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A recent challenge in our synagogue made me recall a quote from Danish physicist Niels Bohr: “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.”
Simply put, we must hold our positions humbly. That was my message when a question arose in our congregation: Were we able to welcome a fellow Jew, a registered sex offender, to pray? (see accompanying article by Michelle Boorstein).
The controversy around our difficult decision raised this question of opposing truths. It’s true that communities must strive to be as inclusive as possible, and true that we need high standards of safety, especially for children. It’s true that individuals can “do t’shuvah” (introspection, repentance and change), and true that we cannot know if another’s t’shuvah is complete. When profound truths accrue on both sides of any debate, the message is the same. Daily we choose which truths to emphasize, but we can never deny the other position’s validity.
This idea of profound opposing truths goes way back. Pirkei Avot (5:17) contrasts disagreements that are “for the sake of heaven,” or important enduring controversies, with those that are not. The prototypical makhloket l’shem shamayim, holy disagreement, is between Hillel and Shammai. These two were the Jefferson and Hamilton of their day, circa 40 BCE. Each had their followers. They disagreed on many fundamentals, often vehemently; yet they shared many core values, and remained dedicated to the same great project.
How can we know whether a debate we’re engaged in will prove enduring and holy, or transient and regrettable? The main difference is whether the parties ultimately stand together. Hillel and Shammai did so, despite the fervor of their ideological differences.
The Talmud (Yevamot 14b) relates something remarkable. The schools of Shammai and Hillel argued over every wedding detail, high-stakes matters affecting who’s married and who isn’t (and thus whose offspring are ‘legitimate’). Yet “Shammai’s school still did not abstain from marrying into the families of Hillel’s school, nor did Hillel’s school refrain. This teaches you that they showed love and friendship towards each other, thus putting into practice the Biblical text, ‘Love truth and peace.’ (Zech. 8:19)”
Even the biggest policy differences of the day, rooted in competing value systems, give way in the face of the yet greater call for unity — for continuity — for not undermining the larger edifice within which both sides labor. Hillel and Shammai held their positions strongly, yet humbly.
May America’s Obama and Romney supporters, Adat Shalom’s inclusivists and safetyniks, and other contemporary partisans of all stripes do likewise. May we care about truth, and about peace – and like the prophet Zechariah (of the passage’s prooftext) may we love neither peace nor truth in isolation, but ever hold truth and peace together, and never maul one dearly-held value while seeking to uphold another.
Hillel and Shammai are poster children for good enduring disagreement. Another Talmudic passage (Eruvin 13b) relates that after a three-year debate, God’s voice resolved their issue, saying “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim hen — these and these, Shammai’s and Hillel’s, are words of the living God.” When there is commitment to peace, truth, and unity all at once, then everyone’s words are holy.
Still, disputes require resolution. God continues, “But the law agrees with Hillel.” The Talmud then asks and answers: “Since both were Divine words, what entitled the followers of Hillel to have the law agree with them? Because they were kind and modest, and studied their own rulings and the rulings of Beit Shammai, and even mentioned the rulings of Beit Shammai before their own.”
Talmud teaches, then, that best communicators give fullest credence to others’ viewpoints. Generosity of thought, willingness to explore the concepts and words of the other side, is a core criterion of holy, righteous communication.
Like Hillel, we should strive to hold our positions with humility. That starts with speaking truth (Hillel advises yes, “let our campaigns be dictated by fact-checkers!”). As we ask of political candidates, we ask of ourselves – to continually use our own deepest internal fact-checker.
Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote: “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth; from the laziness that is content with half-truths; from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth – O, God of truth, deliver us.” Amen.
To hold our positions humbly means knowing we could be wrong. God knows all; we don’t. We should continually try to learn more, surrounding ourselves with people whose experiences and knowledge bases differ. When this recent controversy arose, I came with my own clergy angle, heavily informed by Jewish text. But therapists and lawyers and teachers on the Board asked new questions and provided new insights; outside experts we consulted expanded our understanding further. Everyone’s thinking evolved, and some truly changed our minds.
Remaining open is necessary, and sacred. Growth happens where we hold our positions humbly, aware that no one is always right. Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai writes: “From the place where we are right / Flowers will never grow / In the spring. / [That place] is hard and trampled / Like a yard.”
To till that arid soil, we need “doubts and loves”. Only with doubt, with humility, can new growth arise.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb has served Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. since 1997.