Don't let the broigeses boil over

An Israeli rabbi has launched an initiative to combat the destructive consequences of inter-communal arguments


As investigative journalist Stephen Fried followed the fortunes of an American synagogue in search of a rabbi, he was taken aback by some of the behaviour he saw. The search was supposed to take one year, but it ended up taking three.

As a parade of hopeful rabbis with lofty visions plied their spiritual wares, the committee members were more pedestrian in their response. Many of their meetings were devoted to bickering. "I often saw more passion than compassion," says Fried. In one moment of exasperation, as he watches them setting up the chairs for yet another meeting, he cynically marvels that they can agree to place their chairs in a circle, given the number of other geometric shapes available for them to argue about.

Jews are good at arguing. At best, it's our recipe for fruitful debate and intellectual creativity. Our rabbis laud the debates of Hillel and Shammai as "arguments for the sake of heaven"- the pursuit of truth carried out with grace and dignity.

But we don't always meet these standards. Even students of the great rabbis did not always debate with elegance; then things went horribly wrong.

The Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, declares the ninth of the Hebrew month of Adar (this year February 28) as "the day on which Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argued". The two schools regularly debated, but apparently, this was no ordinary disagreement since the Shulchan Aruch declares it a fast day.

There was a bloodbath in which three thousand students were killed

The story is hinted at in a Mishnah (Shabbat 1:4), which tells of a time when the students of Beit Shammai outnumbered those of Beit Hillel. Taking advantage of their new-found power, they quickly legislated 18 new decrees.

A more disturbing version of the story reports that the students of Beit Shammai not only enshrined their ideas into law, they humiliated Hillel by making him sit like a student in front of Shammai and then took up swords and spears to massacre the students of Beit Hillel who dared to challenge them (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 1: 4).

According to one version, there was a bloodbath in which three thousand students were killed (Eliyahu Rabbah). Whatever happened that day, it was pronounced a national catastrophe, like the day on which the Golden Calf was built.

While the practice of fasting never really caught on, a number of ancient and medieval prayers composed specially for the occasion have survived. And while most of us do not relish the prospect of an extra fast, Jews across the world will identify with the need for less friction and greater communal unity.

Communities are intense places, where minor disagreements can quickly spin out of control generating discomfort and bitterness. The rabbis identified the pettiest squabbles as the cause for the destruction of the Temple. That's why when I served as rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, we had a strict "no communal politics rule"; any disagreements were settled as fast and as fully as possible. Communal arguments may not be major world conflicts, but for the protagonists, they are intense, painful and destructive.

To break out of the cycle of conflict, Jewish communities across the world have signed up to an exciting new initiative: the adoption of the Ninth of Adar as a day of constructive conflict.

The project is the brainchild of Rabbi Dr Daniel Roth, founder of the Pardes Centre for Judaism and Constructive Conflict Resolution and a lecturer at Bar Ilan University's Programme in Conflict Management and Resolution.

Across the world, Jewish schools, communities and youth movements will be dedicating the day to finding out more about Judaism's rich concept of making peace between enemies and our ultimate vision of universal peace.

The model for this work is Aaron, the biblical High Priest, who is characterised by the rabbis as a "lover and pursuer of peace" (Avot 1: 12). Beautiful midrashim describe him walking around the Israelite encampment, counselling adversaries and encouraging them to settle their disputes. This role was taken on throughout Jewish history by volunteer rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace who made it their business to circumvent expensive and acrimonious disputes and court cases by settling arguments and making peace between enemies.

The organisers of the Ninth of Adar project are encouraging Jewish communities around the world to dedicate the day to bringing healthy debate and peaceful discussion to their communities. A website gives dozens of suggestions for activities.

While the Ninth of Adar marks a terrible tragedy, the Shulchan Aruch promises change. Eventually, this sad day will be transformed into one of joy and jubilation. Bringing peace to our own families and communities sounds like a fabulous start.

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