By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
Judy Collins, with her full and folksy voice, sang Joni Mitchell’s words that touched the generation of the late 1960s: “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, up and down… I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take… I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose…
Hillel and Shammai were two Elders who led discussions of religious practice and ethical standards at the end of the first century, BCE. While they had divergent methods, they respected each other’s goal of strengthening the community through Halakha, standards of practice and approach to life.
In the centuries that followed, the disciples of each Sage created academies, appropriately designated as the School of Hillel and the School Shammai. The Talmud (the Jewish post-biblical text written during the time of the Christian testament) records over 300 respectful debates, reflecting the narrower, more parochial perspective of Shammai, and the broader, more inclusive perspective of Hillel.
One debate raged between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel for three years, each one asserting, ‘The standard is in agreement with our views.’ Finally, a Bat Kol – a Divine Voice – was heard, asserting, “Both views are equally valid in the eyes of God.” After a short pause, the Divine Voice continued, “The standards must be applied according to the views of Hillel’s School.”
The students in both academies were puzzled: If both views are equally valid in the eyes of God, then what entitled Hillel’s ruling to prevail? They discerned the answer: Hillel’s argument was colored by words that were kind and modest.
Hillel listened to the words of Shammai, seeing validity in their words. Jewish Tradition understood that the ultimate winner would be the one who understands their opponent’s perspective so well that they could articulate that view before they presented their own.
-President Abraham Lincoln
This became the model for healthy debate:
• Respect the opinion of the other as valid.
• Listen respectfully to the opposing perspective.
• Articulate the opposing view in the presence of its proponents, then present one’s own perspective.
This certainly would be a breath of fresh air in the world of politics today, wherein one side vilifies the other, categorically – and quite often disrespectfully – dismissing the view of those who disagree. In today’s America, people are often less interested in listening to broadcasts than they are narrow-casts, confining focus only on those who agree: one watches CNN or FOX. We are living in an Either/Or society wherein one votes Republican or Democrat, one follows a liberal agenda or a conservative one, one seeks personal victory while another seeks social health. Why not a bit of both? Why not somewhere in between, even if closer to one side or the other? Why not?
Americans have become accustomed to living Either/Or politics, wherein one is right and the other, by definition, is wrong: me or you, us or them. I look forward to the day we live in a Both/And world, where both sides can respectfully disagree on the approach to fixing a problem, even while cooperatively negotiating and compromising to attain common objectives. It is the 2,000-year-old model of Hillel and Shammai, which is as viable today as it was in the first century.
I came across two quotes, one from a Democrat and one from a Republican. In a way not characteristic of America today, I agree with them both!
Democrat John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, articulated the philosophy of Both/And very clearly: Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix blame for the past. Let us accept our [combined] responsibility for the future.
Republican Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, shared this vision: If the great American people only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end.
One day we will not have to worry about reaching across the aisle because we will be standing together.
Rick Sherwin is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Longwood. He is a graduate of UCLA and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He energetically fills spiritual services and educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue, and humor.