JEWISH SACRED TEXTS ON CIVILITY
with special thanks to Rabbi Sheldon Lewis and
the Year of Civil Discourse Initiative
a project of the San Francisco JCRC, Jewish Community Federation, Board of Rabbis, and East Bay Federation
A Sacred Model of Conflict
A controversy for the sake of Heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for the sake of Heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates. (Mishnah Avot 5:19)
Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel were in disagreement - what the one forbade, the other permitted – nevertheless, the House of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women [of the families] of the House of Hillel, nor did the school of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. This should teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another, thus putting into practice the injunction, “Love truth but also peace” (Zechariah 8:19). (Talmud Yevamot 14b)
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh’mu’el: For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated [a matter of ritual purity]. These said, “The law is according to our position,” and these said, “The law is according to our position.” A divine voice came and said, “These and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to the House of Hillel.” But if these and these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel? Because they (the House of Hillel) were gentle and humble and they taught both their own words and the words of the House of Shammai. And not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai before their own. (Talmud Eruvin 13b)
On the Multiplicity of Truths
And God spoke all these words (Exodus 20:1). One may say to oneself, “Since the House of Shammai says ‘impure’ and the House of Hillel says ‘pure,’ one prohibits and one permits, why should I continue to learn Torah?” Therefore the Torah says, “And God spoke all these words.” All these words were given by a single Shepherd. One God created them, one Provider gave them, the Blessed Ruler of all creation spoke them. Therefore make your heart into a many-chambered room, and bring into it both the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, both the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit. (Tosefta Sotah 7:12)
And God spoke all these words. Therefore make your ear like a grain hopper and acquire a heart that can understand the words of the scholars who declare a thing unclean as well as those who declare it clean; the words of those who declare a thing forbidden and those who declare it permitted; the words of those who disqualify an object as well as those who uphold its fitness. (Numbers Rabbah 14:4)
Can one not raise a doubt about the need to say that it all comes from the mouth of the Master of all deeds? . . . The meaning is that just as the multiplicity of creatures are from God, may God be blessed, just as all creatures are separate and some are even complete opposites, nonetheless all are from the Name, may God be blessed, Who is One and in all of them there is a dimension of truth. Just as we say that God does the truth, and God’s work is truth. For in its own way, water is truth in the way of its creation, and fire also, which is opposite in the character of its creation, is also truth. Likewise the multiplicity of views in themselves are all from God, blessed be God. . . .
Just as among all who exist, each has a unique dimension of truth. Nonetheless at times one of them may be found to be closer to truth than another, and it is the most complete truth. . . . Similarly, among differences of opinion, there is one that is closer to complete truth and becomes the Halachah (the law). Yet until the Halachah is established, that which is not the complete truth should not be dismissed before the other view. Just as among creatures that nonetheless exist and are complete and bear a dimension of truth. (Maharal of Prague, D’rush Al Hatorah 42a)
Respectful Disagreement May Lead to Greater Wisdom
There are those who err, thinking that world peace will not be built except by means of one form in points of view and qualities. Therefore when they see students of Torah scholars inquiring into wisdom and the knowledge of Torah, and by means of their searching, the perspectives and approaches multiply, they believe that they thus cause argument and the opposite of peace. Yet truthfully this is not so, for true peace cannot come into the world except by means of the value of a peace of many faces. A peace of many faces means that all sides and approaches are seen; and it becomes clear that there is a place for them all, each one according to its worth, its place, and its content.
And, on the contrary, all positions that appear superfluous or contradictory will be seen once the truth of wisdom is revealed in all of her many-sidedness, for only by means of the coming together of all the parts and all of the details, and all of the views that seem different, and all of the divided branches, truly by their means the light of truth and righteousness will appear, along with the knowledge of God, God’s reverence and God’s love, and the light of the Torah of truth.
“and great (‘rav’) is the peace of your children.” It does not say “great (‘gadol’) is the peace of your children,” which would point to a picture of one great body which would fit that imagined idea that peace requires just unified words and equalized ideas which in truth diminishes the power of wisdom and the broadening of knowledge. For the light of knowledge must spread to all of its aspects, to all of the facets of the light within it. But multiplicity (“ribu’i”) is the sense of “rav shalom banayich,” “great is the peace of your children.”
“Do not read ‘banayich,’ ‘your children,’ but rather ‘bonayich,’ ‘your builders,’ because the structure will be built from different parts. And the truth of the light of the world will be constructed from many points of view and varying approaches, for “both these and those are the words of the living God,” from ways of service and guidance and different education. For each one has its place and its worth, and no talent or wholeness should be lost but rather enlarged and a place found for it. And if one sees a contradiction from one concept to another, out of this will wisdom build its house. . . . And the multiplicity of views which emerges from the differences of souls and education is just that which enriches wisdom and causes its breadth so that in the end all of the words will be understood as they should be, and it will be perceived that the building of peace can only be constructed by means of all of those influences which appear to be struggling for dominance one with the other. (Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, Olat Ra’a’yah, Part I, page 330)
On the Mitzvah of “Tochecha” / Rebuke
Do not hate your brother (fellow Israelite) in your heart. You should surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17).
It is a mitzvah for a person who sees that his fellow Jew has sinned or is following an improper path [to attempt] to return him to the good by informing him that he is engaging in wrongful behaviors, as [Leviticus 19:17] states: "You shall surely rebuke your colleague." One who rebukes another - whether because of an interpersonal issue or because of a matter between his friend and God - should rebuke him privately. He should speak to him gently and softly, informing him that he is only speaking these things for the other’s own well-being, to allow him to merit the life of the world to come. If he accepts [the rebuke], it is good; if not, he should rebuke him a second and third time. It is always so, that one is obligated to continue to rebuke a person who does wrong until the latter strikes him and tells him, "I am not listening." Whoever has the possibility of preventing [wrongdoers] and fails to do so is considered responsible for those sins, for he had the opportunity to prevent them. At first, when a person admonishes another, one should not speak to her harshly until she becomes embarrassed, as [Leviticus 19:17] states: "[You should]... not bear a sin because of him/her." This is what our Sages said: “Should you rebuke her to the point that her face changes [color]? The Torah states: ‘[You should] ... not bear a sin because of him/her.’ ” (Talmud Arachin 16b) From this [we learn that] it is forbidden to shame a [fellow] Jew, and all the more so [is it forbidden to shame her] in public. . . . Our Sages said: "A person who shames another in public does not have a share in the world to come." (Mishnah Avot 3:11) Therefore, one should be careful not to shame another person - whether of great or lesser stature - in public, nor to call her a name that embarrasses her, nor to relate a matter that brings her shame in her presence. . . . (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 6:7-8)
It was taught: R. Tarfon said, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof, for if one says to him, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!’ ” R. Eleazar b. Azariah said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to reprove!” R. Yohanan ben Nuri said, “I call heaven and earth to witness for myself that Akiba was often rebuked by me, for I used to complain against him before Rabban Gamaliel Beribbi, and he showered love upon me all the more, fulfilling what has been said, ‘Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise person and she will love you’ (Proverbs 9:8).” (Talmud Arachin 16b)
Principles of Dialogue
Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4)
The Eternal God has given me a skilled tongue, to know how and when to speak to the weary. Morning by morning God awakens me, awakens my ear, teaching me to listen skillfully (Isaiah 50:4).
Ben Zoma says: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone, as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, I have gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).” (Mishnah Avot 4:1)
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: “If a father and son or a teacher and a student who are studying Torah in one place become enemies to one another, they should not move from there until their love for one another is restored.” (Talmud Kiddushin 30b)
Don’t say, “Since I have been humiliated, let my neighbor be humiliated also.” Know: it is the image of God you would be humiliating in your neighbor. (Ben Azzai in Genesis Rabbah 24:7)
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people. Love your fellow as yourself: I am God.” (Leviticus 19:18) . . . What is the meaning of the juxtaposition of “I am God” to the beginning of the verse? I have said that the intention of the verse is to explain the beginning of the verse, “You shall not take vengeance.” Should you say in any form, “How can I work on myself so that there be no ill feeling against the other and even love him or her?”, the verse comes to respond, “I am God.” I am God Who has loved him/her . . . likewise you can love him/her. In truth it is a simple matter. For since one can see below the other only the aspect of the material in which he or she is clothed, the other seems as nothing in one’s eyes. And, in particular, if in any matter the other is against you, you dismiss the other in your thoughts. It is not the same with the Blessed Holy One, Who knows the essence of the holy root of a human soul. (Chafetz Chayim, Shmirat Halashon, Sha’ar Hat’vunah, Ch. 6)
On Self-Reflection in Dialogue
“I place God before me always” (Psalms 16:8). “Before me” – “lenegdi” – from the word “negdi’ut” – “opposition.” And I have heard, that the person should return to herself, for she has gone far from the Blessed One. It seems to me, according to what I have received from my teachers and friends, that one should behave compassionately with every person. Even when one sees something ugly in another person, one should give heart to the fact that there, too, dwells the name of the Blessed One, for there is no place empty of God. Therefore it is for one’s own good, for there is in you, too, a trace of it, and you should give heart, to do teshuvah.
And I remember from the publication of Rebbe Nachman the example of when one is forced to waste time from Torah or prayer because of a certain person, then one is led to pray with a different intention, and the like. If one receives it for good, one will find that it is truly for her good. And this is what is written, “I place God before me.” Even when there is opposition, to prevent me, God forbid, from Torah or prayer, I understand that this is from heaven, for my good, that it is from the side of compassion. . . . In this way, compassion is awakened in the world. (Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, Parashat Chayyei Sarah)
On the Imperative of Pursuing Peace/Reconciliation
Even if you see that a person is angry with you, reach out to make peace with him, for if you do so, it may cause him to love you. . . . A person must be a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, as it is written, “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). Seek peace for your loved one and pursue it with your enemy. Seek it in your own place and pursue it in other places. (Yerushalmi Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1). Seek it with your body and pursue it with your material resources. Seek it for your own benefit and pursue it for the benefit of others. Seek it today and pursue it tomorrow. And do not despair, saying, “I will not be able to bring about peace.” Rather, pursue peace until you reach it. (Sh’nei Luchot Habrit, “Sha’ar Ha’otiyot,” “Ot Bet,” “Briyot.”)