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Disagreement in the name of heaven


Why might a person consider fasting on the ninth of Adar (in 2019, February 14)?

It’s a date in Jewish history that those in the know might prefer to forget. On the ninth of Adar, about 2,000 years ago, the initially peaceful and constructive disagreements between two dominant Jewish schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, turned destructive and violent, leading, according to some sources, to the death of 3,000 students. It was declared a fast day, but the fast has never been widely observed.

Israelis remembered the date, however, in 1992, when mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution were officially introduced into Israeli law on 9 Adar.

Recently, in the United States, we have seen the effects of destructive disagreement, even within the Jewish community. All of us grieved after the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, but we felt wounded again when an extremist rabbi said not to pray for the victims, because it was a Conservative synagogue.

That statement was uncharacteristic of Judaism, and was repudiated by almost all other rabbis. For centuries in the Jewish world, we have largely avoided the destructive conflicts that tear other societies apart—not because we all agree, but because we find ways to stick together despite disagreements.

In Hebrew, this kind of disagreement is called makhloket l’shem shamayim: disagreement in the name of heaven. Until that day in Adar, the followers of Rabbi Hillel and those of Rabbi Shammai, who disagreed on many things, had managed to respect one another’s points of view. The Talmud follows this practice as well: it often reports two conflicting opinions. That’s sort of like majority and minority opinions in the Supreme Court, except that the Talmud usually doesn’t say which became the accepted view.

In 2013, the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution declared the 9th of Adar as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. In 2016, it was expanded to become the 9Adar Project.

Beginning this month, I’ll teach a series of classes on constructive disagreement in Jewish tradition, starting with examples from classic texts and later moving to contemporary issues. There will be some ground rules: respect for all opinions expressed and for each person’s right to speak, no personal attacks, no taking personal offense from anything another participant says in class.

The first class, on Sunday, December 16, will begin with Hillel and Shammai, using materials developed by Rabbi Amy Eilberg. We’ll meet in the Jerome & Etkind Library at 10:30 a.m. Classes will continue in January.

Paul Solyn