The term democracy literally means rule (or authority) of the people. But, democracy is not just a political system of government by the people, or by elected representatives of the people, and not just a decision making process according to the will of the majority in the event of dispute. Rather, democracy is a complex of principles and moral values such as government by the people or elected representatives, decisions according to will of the majority in the event of dispute, the willingness to compromise, equality of worth, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance. Above all, a democratic approach is in my eyes characterized by a commitment to peace as a moral value above that of truth – for example, the principle of decisions according to will of the majority in the event of dispute is not intended to establish truth (and does not determine truth) but is intended to prevent violence in the face of disagreement.
Is there an opposition between Judaism and democracy?
Professor Joshua Porat in a Hebrew article “There is an Opposition between Judaism and Democracy” (1986) argues that Judaism is a religion based upon the concept of Divine revelation, and thus it is impossible to reconcile Judaism with democracy. He explains that Judaism is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but of a way of life, which includes Jewish law as a legal system of commandments and laws that dictate to the Jewish people in an authoritative way how to behave in all areas of life – and because the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the foundation of the Jewish law and of Judaism is viewed as the Divinely revealed will of God given from Above to below Judaism cannot be reconciled with a democratic system in which the people are the source of authority that determines for itself its way of life through elected representatives and leaders. In my opinion, the argument of Professor Porat is misconceived because his basic assumption that Judaism is a religion based upon the concept of Divine revelation is mistaken. Although the concept of Divine revelation is a central concept in traditional Judaism, traditional Judaism and the Jewish law are not based upon the concept.
In my opinion, not only is there no such opposition between traditional Judaism and democracy, but there are very deep roots of democracy within the Jewish tradition. Values such as mutual respect, tolerance, equality of worth and freedom are of course found in the Biblical literature, but they are moral and spiritual values – and not elements of a democratic conception in which the source of authority is the will of the people. However, in the Talmudic literature there is a well-developed conception of democracy, and such values as mutual respect, tolerance, equality of worth and freedom are an expression of a democratic conception. The reason that it is possible to find roots of democracy in the Jewish tradition and not in the Bible is that from a historical point of view the Talmudic rabbis lived in a Hellenistic world characterized by the spread throughout the near east of Greek culture (in which the concept of democracy originated); whereas the Bible was produced in an ancient near eastern world prior to the spread of Greek culture in the later Hellenistic period.
Roots of democracy in the traditional Jewish law
In my view, the Talmudic rabbis brought about a revolution in which they completely changed the nature of Judaism as a religion from Biblical prophetic Judaism to traditional, rabbinic Judaism – reflected in a remarkable midrash (rabbinic teaching) “not in heaven” (Baba Metzia 59a):
It is taught…and this is the oven of Achnai…on that day Rabbi Eliezer responded with all the arguments in the world, but they (the other rabbis) did not accept them. He (Rabbi Eliezer) said to them, if the Halacha (law) is according to me, that carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits…they said to him that one cannot bring a proof from a carob tree. He said, if the Halacha is according to me, the stream of water will prove it. The stream of water began to flow backwards. They said to him that one cannot bring a proof from a stream of water. He said to them, if the Halacha is according to me, the walls of the Beit Midrash (study hall) will prove it. The walls of the Beit Midrash began to fall. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them (the walls). He said, if rabbis are arguing with each other in matters of law (Halacha), what is your right (to interfere)? The walls did not fall out of respect to Rabbi Joshua, and they did not straighten up out of respect to Rabbi Eliezer, and they remain leaning and standing. He (Rabbi Eliezer) said to them, if the Halacha is according to me, it will be proven from the Heavens. A Divine voice went forth and said, what have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The Halacha is according to Rabbi Eliezer in every place. Rabbi Joshua stood upon his feet, and said, “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30, 12). What is the meaning of “it is not in heaven”? Rabbi Jeremiah said, since the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) was already given from Mount Sinai, “after a majority incline” (Exodus 23, 2). Rabbi Natan found Elijah (the prophet). He asked him, what did God do at that moment? He (Elijah) said to him, He was laughing, and said My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.
In the midrash (teaching), Rabbi Eliezer is functioning as a Biblical prophet in a Halachic (legal) debate concerning the legality of an oven. The two main things characteristic of a Biblical prophet are the performing of miracles and prophetic revelation of the Divine will. According to the midrash, Rabbi Eliezer performs supernatural miracles in order to prove his position; and when the other rabbis reject miracles as a proof in a rational, legal debate, Rabbi Eliezer invokes the very voice of God as a proof by way of Divine revelation – and shockingly the rabbis also reject the very voice of God as a proof in the legal debate. According to the midrash, the Halacha is determined not by a prophetic revelation reflecting the will of God and absolute truth but by a democratic, rational process in which the majority of the rabbis (as authoritative interpreters of the Torah and as representatives of the Jewish people) decide the law according to their limited, subjective human understanding.
The midrash, characteristic of midrashic interpretation in which texts are interpreted not in their plain meaning, uproots both Biblical verses that are cited from their literary context and interprets them not in their plain meaning. The plain meaning of the verse “it is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30, 12) is that the commandments of God are not too difficult to observe; while, the midrash (Rabbi Joshua) interprets the verse to mean that although the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is from Heaven (Divinely revealed) the Torah is not in Heaven and no longer belongs to God. Rabbi Joshua is arguing that once the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, God has no authority regarding the interpretation of the Torah – as the Torah now belongs to the Jewish people, and the authoritative interpreters of the Torah are rabbis as representatives of the Jewish people. Moreover, the authority of rabbis as representatives of the Jewish people in interpreting the Torah includes the enormous power to interpret the Torah according to the midrashic method – and therefore the Talmudic rabbis in their interpretations were not bound by the plain meaning of the Torah as the Divinely revealed word of God. The plain meaning of the verse “after a majority incline” (Exodus 23, 2) is that it is forbidden to join a multitude to do wrong actions; while, the midrash (Rabbi Jeremiah) interprets the verse to mean that the Halacha (law) is established not by Divine revelation but by a democratic process in which the majority of rabbis decide the Halacha.
It is clear that according to the midrash the Halacha (law) does not reflect the will of God – as the Halacha is established in contradistinction to the expressed will of God. The Divine revelation of the very voice of God proclaiming that the Halacha is always to be established according to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer is ignored by the other rabbis – and they shockingly in effect remove God from the process of establishing the law. Therefore, according to the midrash, the Halacha does not reflect the Divinely revealed will of God and does not reflect the absolute truth; rather, the Halacha reflects the interpretation of rabbis as authoritative representatives of the Jewish people on the basis of their subjective human understanding of the Torah – and in the event of disagreement among rabbis concerning the law, the law is to be established according to a democratic process in which the majority of rabbis decide the law. The end of the midrash, when according to Elijah the prophet God laughs and says “My children have defeated Me”, expresses the view that God ultimately approves of such a democratic process of deciding Halacha (law) in which God has been removed from the process.
In the continuation of the midrash, the rabbis expel Rabbi Eliezer from the Beit Midrash (study hall). They do not expel him out of disagreement with him as they are willing to hear his viewpoint and his arguments, and no effort is made to silence him, characteristic of a democratic process. In my view, Rabbi Eliezer is expelled because he is functioning as a prophet relying on miracles and Divine revelation, and not as a rabbi (teacher) relying on rational and logical argument. Rabbi Eliezer refuses to accept the ground rules in the Beit Midrash (study hall) based upon rational argument and interpretation of texts rather than miracles and Divine revelation. The Talmud teaches (Baba Kama 20b) “since the Temple was destroyed prophecy was given to fools and children” – and the source is speaking about the first Temple being destroyed by the Babylonians marking the end of Biblical prophecy. Implied in the source is a philosophic awareness that there is a fine line between prophecy and insanity. The prophet Isaiah goes naked and barefoot as part of a prophetic revelation (Isaiah 20, 2), and if he were to do so today he would be incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. Rabbi Eliezer then in functioning as a Biblical prophet was seen as intellectually immature (as insane or as a child), and thus he was expelled from the Beit Midrash (study hall).
Reflected in the midrash “not in heaven” (and this is the historical background of the midrash) is the revolutionary transformation of Judaism from Biblical, prophetic Judaism to traditional, rabbinic Judaism. Biblical, prophetic Judaism (in the Jewish tradition referred to as the Written Torah) is characterized by the following elements:
- the Sanctuary and Temple as the central religious institution
- sacrificial rites as the central form of religious worship and ritual
- the hereditary priesthood and prophets as the religious leadership
- prophetic revelation of the Divine will as the basis of religion
By contrast, traditional, rabbinic Judaism (in the Jewish tradition referred to as the Oral Torah) is characterized by the following elements:
- the Synagogue and Beit Midrash (study hall) as the central religious institutions
- prayer and study as the central form of religious worship and ritual (and study in the Jewish tradition is not just of an intellectual nature but a religious experience)
- rabbis (teachers) as the religious leadership
- midrash (interpretation of Biblical texts not according to the plain meaning) in order to teach Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings) as the basis of religion
Strikingly, not one of these elements that characterize traditional rabbinic Judaism appears even one time explicitly in the plain meaning of the Bible. There are rabbinic midrashim (commentaries) that speak of Biblical figures who studied in a Beit Midrash (Yeshiva) or who prayed traditional prayers of the Siddur (prayer book of the Jewish tradition), and according to Jewish tradition Moses is referred to as a rabbi rather than as a prophet. However, the terms Synagogue, Beit Midrash, Yeshiva and rabbi do not appear even one time in the Bible. Not one time in the plain meaning of Scripture, do we find that a Biblical figure enters a Synagogue to pray the traditional prayers of the traditional prayer book, or enters a Beit Midrash (Yeshiva) to study. Although there are Biblical verses speaking in general of prayer and study, the traditional prayers of rabbinic Judaism are not referred to at all. There are various Biblical verses that speak of teaching children words of Torah, and that words of Torah should be studied day and night. However, such study is without question subordinate to the far greater goal of morality that is the essence of Biblical religion, and the study that is being referred to is of words of Torah that are primarily moral and spiritual in nature constituting moral and spiritual guidance. Nowhere is the central mitzvah (commandment) of the Jewish tradition of Talmud Torah (study) that is fulfilled by the rigorous and intellectual study of texts, in the main in the Beit Midrash (study hall), referred to at all. The terms Halacha (law), Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings), plain meaning (of Scripture) and midrash (interpretation of Scripture not according to the plain meaning) do not appear in the plain meaning of the Bible. Therefore, it is clear that in traditional, rabbinic Judaism we do not live by the plain meaning of the Bible (the Written Torah); rather, we live according to the Jewish tradition (Oral Torah), characterized most importantly by the interpretation of Biblical texts in the main not according to their plain meaning.
I thus emphasize that the philosophic conception reflected in the midrash “not in heaven” is in complete contradistinction to the presentation of Judaism of Professor Porat in arguing that Judaism cannot be reconciled with democracy. Professor Porat actually presents an opposition between Biblical, prophetic Judaism and democracy – and, he is correct that there is an opposition between Biblical, prophetic Judaism based upon the concept of Divine revelation (in which we live according to the will of God) and democracy (in which we live according to the will of the people). However, contemporary Judaism (across the spectrum including secular, reform, reconstructionist, conservative, modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) is an outgrowth of traditional, rabbinic Judaism – and, there is no opposition between traditional, rabbinic Judaism and democracy. The opposite – there are very deep roots of democracy in traditional, rabbinic Judaism as reflected in the midrash “not in heaven”. Furthermore, the midrash is testimony that although the concept of Divine revelation is a central religious concept in traditional, rabbinic Judaism; nevertheless, traditional, rabbinic Judaism and the Jewish law are not based upon the concept of Divine revelation but upon a rational and democratic process in which rabbis as authoritative representatives of the Jewish people establish the law according to their subjective understanding.
By the way, regarding the Biblical verse “after a majority incline” that is understood in the Jewish tradition as a democratic principle according to which a Halachic (legal) debate is decided by the will of the majority of rabbis – the principle applies only in a social reality in which there is a Sanhedrin (high court) so that rabbis have an opportunity to discuss an issue face to face, to persuade each other and to vote on the matter. There has not been a Sanhedrin since the early part of the Talmudic period, and thus without a Sanhedrin as a centralized legal authority there is actually an even greater degree of democracy – as one may rely upon the opinion of a rabbi as law even though that opinion is a minority viewpoint and one is not in violation of the law with no centralized authority to establish uniform law. This means that there is even a greater degree of democracy in traditional Judaism (in which there is no uniform law and one is free to choose from among a wide variety of opinions) than in modern nation states (in which uniform law is established).
In addition, Professor Porat correctly points out that (even according to his view that the Jewish law is seen as the Divinely revealed will of God) rabbis as representatives of the Jewish people have the authority and power to adapt the Halacha (law) to changing times and conditions. But, he adds that rabbis are not elected in elections by a democratic process. In my view, his argument here is also misconceived because even though rabbis are not elected by a democratic process of elections, the process by which one becomes a rabbi is even more democratic than that of elections. One becomes a rabbi in traditional Judaism by virtue of study – in distinction to the Bible in which one is a priest by virtue of having been born a priest or one is a prophet by virtue of having a prophetic revelation from God. Thus, it can be fairly claimed that the process in traditional Judaism in which any Jew on the basis of study can achieve the status of rabbi and representative of the Jewish people is more democratic than the process in modern nation states in which one can become a representative of the state only by elections or appointment.
Roots of democracy in the traditional Jewish judicial system
There is a democratic principle in the judicial as well as the legal system of traditional Judaism according to which a minimum of three judges adjudicate a judicial matter in court. This principle is the background of a Talmudic teaching (Pirkei Avot 4, 10) – “Do not judge alone as no one judges alone except One; and do not say accept my opinion because they are permitted and you are not”. This teaching in its origins is directed to a rabbinical judge, and in the Jewish tradition every judge in a rabbinical court of law is a rabbi but not every rabbi is a judge in a rabbinical court of law. A rabbinical judge is called in the Jewish tradition Elohim – and the term Elohim then has two meanings one of which is sacred and the other secular. The sacred meaning of the term Elohim is God, and the secular meaning is a rabbinical judge – and the connection is obvious in that a rabbinical judge is functioning as God who is conceived as the Judge of all the earth (and the term Elohim refers to God’s side of judgment as distinct from God’s side of compassion reflected in the great unpronounceable name YHVH). Another thing that is important as background to this teaching is that there is a fundamental difference between a human judge and God conceived as the Judge of all the earth. God is conceived as an absolute source of objective truth and justice; whereas, the judgment and perception of a human judge are subjective as according to the saying, which is characteristic of all human knowledge, judgment and perception – “we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”. Every human being, and every human judge, perceives truth and justice according to one’s subjective angle of vision.
I return to the Talmudic teaching directed to a rabbinical judge – no rabbinical judge in the Jewish tradition is allowed to judge alone as a single judge in a rabbinical court of law (“Do not judge alone”) as human judgment is subjective and limited (“we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”). Only God conceived as the Judge of all the earth is an absolute source of objective truth and justice (“as no one judges alone except One”). Therefore, there is a democratic principle in the Jewish tradition that in a rabbinical court of law there must be a minimum of three judges. The teaching continues to address a rabbinical judge who judges among a minimum of three judges, and tells him that if he is in the minority he cannot coerce the others to accept his view (“do not say accept my opinion”) – and only the majority can coerce the minority to accept their view (“they are permitted and you are not”). In modern nation states, and even in modern democratic nation states, judges in the judicial system do judge alone as single judges in an anti-democratic and authoritarian manner.
According to this Talmudic teaching not only is there no opposition between traditional Judaism and democracy but the democratic principle that disagreement is resolved according to the will of the majority reflects deep roots of democracy within the Jewish tradition – and actually flows from a religious assumption. God is conceived as the Judge of all the earth and as an absolute source of truth and justice; and from this it logically follows that we as human beings must acknowledge out of intellectual humility that our knowledge, judgment and perception are subjective and limited (“we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”). In light of our subjectivity as human beings, if we wish to prevent violence (physical and verbal) when there is disagreement among us, then we must rely upon the democratic principle that disagreement is resolved according to the will of the majority.
Roots of pluralism in the Jewish tradition
The concept of pluralism, which literally means diversity, is one of the fundamental principles and values of a democratic conception and approach. I want to distinguish between two kinds of pluralism – pluralism as a matter of fact and pluralism as a matter of moral principle. Pluralism characterizes the Jewish tradition in point of fact from a historical point of view. If I were to choose one word to describe the Jewish tradition it would be the Hebrew word argument or debate. The method of study in the Beit Midrash (study hall) and Yeshiva (study academy) is intellectual argument and debate in which every issue is a matter of argument and debate characterized by differing viewpoints and interpretations – and this is true whether we are speaking of Halacha (law) or Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). In traditional Judaism, classic texts are studied with a wealth of commentaries upon the text – and thus regarding any particular word, phrase, verse or passage there are differing viewpoints and interpretations. There is a well-known joke that illustrates the pluralistic nature of the Jewish tradition – that when there are two Jews together there are at least three different opinions. In speaking of pluralism as a matter of moral and philosophic principle, the question is whether pluralism is good (and to be desired and encouraged) or bad (and to be discouraged and avoided), and such a question is itself a matter of argument and debate in the Jewish tradition – but, in my view, in a consistent way the Talmud advocates a democratic and pluralistic approach.
A story from the Talmud of the relationship between Rabbi Yochanon and his student Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish expresses the view that argument and debate are beneficial and to be encouraged (Baba Metzia 84a):
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish died. Rabbi Yochanon was very sad regarding his loss, and did not come to the Study Hall. The rabbis said: “Who will go to comfort him? – Rabbi Eleazar ben P’dat who is very knowledgeable regarding traditions and sources will go”. He went and sat before him. Everything that Rabbi Yochanon would say – Rabbi Eleazar ben P’dat said: “I have a source to support you”. Rabbi Yochanon said: “Are you as Rabbi Lakeish? When I would say something, Rabbi Lakeish would raise 24 difficulties and I was forced to give 24 answers to his objections, and the law was expanded – And you say, ‘I have a source to support you’, and do I not know that I spoke well (without your support)”!
According to the story, argument and debate are to be encouraged in affording an opportunity to broaden horizons in being exposed to other views. The obvious problem that arises in the face of pluralism, whether speaking of pluralism from a factual point of view or pluralism as a matter of moral principle, is how one decides among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations in terms of agreement, and how one decides how to act. There is a midrash (rabbinic teaching) that raises the problem and responds (Chagiga 3b):
Rabbis are…studying Torah – these say impure and these say pure, these say forbidden and these say permissible, these say invalid and these say valid. Perhaps you will say…how do I then learn Torah? It is taught: From one Shepherd they (words of Torah) are given – one God gave them…so now make your ears like a funnel (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom), and acquire for yourself a hearing heart in hearing the words of those who say impure and those who say pure, the words of those who say forbidden and those who say permissible, and the words of those who say invalid and those who say valid.
The midrash here raises a fundamental problem in relation to pluralism. The danger of fragmentation resulting from pluralism, or the even graver danger of violence that may result from pluralism, are not necessary results of pluralism but only possible dangers that may result when intellectual arguments are not conducted or resolved in a fair and democratic way – when intellectual argument and debate characterized by issue oriented attack (what you have said or done is idiotic) deteriorates to fighting characterized by attack of a personal nature (you are an idiot); or when one or both sides are intolerant of opposing views. The midrash, though, raises a necessary problem inherent in the very nature of pluralism – how can one decide between conflicting views and interpretations?
The meaning of the image of the funnel (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom) by which we are to sift and funnel conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is that we are to be open to hearing differing viewpoints and interpretations. This also follows from the view of the midrash that words of Torah come from One Divine source – for, if so, then we must be not only open to hearing but at least tolerant (if not respectful) of differing viewpoints and interpretations. According to the midrash, the sifting and funneling of conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is by hearing through “a hearing heart” – that we are to be loyal to ourselves and to our own heart in deciding among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations which of them to ultimately accept. Notice that in such a debate of scholars we cannot decide among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations on the basis of reason – because we do not have the knowledge and background of such scholars to be able to decide on the basis of reason. Thus, according to the midrash, the basis for deciding among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is not reason, and not obedience to external authority, but our own heart. The midrash teaches that we are to be open to hearing many different viewpoints and interpretations, and that we are to be loyal to ourselves and our own hearts in deciding between conflicting viewpoints and interpretations (even though we may be lacking in knowledge and background regarding the issue under discussion) – and such an approach is characteristic of a democratic conception. Most significantly, according to the midrash, we are not merely to be obedient to Halacha (law) as an external system of authority; rather, characteristic of a democratic approach we are to decide and choose among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations within the legal system on the basis of our own heart and then to be obedient to the law.
In a democratic society, there are of course authoritative lawmakers and authoritative interpreters of law. Democracy is not anarchy, and we do not make or interpret law for ourselves – and this is no different in the case of traditional Judaism. Rabbis are authoritative legislators who have power to legislate beyond the commands and laws of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people – for example, the Talmudic rabbis legislated that on Hanukah and Purim we light Hanukah lights and read the Book of Esther, and in both cases we bless that God so commanded even though no such commandments are found in the Torah. Rabbis also have the power to legislate rabbinic decrees and enactments. The main function, though, of rabbis is as authoritative interpreters of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a legal constitution of the Jewish people in establishing law (Halacha). The main difference between traditional Judaism and modern nation states in this regard is, as I earlier pointed out, that in traditional Judaism since the early Talmudic period we no longer have a Sanhedrin (high court) as a centralized authority to establish uniform law – thus there is an even greater degree of democracy and freedom to decide among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations in traditional Judaism than in modern nation states.
The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) also relates to the problem as to how we can determine Halacha (law), and know how to act, when there are conflicting viewpoints and interpretations regarding the many debates between Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai) – and these two schools of thought, which developed on the basis of the differing conceptions and approaches of the teachers Hillel and Shammai, had very different viewpoints and approaches:
Three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated – these saying the Halacha is according to us and these saying the Halacha is according to us. A Heavenly voice proclaimed: “Both these and these are the words of the living God, and the Halacha is according to Beit Hillel”. And, if both these and these are the words of the living God, on what account is Beit Hillel privileged to establish the Halacha according to them? – because they are easy going and humble, and they teach both their own views and those of Beit Shammai. And not only that, but they teach the views of Beit Shammai before their own.
The obvious question that arises is how the contradictory views of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel can both be considered “the words of the living God” (meaning that both are truth)! I will suggest two ways of resolving the paradox. First, I will give an analogy of a huge beach ball – according to the analogy, the huge beach ball is red, white and blue in color, and from your angle of vision and perspective on the opposite side of me, you see all of the red, none of the blue, and half of the white. From my angle of vision and perspective on my side, I see all of the blue, none of the red, and the other half of the white that you do not see (and I do not see the half of the white that you see). According to this analogy, the ultimate and absolute truth is beyond our grasp as neither of us can perceive the entire beach ball – and, recognizing out of intellectual humility that ultimate truth is beyond our grasp necessarily implies democratic values of mutual respect and tolerance toward opposing viewpoints.
Second, I want to suggest that the seeing of a paradox in such a case of contradictory viewpoints each representing truth is a product of a certain way of thinking. The outlook reflected in seeing a paradox here is what is called a western mentality, characteristic of western cultures – meaning a highly rationalistic and analytical outlook (based upon analysis and fragmentation in the sense of focusing on component parts of a whole). In western thinking there is a tendency to see a contradiction (either this or that) regarding two contrasting things. This does not mean that everyone in the western world has such an outlook but merely that such a mentality is characteristic of western cultures that are based upon systematic philosophy, science and technology. By contrast, an eastern mentality, which is characteristic of eastern cultures, is not rationalistic and analytical, but is intuitive and integrative (based upon synthesis and integration in the sense of focusing on the whole rather than on the component parts making up the whole). In eastern thinking there is a tendency to see a reciprocal relationship (no this without that) regarding two contrasting things, in spite of the contradictions between them. On the basis of western thinking, either the views of Beit Shammai or those of Beit Hillel can be accepted as true, but not both – since they are contradictory. On the basis of eastern thinking, both the views of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel represent complementary aspects of the truth (as front and back are complementary aspects of an object, and there can be no front without back and no back without front) – in spite of the contradictions between them.
Implicit in the Talmudic source here is not only an eastern mentality (in that both the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai reflect complementary aspects of the Truth) but also a moral and spiritual commitment to the democratic value of pluralism as an ultimate value. The source attributes moral and spiritual value to pluralism in that both the opposing views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are considered “the words of the living God” – moral value because democratic and moral values of mutual respect and tolerance necessarily flow from the perspective that the opposing views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are regarded as complementary aspects of the truth, and spiritual value because their opposing views both represent Divine truth.
The Talmud raises a fundamental problem as to how we can determine Halacha (how to act) if we accept that the contradictory views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are both ultimately true (or complementary aspects of the truth). The answer given that the Halacha (law) is decided in accordance with the views of Beit Hillel because of their superior moral character traits is striking in that the Halacha (law) is thus determined according to an Aggadic (non-legal) rather than Halachic (legal) standard – even though there are standards within the Halachic system for determining law in any given situation (in the social reality in which there is a high court to establish uniform law). For example, in the midrash “not in heaven” the standard is a democratic principle that the Halacha is decided according to the will of the majority of the rabbis. Yet, this is a general principle to which there are exceptions such as when Halacha is decided in accordance with a minority opinion (for example, due to the superior wisdom of an individual rabbi). It is possible to rationalize that the Talmud is actually suggesting a Halachic (legal) standard by which the Halacha is decided – in accordance with the views of Beit Hillel not due to their superior moral character traits but due to their superior learning and method of study in that they present the views of Beit Shammai in addition to their own. But, this is a weak rationalization because the Talmud explicitly emphasizes that not only did Beit Hillel present the views of Beit Shammai but that they taught them prior to presenting their own – “And not only that, but they teach the views of Beit Shammai before their own”. To present the views of Beit Shammai together with their own may be understood as representing a superior method of study leading to greater wisdom on the part of Beit Hillel. However, for Beit Hillel to present the views of Beit Shammai prior to their own in no way contributes to greater knowledge, and is simply an expression of their respect and moral sensitivity.
It is thus the moral values of Beit Hillel, such as acceptance and humility as emphasized in the source (“because they are easy going and humble”), and commitment to such democratic values as pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance, that constitutes the reason, according to the Talmud, that the Halacha is established according to Beit Hillel. This then is the connection to the first part of the source – the declaration in the first part that both the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are “the words of the living God” necessarily implies that at least tolerance if not mutual respect is to obtain between the schools expressing a commitment to pluralism as a moral and democratic principle in which contradictory viewpoints are appreciated as reflecting complementary aspects of truth. In the second part Beit Hillel is viewed as exemplifying such a commitment to moral and democratic values of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance demonstrating that they are worthy of having the Halacha (law) established according to their views.
I want to point out two things regarding the terms easygoing and humble that are very significant. First, the term used in the source for humility literally means to be insulted. Unfortunately, as an expression of widespread intolerance that is characteristic of the orthodox world (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) there are even orthodox rabbis and teachers who often utter statements regarding non-orthodox Jews (as well as regarding non-Jews) that are insulting. I emphasize that Beit Hillel is not described as insulting others but as being willing to be insulted by others. Secondly, the intent of the terms used in the source (easygoing and humble) is to portray Beit Hillel as committed to democratic values of mutual respect and tolerance in spite of their disagreement with the views of Beit Shammai. The intent of the term easygoing is that Beit Hillel did not delegitimize the viewpoints of Beit Shammai out of a judgmental attitude of intolerance; while, the intent of the term humble is that Beit Hillel did not delegitimize the viewpoints of Beit Shammai out of an arrogant attitude of superiority assuming a monopoly on truth. Beit Hillel were tolerant and respectful of opposing viewpoints such as those of Beit Shammai – to the extent that Beit Hillel would teach the views of Beit Shammai as well as their own and even present them before their own.
I earlier suggested that the democratic principle that disagreement is resolved according to the will of the majority flows from a religious assumption – if God is assumed to be an absolute source of objective truth and justice, then out of intellectual humility in which we recognize the subjective nature of human judgment we must rely upon the democratic principle that disagreement is resolved according to the will of the majority. Likewise regarding democratic values of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance – such values flow from a religious assumption. If conflicting viewpoints and interpretations are seen as coming from One Divine source or are seen as complementary aspects of Divine truth, then it follows that we must relate to those who we disagree with in mutual respect and tolerance.
Is pluralism to be extended narrowly or broadly?
Parenthetically, it will be extremely difficult to find a Yeshiva (study academy) in the orthodox world (modern orthodox and ultra-orthodox) in which reform, reconstructionist, conservative or secular viewpoints are taught – not in order to refute them but out of a commitment to democratic values of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance, and a commitment to learn from fellow Jews in a spirit of Jewish unity (with an open mind recognizing differing subjective conceptions of Torah, and not with a preconceived or prior assumption that non-orthodox views are falsifying the Torah). This is often rationalized by arguing that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were committed to a traditional Halachic (legal) framework (the disputes between them concerning interpretation of sources and issues within a shared legal framework); while non-orthodox teachers and thinkers are delegitimized in the orthodox world as not being committed to a traditional, Halachic (legal) framework, and thus the teaching “both these and these are the words of the living God” is not applied to them.
There are several problems with such a rationalization. First, such an argument is a weak rationalization because even in the orthodox world (modern and ultra-orthodox) orthodox authorities who are committed to, and observant of, a traditional Halachic framework are often delegitimized by fellow orthodox authorities. Moreover, such an argument applies outside the orthodox world only regarding reform, reconstructionist and secular. The conservative movement (in contrast to other non-orthodox movements or streams) is committed to observance of a traditional, Halachic framework, and the disputes between orthodox and conservative authorities are concerning interpretation of sources and issues within a shared legal framework – and, disputes between conservative and orthodox concerning theological or philosophic issues are matters of Aggadah (non-legal material of the Jewish tradition) external and irrelevant to a shared legal framework. Yet, conservative authorities are delegitimized on a widespread basis throughout the orthodox world.
Second, there is an important philosophic question relating to the source “both these and these are the words of the living God” – whether pluralism of differing streams, such as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, applies only in the realm of Halacha in which both sides are committed to observing the same traditional, legal framework; or, even outside of our traditional legal framework regarding non-orthodox streams that do not recognize Halacha (Jewish law) as binding (reform, reconstructionist and secular), and even regarding differing streams of thought (and other religions) outside of traditional Judaism?
I want to point out that in Talmudic reasoning there are two possibilities when faced with a philosophic question in Jewish law as to whether a particular law applies only to a specific situation that is cited in the law (and to similar situations), or in general even to other different situations. The first possibility is to argue that the law is to be applied only in a limited way to the specific situation or case cited in the law (and other similar situations) by distinguishing between the specific situation (and other similar situations) on the one hand and different situations on the other hand. The second possibility is to apply the law in general, and not only to the specific situation cited, by arguing that the law certainly applies in general such that there is no need to say this – and, the need is to explain why the specific case is cited. That is, we must explain why we might mistakenly think that the law doesn’t apply in the specific case cited such that there is a need for the law to cite the specific case – the citing of the specific case teaching that the law applies even in such a specific case (and certainly the law applies in general with no need to say this).
Regarding the source “both these and these are the words of the living God”, the first possibility is that pluralism applies only to a specific case such as the debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (or similar cases), and the distinguishing feature would be the commitment of both sides to the same framework of Jewish law – and, if so, as I just pointed out, pluralism would at least need to be extended by orthodox Jews to conservative Judaism, which recognizes Jewish law as binding. The second possibility regarding the source “both these and these are the words of the living God” is that pluralism applies in general even toward those who are not observant of Jewish law (Jews and non-Jews), and the specific case of the debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is cited in the source because otherwise we might mistakenly think that there is no room for pluralism regarding philosophic dispute in the realm of Jewish law governing behavior in which we seek to establish uniform law – and, there is no need for the source to teach us that pluralism applies generally in relation to philosophic debate with other Jews who do not recognize Jewish law as binding, and even in relation to philosophic debate with non-Jews, since such philosophic debate is only of an ideological nature and has no practical implications from a legal point of view regarding behavior.
In distinguishing between these two logical possibilities that I have delineated, the crucial question, in my mind, is not one of cognitive truth (of the rational mind) that is an ultimate value of the ancient Greek culture in which philosophy and science had their origins in the western world – and, we have no possible way of determining which of these two logical possibilities is the true intention of the source “both these and these are the words of the living God”. Furthermore, even had the Talmudic rabbis revealed their intention regarding how to apply the source, perhaps in a later time period such as in our day it is preferable to apply it differently. Rather, the crucial question is one of morality (and of the heart) faithful to our Biblical heritage in which cognitive truth is not an ultimate value at all, and the ultimate Biblical values are moral values especially of peace between people, and of mutual respect and tolerance – and, the moral question is how we wish to relate to those who think differently from us whether observant of Jewish law or not.
It is clear to me that applying the source “both these and these are the words of the living God” in a general way, even toward fellow Jews who are not observant of Jewish law, and even to non-Jews, is preferable from a moral point of view. Indeed, the two greatest Talmudic rabbis, Hillel and Rabbi Akiva teach that the essence of Judaism is moral decency – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and “love your neighbor as yourself”; and, there is a rabbinic teaching – “moral decency precedes the Torah”. Moral decency toward others necessarily assumes democratic values of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance. In the Synagogue when the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is returned to the Ark a verse from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible (Proverbs 3, 17) is recited – “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are of peace”, and an anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic approach of a lack of mutual respect and tolerance toward those who think differently is certainly not a way of pleasantness and peace.
The moral consideration for applying the source “both these and these are the words of the living God” even to fellow Jews who are not observant of Jewish law is the commitment to the fundamental idea of the unity of the Jewish people – that the Jewish people is one, and not to be divided into factions or sects. The moral consideration for applying the source “both these and these are the words of the living God” even to fellow human beings who are not Jewish is the commitment to the fundamental idea of the brotherhood of humanity. The Talmudic rabbis (Mishnah, Sanhedrin, 4, 5), were sensitive to the theme of peace and brotherhood of humanity at the beginning of the Torah:
Therefore, Adam (the first, primordial human being) was created alone, as a single human being…for the sake of peace between people, so that one cannot say to one’s fellow human being: My father is greater than your father.
Reflected in this source is a recognition of universal, human brotherhood that the Talmudic rabbis derived from the fact that Adam (the first, primordial human being) was created alone as a single human being, according to the Torah. From this fact, it follows that we are all children of the same father, and, therefore, all brothers. Thus, the moral consideration to relate to non-Jews in a spirit of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance flows from our commitment to the brotherhood of humanity.
I recall a conversation between two orthodox rabbis that I once heard, one modern orthodox and the other ultra-orthodox, concerning a prominent secular Jew (who not lacking in basic Jewish education identified with a secular version of Judaism). The ultra-orthodox rabbi remarked that on the basis of the Shulchan Aruch, the great law code of the 16th century, the secular Jew is a heretic who is worthy (in theory) of being put to death (even in the Talmudic and medieval periods, as far as I am aware, Jews did not in practice put to death heretics). The ultra-orthodox rabbi asked – “what can I do, given that this sentence from the Shulchan Aruch is what is before me?”. The modern orthodox rabbi responded – “the question is, why this particular sentence of the Shulchan Aruch is before you”. He asked the ultra-orthodox rabbi why other, more important sentences from traditional sources that speak, for example, of love of one’s fellow Jews are not before him. The modern orthodox rabbi focused upon the selection of the particular source from the Shulchan Aruch by the ultra-orthodox rabbi. He might also have added that there are questions regarding the interpretation of the source, such as the question of what constitutes heresy (and whether a specific case as this one fits the interpretation) and whether the source is still applicable in a different time period and culture that we live in today – indeed, there are Halachic, legal authorities in the Jewish tradition who have ruled that the particular law from the Shulchan Aruch cited by the ultra-orthodox rabbi is no longer applicable in our day.
I cite this story to illustrate that the Jewish tradition is literally a vast and infinite sea of sources. The fundamental question, in my mind, is not one of knowledge and truth (which are ultimate ideals characterizing the ancient Greek culture), but one of moral values (which are the ultimate ideals characterizing the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition). The crucial question is – what are the moral values on the basis of which we will select and interpret sources from the vast and infinite sea of sources within the Jewish tradition?
In the story that I cited here, the ultra-orthodox rabbi, though far more learned and knowledgeable regarding traditional sources than I am, has selected and interpreted a particular source from the Jewish tradition according to anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic values of intolerance and lack of mutual respect. In my view, the ultra-orthodox rabbi is distorting the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses, and more broadly the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition as a whole) by selecting and interpreting a source according to such anti-democratic values; and this is, in my opinion, the meaning of the rabbinic teaching that I previously cited – “moral decency precedes the Torah”. The crucial question then regarding the Talmudic source “both these and these are the words of the living God” is a moral question of how we will apply the source. Will we apply the source in a narrow way only to those fellow Jews who share a common legal framework on the basis of anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic values of intolerance and lack of mutual respect in delegitimizing fellow Jews, and fellow human beings, who think differently thus creating fragmentation and divisiveness among the Jewish people and among humanity? Or, will we apply the source in a broad way not only to fellow Jews who do not share a common legal framework (out of our commitment to the unity of the Jewish people) but even to non-Jews (out of our commitment to the brotherhood of humanity) – on the basis of democratic and pluralistic values of mutual respect and tolerance thereby creating peace and togetherness (in spite of disagreement) among the Jewish people and among all people?
Truth and peace as ultimate values in the Jewish tradition
I want to address the issue of truth and peace as ultimate values in the Jewish tradition. In my view, the Talmud in a consistent way advocates a democratic and pluralistic approach – and, in such an approach peace as an ultimate value takes precedence over that of truth. I want to cite a teaching of the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) – “a person should always be humble like Hillel, and not strict like Shammai”. Humility, is without question, a character trait that necessarily implies precedence of peace between people over truth – and, one who is intellectually humble will not have an arrogant attitude of superiority assuming a monopoly on truth thereby delegitimizing and insulting one who thinks differently. Intellectual humility will express itself in a willingness even to compromise truth for the sake of peace between people. Strictness, without question, is a character trait that necessarily implies that truth takes precedence over peace between people – as one who is strict (according to a dictionary definition of the term) is stringent in enforcing or adhering to requirements and principles. Strictness is a matter of truth and strict justice, and principles are enforced or adhered to even should such strictness and stringency lead to violence or insult. Strictness means an unwillingness to compromise truth and strict justice. I will cite one Talmudic source illustrating this difference in character between Hillel and Shammai (Shabbat 31a):
A story of a non-Jew who came before Shammai. He (the non-Jew) said to him (Shammai), convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. He (Shammai) pushed him away with the builder’s rod which was in his hand. He (the non-Jew) came before Hillel; he converted him. He (Hillel) said to him, ‘what is hateful unto you do not do unto others; that is the whole Torah, and the rest is the commentary – go and study’.
First, a side point – it is written explicitly in this source in the Talmud that Hillel converts the non-Jew, and only afterwards teaches him that the whole of the Torah is “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”, then telling him to go study. This is in contradistinction to the accepted Halacha (law) today in which one converts only after a period of study. This source apparently is an example of historical development of the Jewish law reflecting a very early period (prior to the development of our present Halacha) in which no prior study is required of the non-Jew by Hillel in converting him. If we do not assume historical development of the Jewish law, and we assume that the law is unchanging (as according to widespread orthodox dogma), then it is even more striking that Hillel would have been willing to compromise truth to the extent of violating the law in converting the non-Jew.
Second, and most important, very clearly reflected in this source is the difference in character between Hillel and Shammai. Shammai, whether or not he actually hit the non-Jew in pushing him away with a builder’s rod, is willing to use violence, or the threat of violence, toward the non-Jew out of his strictness and sternness of character – his attitude is one of disrespect and intolerance toward the non-Jew. Apparently, for Shammai, the request of the non-Jew is stupid or insulting (as if Judaism can be reduced to one sentence) that doesn’t deserve any time even to try to explain to the non-Jew why the request is stupid or insulting. Hillel, even though he may have acknowledged (if we were able to ask him) that the request of the non-Jew is stupid or insulting, does not chase the non-Jew away giving him a feeling as if he is a stupid idiot, and certainly does not use violence or the threat of violence toward the non-Jew – rather, Hillel relates to the non-Jew with respect and tolerance. Hillel converts the non-Jew patiently summarizing for him the essence of Judaism in one concise statement – and, it should be noted that Hillel in summarizing Judaism in a concise statement is without doubt compromising truth for the sake of the greater pragmatic goal of allowing the non-Jew to convert to Judaism (as Judaism cannot be accurately described by reducing it to a concise summary of one sentence). This source thus reveals the difference in character between Hillel and Shammai – and, the differing schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, developed in the Talmudic period on the basis of the difference in character and approach of the teachers, Hillel and Shammai.
I want to suggest that the democratic and pluralistic approach of Beit Hillel flowed from their commitment to peace as the highest value above that of truth; and, by contrast, Beit Shammai’s anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic approach flowed from their commitment to truth as the highest value even above that of peace. I want to cite a remarkable Talmudic source (Ketubot 17a) in which this difference is reflected:
How does one dance before the bride? Beit Shammai says “the bride as she is” (she should be described exactly as she appears). Beit Hillel says “a beautiful and charming bride” (regardless of how she actually appears). Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel “let’s suppose that she was lame or blind, do we tell her that she is a ‘beautiful and charming bride’ – and the Torah says ‘You shall keep far from a false matter’ (Exodus 23, 7)?”. Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai “according to your position, one who purchases bad merchandise from the market, should we praise it before him, or condemn it before him?”. Indeed, we should praise it before him. From here, the rabbis said that a person should always get along well with people.
The debate here is a philosophic question of which has greater precedence – intellectual truth or peace between people (morality). The position of Beit Shammai is that truth has precedence over peace between people, even to such an extent that they are willing to insult a fellow human being in the interests of truth (and thus the bride should be described exactly as she is even if ugly, lame or blind). In support of their position they quote a verse from the Torah – “from a false matter keep far away” (Exodus 23, 7). The emphasis of Beit Shammai here upon truth over that of peace in all likelihood represents a form of fundamentalism in which what is written in the Torah (as the Divinely revealed word of God) is regarded as authoritative (regardless of reason). The position of Beit Hillel is that peace between people has precedence over truth; and this is the position that the Talmud accepts, as reflected in the conclusion of the source in which the rabbis are cited as support for the position of Beit Hillel in saying that a person should always get along well with people. In support of their position Beit Hillel makes a moral argument that we should as a matter of human decency lie in order to avoid insulting a fellow human being. Just as we should not insult a person by telling him or her that he or she has made a bad purchase, so too we should not insult a groom by saying that his bride is not beautiful (even if true, as peace takes precedence over truth).
What stands out as absolutely shocking is that Beit Shammai has invoked the revelation of God’s will in support of their position – as reflected in their citing the verse from the Torah “from a false matter keep far away” (Exodus 23, 7), representing the Divinely revealed word of God; and, Beit Hillel shockingly ignores the verse in arguing that as a matter of human and moral decency we should not insult a fellow human being. Indeed, neither Beit Hillel nor the rabbis in the conclusion of the source have a supporting verse to rely upon from the Torah – they are relying upon human reason and conscience in defense of their position. No proof text from the Torah is cited here for the position of Beit Hillel or for that of the rabbis; and, none is apparently necessary since human reason and conscience is sufficient in this case even to push aside the verse from the Torah cited by Beit Shammai that it is forbidden to lie, in accordance with the Talmudic teaching that I previously cited “moral decency precedes the Torah”.
So, reflected in this source is not only a philosophic question of which has greater precedence, truth or peace between people; but a philosophic question of which has greater authority – the Torah (the Divinely revealed word of God) or human reason and conscience (the Divine image of the human being as a source of morality). It is as if Beit Shammai has put the Torah, as a document reflecting the will of God, on the table before Beit Hillel saying that it is written explicitly in the Torah that we are forbidden to lie; and it is as if Beit Hillel ignores the Torah on the table, pushing it aside, in saying on the basis of human reason and conscience that one should lie in order to avoid insulting a fellow human being. Likewise, in the concluding position of the rabbis the moral principle that one should always get along well with people carries greater authority than the Divinely revealed word of God, written explicitly in the Torah, that it is forbidden to lie. The position of Beit Hillel and that of the rabbis is an anti-fundamentalist position, and is the same as that of the Talmudic teaching that I just previously cited “moral decency precedes the Torah”. But, what stands out in this source is that according to the Talmud as reflected in the position of Beit Hillel and that of the rabbis is that peace takes precedence over truth. Incidentally, there is a debate in the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) as to whether it is permissible or obligatory to lie for the sake of peace (and strikingly the debate is not permissible or forbidden but permissible or obligatory) – and, both positions (permissible and obligatory) assume that peace takes precedence over truth such that it is at least permissible if not obligatory to lie for the sake of peace.
I want to cite two sources, one from the Babylonian Talmud and the other from the Jerusalem Talmud, in which truth and strict justice are compromised for the sake of the higher moral value of peace between people. In these two sources there are conflicting reports regarding the relations between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The source from the Jerusalem Talmud reports on violence between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in interpreting a source from the Mishnah (Shabbat 1, 4). The Mishnah states:
And these are the legal teachings that were said…and they were counted. And Beit Shammai were greater in number than Beit Hillel and decreed 18 things on that day.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 81, 4) wants to explain how it could be that Beit Shammai were the majority on that day when it is known that in general Beit Hillel were the majority – and the Jerusalem Talmud comments:
That very day was difficult for Israel as the day of the making of the golden calf…It is taught: students of Beit Shammai stood over them…and killed students of Beit Hillel. It is taught: Six of them (Beit Shammai) went up (to vote) and the rest stood over them with swords and spears (threatening and preventing students of Beit Hillel from going up to vote but without killing them).
The Jerusalem Talmud presents two reports – one in which students of Beit Shammai actually killed students of Beit Hillel and the other in which students of Beit Shammai threatened violence in order to prevent students of Beit Hillel from voting – and, these reports call to mind the teacher Shammai who, in the Talmudic source that I earlier cited, used violence or the threat of violence to chase away the non-Jew who wanted to convert on condition that he is taught the Torah while standing on one foot. In any case, Beit Shammai used violence, or the threat of violence, in order to decree laws in an anti-democratic manner according to their conception and approach. The comment of the Jerusalem Talmud (“that very day was difficult for Israel as the day of the making of the golden calf”) is striking in comparing the idolatry of the making of the golden calf (a sin of a ritual nature) and the violence of Beit Shammai (an immoral act)! I want to suggest that arrogance is reflected in the anti-democratic approach of Beit Shammai that is characterized by a lack of mutual respect and tolerance toward Beit Hillel. The Talmudic rabbis considered arrogance to be a form of idolatry – as one who is arrogant worships oneself as the source of truth and justice, and in effect denies God as the ultimate source of truth and justice. Beit Shammai in their use of violence and coercion assume that they grasp absolute truth and justice to such an extent that they can arrogantly impose their views on others in an anti-democratic way. If we do assume that God exists as the ultimate source of truth and justice, then it follows from this that we must acknowledge out of humility that we as human beings are limited in our knowledge and do not know absolute truth and justice.
The Babylonian Talmud in contrast to the Jerusalem Talmud reports on relations of friendship between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (Yevamot 14b):
Even though Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed regarding other wives, sisters, an old divorce document…Beit Shammai did not abstain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, and Beit Hillel from Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they acted toward each other in friendship and affection in fulfillment of what is written – “truth and peace they loved” (Zechariah 8, 19).
It is possible to resolve the difference in the reports of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds by distinguishing between the nature of the reports. It is possible that the Babylonian Talmud is reporting on relations of friendship between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in general, and with an intention to teach that the relations between people should be of friendship; while, it is possible that the Jerusalem Talmud is reporting on actual violence that took place in a specific case from a historical point of view.
The disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in the source from the Babylonian Talmud are concerning various issues of marriage and divorce, and have even more severe consequences from a legal point of view than disagreements today between reform and orthodox concerning conversion. If a reform rabbi performs a conversion not according to accepted Halacha (law), there is no danger of mamzerut, which is a technical term in Jewish law that refers not to a child born out of wedlock but to a child born of a forbidden (adulterous or incestuous) relationship. In the case in which a reform rabbi performs a conversion of a woman not according to Halacha, a child born to such a woman is not considered to be a Jew according to Halacha as the woman herself is not considered to be a Jew according to Halacha – but, both can convert according to Halacha and join the Jewish people. The consequences of a child being defined as a mamzer are much more severe, and such a child though considered Jewish is not allowed to marry a fellow Jew (in order to deter the committing of adultery or incest). In the source here from the Babylonian Talmud, as a result of the disagreements concerning marriage and divorce if Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai intermarry there is a danger of mamzerut – and, yet, they intermarried.
In the plain meaning of the Biblical verse from the Book of Zechariah “truth and peace they loved”, it is impossible to determine whether truth is more important than peace (truth precedes peace in the verse), peace is more important than truth (the order in the verse is of ascending order in importance) or that they are of equal importance (the order in the verse being by chance and having no significance). However, it is clear that the Babylonian Talmud, in uprooting the verse from its literary context, interprets the verse as teaching that peace is more important than truth as well as more important than observance of Halacha (law) – in order to explain the problematic behavior of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in intermarrying when there is such a severe Halachic (legal) problem of mamzerut.
In my view, in common to both these sources in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds is the idea that peace precedes truth in importance, and that we must give up on our commitment to truth as an ultimate value. However, the reason that we must give up on our commitment to truth is different in each source. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, we must give up on our commitment to truth due to a philosophic consideration in recognizing that we as human beings, limited in our understanding and knowledge, cannot know absolute truth – we are to give up on our commitment to truth out of intellectual humility. According to the Babylonian Talmud, we must give up on our commitment to truth due to a moral-social consideration in that unity (between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) is more important than truth. But, in both cases, we are not required to give up on our commitment to truth entirely. In the case of the Jerusalem Talmud, we are required to give up only on our mistaken conception that we as human beings can know absolute truth in refraining from acting in an anti-democratic way characterized by a lack of mutual respect and tolerance regarding those who think differently from us. In the case of the Babylonian Talmud, we are required to give up on our commitment to truth only at times when it is necessary from a practical point of view for the sake of the greater goal of unity, and in such a situation we are giving up not upon our theoretical conception of truth but only upon the practical expression of our conception of truth – even though we may be convinced that our conception is true; nevertheless, peace precedes truth in importance such that sometimes for the sake of unity we must act in violation of our conception of truth.
I want to conclude with the words of Micah, the prophet. In one of the most remarkable passages of the Bible, Micah, the prophet, expresses an anti-theological messianic vision of all people living in peace and security – together with theological tolerance and freedom of worship. Strikingly, there is no demand that other peoples will adopt Jewish theological beliefs. Rather, in Micah’s vision, other peoples will continue to worship as they wish according to their own culture (“everyone in the name of his god”), and what will unite us is our living together in peace and security without fear (Micah 4, 3-5) – as the essence of religion in the conception of Micah is peace and justice (morality), and not truth or theology.
And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But, they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid: For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it. For all people will walk everyone in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.