Posted on December 14, 2012 by Adam L Masser
A classic example in the spirit of channukah–Shammai and Hillel on how to light a menorah.
Shammai takes a literal reading, deduces logically that the miracle provided for 8 days of oil and so tells us to start with 8 flames and reduce each night. Hillel holds the opposite–start with 1 light and add a flame every night. Why? Because we must always increase the light.
This is, of course, the tradition we follow.
What does this example tell us about these two important schools in molding Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple?
Beit Shammai’s school is a literal, deductive, analytic argument.
Beit Hillel, intuitive, human-centered, spiritual, joyous.
These two voices are not unique to the Amoretic period. They are the reactionary and the progressive, present in every age. And, as in every age, our age requires a balance between the two sides.
One of the fundamental lessons of the gemara is that dialogue is good. Often the halachic decisions described or even decided upon in the commentary are not halachically binding. So why learn it? To impart the halachic sensibility that was employed by the sages in making decisions.
Further, it is important to share narratives. The aggadic tradition is strong in the gemara, even outside of the writings, legends and midrash brought to illustrate a point. Even apparent prooftexts should be better regarded as the sharing of a narrative to elucidate a point, to highlight meaning, not to prove it.
Even though true semikha does not exist, that the chain has been broken, we are the inheritors of the tradition and we must fulfill our duty as Jews in the world. The Torah לא בשמים היא. It is not in heaven–it is on Earth and we owe it to Hashem, to ourselves and to our descendants to carefully study it and to interpret it into the language of our daily lives, into the core of our obligations, sensibilities and yes, even knowledge of good and evil.
We must contain all aspects of the sagacity of our forebears in our decisionmaking. And moreover, we must apply our intuition today, with an increased sensibility for human rights, civil equality and the dignity of the individual.
We must always remember to not only look at the literal, as Beit Shammai would have. We must also look to the intuitive as would Beit Hillel.
We must imagine the sages as humans living today. In their wiseness, what would the Hochmim do when faced with modern issues and realities? We must seek to answer this question and to follow its dictates.
There is, of course, a tension here. The very idea of seeing the sages as contemporary humans smacks of Beit Hillel. Of course the literalists, the Shammites of today would say there is no need to do so–they argue we should simply read the text literally, as they always have.
But of course even the literal is interpretative. There is simply no way to divorce meaning-making from the reading of a text. We all necessarily include information about the world in our understanding, just as Shammai and Hillel did. And just like Shammai and Hillel would do if faced with the human issues of today, we must apply our own wisdom and understanding of what is right, what Hashem wants us to do.
Hillel was right. Judaism can, must evolve–but only from the wellspring of tradition.
A version of this post originally appeared on PostModox.