Like Hillel, Not Like Shammai

I like Rabbi Shammai.

I know, I know, he’s supposed to be a “bad guy.” Beit Shammai is supposed to epitomize the kind of xenophobic, ritualistic Pharisaism that Jesus condemned; this is part of Harvey Falk’s thesis in his book Jesus the Pharisee. And it’s true that Beit Shammai is recorded with some unkind words in Shabbat 17a; the day they assumed control of the Sanhedrin was “as grievous to Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made.”

I certainly don’t differ from the Rabbinic tradition regarding the misdeeds of Shammai’s disciples. Jesus certainly agreed with Hillel more often than Shammai. And at one point, Judaism left off Shammai’s halacha altogether; at one point in Jewish history it became unlawful to draw halacha from Rabbi Shammai’s school (though on a few points I believe he did win out).

There is even a traditional Sabbath song that includes the phrase, “I lift my eyes to the hills–like Hillel, not like Shammai.” Ouch.

R. Shammai was a bit of a cranky fellow. One legend records that when a Gentile came to him to learn Torah, and asked him to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot, Shammai beat him off with his builder’s cubit.

But I sympathize with Shammai, because even though his school of thought was rejected, and even though may have been a bit of a codger, he still appears in Pirkei Avot with some helpful advice, along with the other great Jewish leaders of his day.

Shammai, in spite of his faults, still left his mark on Jewish law, still left something positive that we can glean from today.

I like that. Because I’m not always the most gracious person, either. I can imagine, in exactly the right situation, experiencing the transient desire to whack a bit of sense into someone with a yardstick. Maybe I’m unique in that. I suspect I am not.

We’re not all spiritual giants. We’re not all perfect. Yet God has created each of us, and has a calling for us. We can all contribute. We can all make the world better, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our faults.

We can do this because God’s movement is bigger than us. God is not depending on us to perform perfectly. (If he were, he would have been out of a job a long time ago.) But at the same time, God has invited us to be involved, to contribute the best that we can come up with, and because God has really truly invested us with the responsibility to respond to that invitation, what we do matters. What we contribute is important. Even if we’re not perfect, even when we’re far from perfect.

This stands in complete contradiction to the Christian idea that I see over and over in blogs and social networks: that people need to repent–that is, turn away from–the good things they have done, because they weren’t good enough.

I think this kind of ultra-pious language is well intended. However, I don’t believe it is either biblical or realistic. Read any of Paul’s congregational epistles; Paul does’t condemn his congregations for the good things they are doing or tell them they need to repent of their attempts to serve God; he praises them. He only corrects them when they are doing bad things.

So while we may all aspire to be patient and gentle like Hillel, most of us may never reach that plane of perfect equanimity, of constant kindness. Heck, even the Apostle Paul was known to throw around some strong language now and then.

What’s important is that we take the strengths, the things God has blessed us with, the things we can do, and use them for good. We must try to leave some kind of positive mark on the world, in spite of ourselves. As we grow, we will get better, we will get closer to the goal. But in the meantime, we’re still in the game, and we’ve got to give it everything we have.

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3 Responses to Like Hillel, Not Like Shammai

  1. Carl Kinbar says:

    Very nice post, Jacob; very nuanced. The disputes of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel forced Judaism to examine the merits and demerits of polar positions Without such dispute, we are left with one opinion, which is never a good option among humans’

  2. Peter says:

    Great post. By the way, if you are interested in the methodology behind halachic decision making, you might want to read this:



  3. Anne says:

    “Paul does’t condemn his congregations for the good things they are doing or tell them they need to repent of their attempts to serve God; he praises them. He only corrects them when they are doing bad things.”

    I like this. It’s a good reminder to accept people we feel are less observant than they should be.

    Shabbat shalom,
    ~ Anne

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