disagreement for the sake of heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on February 12, 2016. I share it today, the 9th of Adar on the Hebrew calendar, for reasons that are explained below.

A mishnah in Pirkei Avot tells us:

Every disagreement that is for the sake of heaven will continue to exist, but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not continue to exist.  Which is the [kind of] disagreement that is for the sake of heaven? Such as was the disagreement between Hillel and Shammai; and which is the [kind of] disagreement that is not for the sake of heaven? Such as was the disagreement of Korah and his entire congregation.

Today begins the Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, so designated because of the holiday that falls in the middle of it, a Jewish holiday you’ve probably never heard of, on the 9th of Adar. One source tells us that the rabbis declared the 9th of Adar a fast day, because on that day several millennia ago, a longstanding, healthy disagreement turned destructive.

The mishnah records the divide between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. They disagreed about almost everything — but, the mishnah notes, they engaged in these debates in a healthy and constructive manner, via machloket l’shem shamayim, or “disagreement for the sake of heaven.”

Ironically enough — or perhaps completely fittingly — our sources disagree about what exactly happened on the 9th of Adar: Some say it was simply that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed in a way they hadn’t before, in an unproductive manner, while others report that they actually came to blows, and thousands died. One rabbi says he has never even heard of the fast. And then, alternate dates are offered for these events: the 3rd of Adar, the 4th of Adar, the 7th of Adar. It turns out, we can’t even agree on the details of this famous disagreement.

But the prevalence of the Hillel and Shammai debates throughout the mishnah attests the depth of their disagreement. Nonetheless, the mishnah  calls their relationship illustrative of machloket l’shem shamayim, “disagreement for the sake of heaven.”

Frustratingly, the mishnah never spells out the characteristics that made the Hillel and Shammai debate machloket l’shem shamayim. So later commentators hazard some guesses.

One notes that the houses of Hillel and Shammai maintained close relationships, their followers marrying each other and eating in each others’ houses. We’re also told that their motivations were beyond “winning” — they wanted to solve problems. And each listened to the other side and were open to admitting mistakes. Finally, it is said that each equally spoke “the words of the living Gd,” even though they held opposing views.

So this week, and especially the 9th of Adar, is dedicated to increasing public awareness around the values and skills of constructive conflict, modeled for us through the relationship of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai — both in its brilliant success over generations, and in its utter failure on one 9th of Adar.

Recently I joined the Community Hevre Kadisha of Greater Boston. Hevre Kadisha is generally translated as “Holy Society.” It’s a group of volunteers who are on call to prepare a deceased person for burial according to Jewish tradition. The Hevra Kadisha’s ultimate concern is to care for the deceased with respect and kindness. I have been privileged to assist a team of women a couple of times over the past month in what is called tahara. There are several principles involved in this purification ritual that have felt deeply meaningful to me, and especially relevant to this week as I learn these ancient rites and commemorate this Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict.

The ritual of tahara begins and ends with the attendants asking forgiveness of the deceased person (meyta in Hebrew) for any indignity that we might inadvertently cause. We declare that all that is about to happen, or that has happened, is for the sake of her honor. A main consideration during tahara is not to turn our backs to the meyta, as well as not pass anything over her body, as we move around the room to prepare her for burial. All of these practices remind us that death has not diminished her essential value as a human being, as one created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of Gd.

As I recently stood at the head of a meyta — a position that is always meant to be occupied — I thought about applying these standards to our interactions with each other. What if we always attempted to engage each other with an intention of dignity? What if we strove never to turn our backs on each other? What if we tried never to pass each other over? What if we committed to remaining present with each other? What if we treated the living as we do the dead?

This week, parshat T’rumah seems to encourage just that. It describes the ideal of being truly present for one another and hints at how to achieve this presence. We find this model deep within the detailed instructions for building the mishkan, or tabernacle, which the Israelites built at the beginning of their journey in the desert and that would come to be the meeting place between them and Gd. Amidst directions for the poles and the curtains and the rings and the clasps, there is the blueprint for the golden keruvim, the winged creatures that are meant to sit on the cover of the ark. Their wings shield the cover of the ark, and they are placed, we are told, p’neyhem ish el achiv, that is, with “their faces toward one another.”

Rabbi David Jaffe, whom I had the opportunity to learn from a few weeks ago, teaches this about the keruvim: Their wings spread over their heads and almost touch at the top. From the space between the wings, Gd says to Moshe, “I will be known to you there and will speak with you…” (Exodus 25:22). A place of knowing and being truly known stands at the center of this structure. This ark is the centerpiece of the mishkan and central to achieving a connection with the divine. Gd speaks from above the keruvim, who face each other in a gesture of genuine relationship.

The rabbis pick up on this powerful metaphor. They teach that the keruvim faced each other when the Israelites behaved well — and turned away from each other when idolatry and oppression reigned. The implication is that it’s only when the keruvim are p’neyhem ish el achiv, “their faces towards one another,” when the Israelites are in productive relationship with each other, that Gd can speak.

Millennia ago, Hillel and Shammai were sitting in the beit midrash p’neyhem ish el achiv, “their faces towards one another,” and both spoke the words of the living Gd. In the following thousands of years, Jews have continued to observe the rites of tahara, its practitioners standing p’neyhem ish el achiv in relationship to the dead, and affording them a last and ultimate act of dignity. And this week in parshat T’rumah we read about the keruvim placed p’neyhem ish el achiv, allowing the presence of Gd into the midst of the Israelites.

During this election year, this ideal of constructive conflict can seem like a mere fantasy. Winning is most definitely the goal, and no one admits mistakes. And there are some candidates whose words are so repugnant that I don’t believe they could belong to any living Gd.

Speaking a little closer to home, I feel similarly when the larger Jewish community tries to talk about Israel/Palestine, or questions of personal status, or the role of women in ritual, or the many other things about which we disagree. So maybe we can’t realistically hold the American political system to this high standard — but I believe we can start this work in our own communities. And that constructive conflict can have ripple effects.

The turned faces of the keruvim on top of the ark are a beautiful metaphor for the conditions of both intimacy and estrangement. This idea has powerful implications for our connections with people and with the divine. When we face each other in relationship, we allow the divine to speak.

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