was able to get away with that kind of verbal violence, it is no surprise that he feels comfortable attacking RJD.

Second, the damage caused to the orthodox community is immense. The aggressive rabbis might have garnered some support and added new followers, but in the long term, such behavior will make people abandoned orthodoxy and observance in droves. This kind of vituperative attacks, lack of civility, and an attempt at character assassination do not inspire anyone. They just cause people to ask how if there is a place for them in such an environment. 

This brings me to the title of this article. The hypocrisy is in pretending that one is fighting for the well-being of the Jewish community and for protecting Torah values. It is most definitely not the case!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck’s main argument was that having a certain sexual orientation is not a sin, and that the only act forbidden by the Torah is the sexual act between two men. No one can refute that, and no one can claim that this statement is heretical or blasphemous. But this is not where hypocrisy ends. The question must be asked, as RJD pointed out in his class, why are the rabbis ignoring other transgressions. No one asks about the business ethics of a Cohen or of the way he treats his wife before honoring him with an Aliyah! Even regarding the observance of Shabbat, considered a fundamental proof of one’s religiosity, the rabbis were willing to make concessions. When the question was raised whether one who transgresses Shabbat publicly can be given an Aliyah, leading Halakhic authorities decided that the transgression must be done publicly, in front of at least ten observant witnesses, who have warned the transgressor that his act is forbidden. Since this usually does not happen, they have allowed those people to be active members of the community.

When it comes to the prohibition mentioned in Lev. 18:22, two witnesses are required to prove transgression, but these rabbis are willing to treat a person as a convicted felon according to Torah law without any legal proof. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:2) and Maimonides (Edut 12:2) even when someone confesses to Beth Din that he willingly had relations with another man, we do not accept his confession (though with another witness he could convict the other participant). This is not to say that I think matters should be brought to court, but rather that the rabbis should uphold halakhic standards and not bend them at will.

The other great hypocrisy, which screams volumes, is the thundering silence of the very same rabbis on missteps and sins of religious leaders which they should have publicly denounced.

There is not enough room here to list the many acts of corruption, embezzlement, and sexual harassment which plague the orthodox community. Yet we have never heard these rabbis launching an attack against any of those perpetrators. To the contrary, they try to defend them or relocate them.

Let the attackers say clearly and unabashedly, that they have been waiting to target the rabbi who threatened their base of power and control, and that they have latched into homophobia to promote their cause.  So, I tell them this now: “It is not too late for you to regret and apologize, but if you decide not to do so, your actions will be judged by the Jewish community and Jewish history”.

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