Rebukes and Sacred Disagreements

By Carol Lessure

w-hillel-shammai-1423642404I started Sunday off with a nasty argument with Jon, my life partner, over something relatively unimportant. We were coping with daylight savings time, a mysterious rash on the face of our eldest son, while the younger one was late for religious school. I was trying to get us out the door because I planned to attend a Sunday morning text study. So I left in a huff, not feeling very kindly towards Jon.

What did Rabbi-Candidate Shelley Goldman select for our text study?

Leviticus 19:17   “‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke, yes you shall surely rebuke your (Amit) companion, and not bear sin because of him.”

Sigh, I certainly did not hate Jon, in my heart, even if I was displeased with our argument. Have you ever argued with an engineer? It is difficult.

shelley at shabbat

Shelley Goldman

As we unpacked this text, we drew out many interesting things. The therapists and those not prone to confrontation in the group took issue with the word “rebuke.” It is so harsh and judgmental an action. Really how do we know we are on the right side? Others noted that we rebuke all the time–it may not always be the right thing–but we do it.

A professor in the group noted that she often rebukes students. When her students plagiarized, she would take it personally and come down hard on them. Inevitably they shut down and it was a negative experience for all. Now she takes the student aside, shows them evidence of their plagiarism, and calmly reiterates the rules she had explained at the beginning of every semester class. She remains calm and factual. While it is still a rebuke, by taking her feelings out of the equation, the student doesn’t shut down. She finds that this approach is far more successful; avoiding such a rebuke is not an option.

Our teacher, Shelley, noted the Hebrew word תּוֹכִיחַ is repeated twice and perhaps a better translation is to “reprove.” And the second time the word is used as a command: “You shall reprove.”

As the hour long discussion concluded, a member of our group reflected that the text commands us to rebuke/reprove so that we not bear the sin of acquiescence. She drew parallels to those protesting certain political candidates who say offensive things. It is our moral obligation to stand up for what is just and to rebuke that which is not, lest we do wrong (or a sin) by not acting.

My day of Jewish learning had just begun as I went from our morning text learning to the first Michigan Limmud (Jewish learning) conference at the Michigan Union. I was dazzled and dismayed at the array of workshop choices during the afternoon. A friend said everything Lisa Stella leads is wonderful, so I attended her session, “Sacred Disagreement, Creativity, Pluralistic Community.”

The session didn’t disappoint. In fact, it dovetailed incredibly well with the morning’s learning.

Here a group of 20 or so people from across Michigan read and discussed texts pulled from various sources about the same subject. These commentary explored a disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel (they had many). In small group discussions, we parsed the texts and then Lisa led a lively larger group discussion of our observations. The crux of these commentaries is that although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel came down on different sides of an issue, both were valid interpretations of holy words.  Perkei Avot 5:17 says that both were on “the side of heaven,” but in the end the bat kol ruled in favor of Hillel.

Lisa Stella

Lisa Stella

How do we know this is the case? Because the texts noted that Beit Hillel, whose position prevailed, has chosen to share it. The Babylonian Talmud, tractate Eruvin 13b, notes that the argument lasted three years, and that members of Beit Hillel, “were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Bet Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Bet Shammai before theirs.”

The Bavli Yevamot 13b, further notes that followers of Shammai and Hillel still intermarried and shared utensils to prepare clean food during this time when they each believed different halachah. “What, weren’t they hypocrites?” one person asked. But others thought it showed that the community came before the sacred disagreement. Could we see clear to such compromises in today’s world? Many in our group doubted that, although it brought to mind the balance we seek within our families and in our personal relationships.

The text study continued with Likutei Moharan by Rabbi Nahman of Breslov in which he relates that disagreement is in fact like creation: “For the creation of the world came about in essence by way of open space, without which all would have been endless divinity, and there would have been no place for the creation of the world.” Using beautiful imagery about drawing back the light where the open space could become the site of the world created.

After this discussion, my mind returned full circle. To disagree is actually important, for it is within the disagreement that we create something new. Even the act of compromise is in many ways creating a new way of approaching things. So for those of us reluctant to confront, reluctant to stand up, reluctant to reprove – we are actually reluctant to create, engage and be a part of a new solution.

To bring this learning home, Lisa chose an excerpt from Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, Olat Ra’a’yah, Part I, page 330 where he relates that consensus is not peace building, but rather when all the sides and opinions come to light is when we can create new wisdom and increase peace.

And so it was, that later, after attending more sessions at Limmud, I returned home to reconcile with Jon. I wasn’t surprised when our eldest pointed out that in many ways we were both right during our morning argument. And that, was true wisdom.