In a place where there is no mentsch, you be the mentsch!

I worry about the absence of civility from common discourse.  Simple disagreement has devolved into hatred, minced words, obscenities, threats, and even the use of force – all to declare that your point of view is superior and the only correct point of view anyone with half an ounce of brains should favor.  The Rabbis of the Talmud are famous for their pilpul – strenuous debate on a point of law or interpretation of a text in the Torah.  At the conclusion, they might still disagree, but a majority opinion was accepted.  Let us examine for a moment the relationship between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. 

Although born in Babylonia, Hillel moved to ancient Palestine to study the law with the elders Shemaiah and Abtalyon, eventually becoming the authority on Jewish law, living at the cusp of changeover from BCE to CE.  One of my personal favorite tales about him is thus: Every day when he would take leave of his students, he would conclude with “I have a guest”. One day, a student inquired of him: “How is it that you have a guest every day?” Rabbi Hillel responded that our souls are guests in our bodies, and we must treat them well, for you never know when they will leave.

Rabbi Shammai was native to ancient Palestine and a classmate of Hillel.  He is known as a literalist when it came to interpretation, while Hillel would look for alternatives. Shammai did exhibit a temper, particularly in debate, but at the conclusion, if his point of view did not win the day, he accepted it respectfully.  There is the tale told of a non-Jew who wished to convert to Judaism, and first approached Rabbi Shammai, stating: “Teach me all of Judaism while standing on one foot!” Rabbi Shammai was enraged and chased the man away.  The same man approached Rabbi Hillel with the identical challenge, but Rabbi Hillel responded: “All that is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is all commentary. Now go out and learn.” The man later converted to Judaism under Rabbi Hillel’s supervision, and this became known as The Golden Rule.

In most debates over points of law, Rabbi Hillel’s point of view succeeded Rabbi Shammai’s, yet we do not read of any untoward behavior on Rabbi Shammai’s part.  While the Sadducees(the priestly class) and the Pharisees(the newly created rabbinic class) struggled for years, with the Pharisaic version of Judaism winning out with what we now call Rabbinic Judaism, this intra-party disagreement between Hillel and Shammai never disintegrated into a personal battle.  Alas, we are witnessing the disintegration of civil discourse. 

Is this irreversible? Do we just throw up our hands and admit defeat? If you believe that incivility cannot rule the day, then it must be called out.  Politely but firmly reassure others that you welcome a difference of opinion as you would hope they do, but civility must reign, whether that be in person or through social media. Drive extra-respectfully, and give room for others to enter the flow of traffic.  Re-insert the polite language of please, thank you and excuse me.  Greet others with a cheerful countenance, a warm good morning and a pleasant day.  To end with a pithy Talmudic statement: In a place where there is no mentsch, you be the mentsch!

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