The Values of Debate
The following is a sermon delivered at Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio in 2019.
Jewish history, as we know it today, was created by debate. In our rabbinic texts, we see a detailed breakdown of the disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Originating from two rabbinic thinkers, these families argued down the centuries, each positing the way they believed Jewish law should be lived out. Should we, they argued, celebrate the holiday of the trees on the first of the month or the 15th? Should we light the Hanukkiah from the newest candle or starting with the oldest? They even debate whether or not it is appropriate to tell an unpleasant looking woman that she is beautiful on her wedding day.
Jewish tradition as we know it was characterized by debate. But, at a certain point, we actually have to be able to go DO something, to actually put into practice the results of these debates. So, in one particular story, a Bat Kol, a divine voice, comes down and says “Both Hillel and Shammai are right, but we should do what Hillel says to do.” Both are right… how can that be possible? Two groups who believe opposing things are both correct, but at the end of the day we have to actually choose to go with one over the other.
I was recently listening to a podcast in which a political pundit was talking about the upcoming 13 months of campaigning. It doesn’t matter what side this person was on. It doesn’t matter what they believed to be right. What they said was that they anticipate the most uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unkind political battle that anyone can remember. They said that they are bunkering down for the most political friction this country has seen since the Civil War.
Now this isn’t a sermon about politics. It is a sermon about people. It is a conversation about what it means to know that we are about to enter a challenge that will test our very ability to remain civil and controlled in a world that will make it far easier to be angry and divisive. It is about what we are supposed to do when we know we are setting sail on rough waters.
Tonight is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the Shabbat in which we are meant to do our work to make amends with those who we have hurt, to fix our behavior and make sure that the coming year gives us the opportunity to be at our best, even better than the year that has been.
I fear that, at the beginning of next year, too many rabbis will be writing sermons about the way we’ve seen friction in our communities. I fear that we are gearing up for a year in which we know all too well that things are going to get more unpleasant, rather than less. Most of all, I fear that we will lose sight of the people sitting across from us, seeing an enemy rather than a study partner.
Which is why our history of Hillel and Shammai is so profoundly important to us today. We have a long and storied history of debate, disagreement, and argumentation that always centered around a love of learning and a commitment to righteousness. The only reason Hillel and Shammai were able to carry on as they did was because their respect for one another persisted despite their disagreements. It was said that, despite their failure to see eye to eye on most key issues, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai would still allow their sons and daughters to marry one another, allowing their families to merge. When all was said and done, the political logistics were put aside, in favor of the human connection to made life most delightful.
There is another story about two Torah scholars in our tradition. Reish Lakish was a bandit who, upon meeting Rabbi Yochanan, decided that it was time to put aside his fiendish ways and to engage in his own learning. The two became study partners, and they became good friends. Reish Lakish even married Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. Well, one day many years later, the two were study the texts, and were debating what processes would make a weapon ritually unclean. The two disagreed, until finally, out of frustration, Yochanan lashed out, saying “you would know, wouldn’t you, you bandit!” Reish Lakish was very hurt. “Why have you helped to teach me Torah if all I am to you is a bandit? Have I not succificently changed my ways?”
The friendship fell apart. Reish Lakish fell ill, and Rabbi Yochanan refused to see his ailing friend. Reish Lakish died, and Rabbi Yochanan was driven mad with his grief. Because they were unable to see through their disagreements to the love they shared between them, the world lost two great scholars.
We, as a country, are about to embark on an enormous debate, one with two significant houses. The debate will cover a great many topics, each house arguing for what they believe to be truly important. It is our task, as human beings, to do all we can to stand up for what we believe while at the same time accepting the humanity of those who we oppose. We are all trying to make the world a better place through our vision of greatness. If we are able to engage in that discussion while remaining civil, patient, and fair, we might just be able to enjoy the year 5780 without the need to apologize for our behavior next Yom Kippur.
May we engage. May we listen. And may we remember why we are debating in the first place.
Shana Tova, and Shabbat Shalom