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Circling The Wagons

In ancient Israel, there was a period of time when the society was beneficially directed, in the development and practice of the law, by two houses of scholarship- the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. While there were strong disagreements in many areas of policy, law and jurisprudence between these two camps, the interaction between them, on both a personal and a professional plane, was still most harmonious, respectful and caring. In most similar cases in history throughout the world, we usually find friction and fighting. In this case, this did not exist. The question is: why?

The Talmud presents an interesting perspective on the relationship between these two Houses which could provide the answer to this question. While framing its statement from the perspective of the House of Hillel, the same standard could also be found within the House of Shammai. We are told that whenever a scholar from the House of Hillel offered an opinion in a dispute, he always preceded it by presenting, with respect and thoughtfulness, the opposing view of the House of Shammai. Views were not expressed in a vacuum of black and white -- "I am 100 per cent right and the other side is 100 per cent wrong." Positions, rather, were expressed with an understanding of the complexity of an issue and a recognition of the depth of thought within variant viewpoints. Truth was identified as an element within all perspectives. Value was thus also acknowledged -- even as one advocated for a different conclusion -- in the view of an opponent. There was camaraderie and a meshing of purpose amongst the Houses of Hillel and Shammai for fullness of thought was a goal they both shared.

What the Talmud would seem to be informing us is that whenever there is debate and division on a certain subject, what one usually finds is that there is some value inherent in all the perspectives on the subject. Such an assertion, of course, does not mean that all the viewpoints are therefore to be seen as equal; the House of Hillel still maintained their conclusion. What was recognized by quoting the other side, however, was the need to consider the elemental values in the opposing view even as it still is being rejected by the promotion of the perceived-to-be, better conclusion. There are always costs and benefits in any decision we reach. When we present a view as only beneficial and without any detriment, we are misrepresenting the truth. In recognizing the argument of the other side, we are thereby articulating and accepting the cost of our conclusion even as the perceived benefit is deemed to outweigh it. This allows all of us, though, to then continue the challenge and the effort in terms of further striving to locate some manner by which to limit this cost.

I share these thoughts as I believe them to be most applicable in our world today. We find, especially in the United States, what would seem to be a most heated divisiveness between variant camps. While there are calls to mend this divide, we don't really find substantial, meaningful attempts to achieve this objective. Each side still asserts: 'I am right and the other is wrong.' What we find, even as we hear calls for mutual understanding, is a circling of the wagons. Each side seems to be preparing only for the fight without any consideration of a larger picture in which both sides could meet and co-exist. In so many issues, there is a need to see a greater complexity -- though it makes solutions more difficult -- because that is where the prized truth and solution are to be found. In going forward, there really is this need, in our present world, to take studious note of the other side.

This attempt to comprehend the other side is what brought the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai together even as they maintained their respective positions. The result of their respectful interchange was not necessarily a changing of opinion but, even as they maintained their divergent conclusions, it fostered a recognition of a common purpose in attempting to do what was best. This is a necessary attitude in our present world. We need mutual respect. We have to see that with divergence there must come an acceptance of the value in that divergence. As we disagree we must nonetheless see the claims and possible truths that still exist in the view with which we disagree. It is only with the ability to present the other side that we can hope to unite the diversity.

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