In Defense of …Shamai

One of the greatest people in our long and illustrious history, and one of the greatest Talmudic Sages ever, is frequently and unfairly dismissed and even disparaged. Who? Shamai the Elder, the contemporary of the great Hillel. Shamai is always compared unfavorably to Hillel, who was known for his kind nature, infinite patience, and big heart. Hillel, in the famous stories recorded in Masechet Shabbat (31a) indulges a variety of nudniks who ask him pointless and even preposterous questions, and is open to converts of all types and with a variety of strings attached. All this while Shamai, conversely, tries to drive them all away with a stick. And even the converts themselves concede that say the sternness and impatience of Shamai almost drove them away from the world of truth. It was the humility of Hillel that brought them closer to G-d.

Yet, Shamai is also the one who taught (Avot I:15) “greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.”  But how is it possible to greet everyone pleasantly – and at the same time be considered a “kapdan” – irascible, pedantic, and short-tempered? The two do not really go together.

Furthermore, humility is such a prized trait in Jewish life, and Hillel’s humility is prototypical. Just look at the way Hillel treated the converts in the several vignettes noted in the Gemara – converts who insisted: “convert me on condition that I accept only the Written Torah…convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot…convert me on condition that you make me the Kohen Gadol (High Priest),” each condition an impossibility in its own way. Yet, in each case, Hillel came and converted them after Shamai forcefully drove them away. Where was Shamai’s “pleasant countenance”? Indeed, where were his good midot (character traits)?

The sainted Rav Yisrael Salanter, who knew a thing or two about midot, wrote (Or Yisrael, 28) that it is a mistake to degrade or malign Shamai. Shamai was a great and righteous person, Hillel’s equal, and our Sages indicate, Hillel’s intellectual superior (Yevamot 14a). True, Shamai was meticulous in his observance of mitzvot, hated injustice and had a passion for truth – all of which would lead people to believe he was a kapdan.. But that wasn’t it at all.

Shamai was also humble, just like Hillel. One who is not humble cannot “greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” To greet someone – anyone – means that you have no airs, you don’t perceive yourself as better than them, you don’t wait for them to speak first because you hold yourself to be above them in the social hierarchy.

Shamai’s inflexibility was rooted in something else. Both Hillel and Shamai were unassuming servants of G-d but they differed on one point: is humility always preferable in divine service, or does humility have to defer to something else – strictness, even dogmatism – when it comes to the honor of Torah?

It wasn’t that one had a congenial personality and the other was disagreeable. Character traits are inborn, even if we are obligated to ameliorate and refine the unpleasant ones. Neither Hillel nor Shamai responded to the converts from an emotional or personal perspective but rather from an ideological one. According to Shamai, when it comes to the honor of Torah, there is no room for humility or compromise. It’s not our Torah; it’s G-d’s Torah. It’s not our Jewish people; it’s G-d’s Jewish people. For a potential convert to come along and insist “convert me on condition” of this or that, that is a breach of the honor of Torah.

Hillel disagreed; humility is always preferable and humility can often erode the objections and even the cynicism of detractors. Nevertheless, the dispute between them lives on. Who is correct – when it comes to the honor of Torah, should we be malleable like Hillel or rigid like Shamai? How we answer that question resolves an issue that has been front and center in Jewish life for the better part of two centuries – what concessions to “modernity,” if any, should we make to keep Jews Jewish, to attract the discontented or the unaffiliated, or to assuage the grievances of sundry groups against the Torah?

The answer is that we need both Hillel and Shamai. When it comes to the honor of Torah, Shamai was right. We cannot compromise on the honor of Torah, on the inviolability of mitzvot, or on basic Jewish values or doctrines. If we do, then the Torah will cease to have any meaning or effect. We cannot chip away at the Torah – change this or dilute that – because then it is no longer a Torah of truth. But when it comes to showing respect for human beings, then we require the humility of Hillel – to see each person as an individual, as a precious soul, to reach out, draw near, and show our love for every Jew.

Is it possible to show honor to Torah and respect for people? Of course, that was the gift and genius of Hillel. But note well that for all his humility and his desire to accommodate the converts, Hillel did not compromise even one iota of the Torah, weaken one standard, or renounce one principle. And that was a remarkable feat and a testament to his spiritual greatness. It is an error to believe that Hillel watered down the Torah to make it more palatable to his generation. Note as well that Hillel was able to succeed with his interlocutors only because they too were humble, deferential, sincere, and willing to learn from him and submit to his authority.

Without Shamai’s firmness, the temptation would be too great to adulterate the perfect Torah in order to accommodate the desires of man. And without Hillel’s sensitivity, Jews with an attenuated commitment could never be inspired and would be lost to our people. Both were indispensable to the furtherance of the Mesorah.

On Shavuot, as we celebrate the Divine Revelation that gave the Jewish people our Torah more than 33 centuries ago, we must contemplate our relationship with the Torah itself, adding a new layer of “acceptance” to our earlier ‘acceptance.” Much of what ails us in Jewish life can be healed if we embrace the ways of Hillel and Shamai, and combine a tenacious grip on the immutable Torah with a gentle embrace of the people of Torah, on all levels.

Then, we will bring the light of Torah everywhere, rejoice in the return of G-d’s sovereignty to His world, and merit true redemption, speedily and in our days.

Chag Sameach to all!

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One response to “In Defense of …Shamai

  1. The Maharal on Avos 1 notes that Hillel was the nasi (president? prince?), whose job it is to provide for public welfare, and Shammai was the av beis din (head of the Sanhedrin), charged with upholding the law. Notice these stories fit their jobs, and tell us nothing about the people.

    He further explains. The gemara blames the vast number of disputes between their schools not on the mentors, but quite the reverse — “because they didn’t properly apprentice under (lit: serve) their masters”. The Maharal explains, someone who attends class but doesn’t cultivate a personal relationship with their rebbe could well confuse the person’s professional stance with who they are and what they’re trying to teach.

    Anyway, the difference in roles in the community explains the difference you spell out here. And the imperfection of their passing on their attitudes explains why people typified Hillel and Shammai, rather than merely note what the nasi taught and what the av beis din did.