The best example of this is the arguments between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel was known to be a tolerant, calm and humble man whose rulings were usually lenient. Shammai, conversely, was known to be less patient and more radical and strict in his opinions.
The Talmud relates that once the Students of Shammai coerced Hillel to accept a stricter decision. Here is the story: A sword was planted in the Hall of Study and it was made known that, "He who wants to enter can do so but no one can leave!" On that day Hillel sat submissive before Shammai, like one of the disciples and that day was as difficult for the Jews as the day the golden calf was made (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 17a).
The obvious interpretation of this Talmudic passage is that since due process was not followed and Hillel was belittled and his opinion overruled in an unfair manner it was a terrible day for the Jews. I venture to suggest an alternative interpretation. Hillel’s opinion was almost always more lenient and easier to follow. He made Judaism more compassionate and accessible to the average person. The day when Shammai was able to force his strict interpretation of Judaism upon the masses was a terrible day not just for scholars but for the entire Jewish nation.
The Talmud goes as far as to compare it to the day the golden calf was made. This is to be taken with the utmost seriousness. The Talmud is telling us that when a lenient and compassionate representation of Judaism is passed up for a stricter and less forgiving version it is as destructive to Judaism and Jewish continuity as the day the golden calf was made.
Tragically today this lesson is lost on most of the Jewish world. As Orthodox Judaism moves towards adapting stricter and stricter opinions as its mainstream it alienates more and more Jews who stop relating. This can be seen in many areas including some which are extremely contentious. The Orthodox world is being led by a pious yet uncompromising spiritual leadership.
Thus, when Jews who are outside the fold of Orthodoxy look inwards they are struck by an uncompromising system that is strict, often incomprehensible and at times uncompassionate—a Judaism that is more representative of a Shammaic attitude than that of Hillel. For those who care about the future of the Jewish people this is a tragic day—to use the Talmudic extreme, as tragic as the day the golden calf was made.
Contemporary Judaism needs to understand that stricter is often worse not better. It needs to realize that both opinions are legitimate and that the more lenient view is almost always the more appropriate and constructive one to take. Ultimately it is the lenient and compassionate approach which edifies Judaism rather than the opposite.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
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