April 14, 2023
I hope everyone had a wonderful Passover. By now, the chametz we abandoned for a week should be filling us up again. In recent weeks, I have been thinking about the continued tension I have been feeling related to the various chaos we have witnessed in our society. Whether that is pertaining to tensions in Israel both on the political side of things as well as the ongoing violence, or the continued occurrences of gun violence here in the US, as well as repeated rulings that have limited individuals’ access to receiving reproductive health care.
We may have experienced some tension in our gatherings at seder, as we talked with family members or friends with whom we disagreed about certain topics. It reminded me of one of the greatest Jewish gifts we have given to the world, which is the art of disagreement. Countless times, I have seen Israelis arguing, only to see them hug it out at the end. An Orthodox Rabbinic member of the Knesset who would leave the room whenever the Reform Rabbinic member of the Knesset would speak still reached out to the Reform Rabbi when he had been hospitalized last year due to COVID.
Jews have disagreed for centuries. We are reminded of this by the Hebrew word machloket-disagreement. Rabbinic literature even comments about the nature of a machloket in the name of heaven and one that is not in the name of heaven. When we think about disagreement in Jewish law, we remind ourselves that the rabbis of the Talmud debated everything from foods we eat, to carrying things on Shabbat, to who keeps a lost object when it is found, to life and death, issues of ethics and more. Many of us will remember that the two classic schools of thought in the Talmud are the House of Hillel and Shammai who always disagreed with each other. We learn from the rabbis that Jewish law is almost always in accordance with Rabbi Hillel, not because Rabbi Hillel is always right, but because in addition to teaching their own opinions, they also taught the opinions of Rabbi Shammai – and they taught Shammai’s opinions first.
Furthermore, the Talmud also recounts the disagreement between the two schools pertaining to marriage laws and who could marry whom. Even though they disagreed on the law, the Talmud teaches us that the children of those who disagreed with each other from both houses could still marry each other. Meaning, a child from the house of Shammai could still marry a child from the house of Hillel. This is incredibly symbolic because we learn that their disagreements did not destroy the proliferation of Judaism and Jewish life. In fact, one might think that by pushing each other and helping to understand the other’s point of view, it deepened Jewish life.
So how do we respond when we encounter an idea or a person we disagree with? How do we respond when we learn that Judaism teaches something that challenges our thinking? While a typical reaction is to state our case by putting a stake in the sand and throwing up our hands, I wonder if that is the best reaction. Judaism teaches us, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone?” (Avot 4:1) We might then instead keep in our pockets, a series of questions to ask: Tell me about why you believe what you do. How did you come to understand the situation and respond that way? If you encounter a Jewish belief, you might even dig a little deeper. And if you encounter a Jewish belief that disagrees with where you stand, that does not mean an individual is a “bad Jew” (I once gave a sermon entitled There Is No Such Thing as a Bad Jew) or you fall out of bounds for Judaism. We have to consider that Judaism holds diverse viewpoints and that it is ok to disagree. It is important for us to always be open to learning, even though, in the end we might disagree.
It is interesting that the word for controversy or disagreement in Judaism is machloket, it is closely related to the Hebrew word helek meaning “part.” When I think of this word, I think of parts of a whole. We need the pieces coming together to make a whole or perhaps even a part to a machine which requires different components to work. I think perhaps that Judaism understands there are diverse parts to every discussion and that makes the debate so beautiful and powerful. My hope is that we do not let these parts divide us, but that they help us to sharpen one another so that we may grow from our diversity.
Rabbi Rick Kellner