June 28, 2018
In the 1st century BCE, the world of Jewish thought and law was divided between those who followed the teachings of Rabbi Shammai and those who were adherents of the teachings of Rabbi Hillel. The schools of thought were often in disagreement, with diametrically opposed rulings on more than 300 disputed topics. Nevertheless, the Talmud teaches, the two camps were able to disagree civilly. And as the ultimate sign of this, our sages remind us that followers of the one school did not refrain from marrying followers of the other. Over 2000 years ago, they modeled how a society with different viewpoints can exist, even with deep-seated ideological divisions.
What a lesson our overly-partisan society might learn for today! Our civic discourse has become coarser, more divisive, and more derisive of those who hold views other than our own, and we are the worse because of it. I support the right to assemble peacefully, to protest, to demonstrate in support of your views. But it goes too far to disrupt, not a political event or professional appearance, but a private dinner, or to call for public harassment of those with whom we disagree. I support the right to free speech and expression, the ability to engage in political talk and advocacy. But it goes too far to label our opponents with belittling nicknames, to deride people with personal attacks, or to misconstrue and misrepresent their arguments in order to score political points.
There is a way to disagree agreeably and I fear that we have lost it. Contentious topics will always generate a variety of opinions and solutions. We won’t all always get along or view things the same way. But when we do disagree, let us do so respectfully and civilly, without calling names, without bullying, without devaluing the basic humanity of each other, without desecrating the tzelem Elohim, the likeness of the Divine, that resides in each person. Jewish tradition holds up the relationship between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai as a model for respectful discourse. We would do well to emulate them.