UChicago’s Chabad hosted a Jewish TED Talk series to help celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate receiving the Torah. I was asked to give a talk Jewish TED Talk. I’ve never given a TED Talk before, Jewish or not, so I wasn’t exactly sure what that entailed. Nevertheless, I did my best to come up with some saliently Jewish thoughts about a topic that I’ve spent much of this past quarter working on: free expression on college campuses.
The context for this talk is that we hosted a free expression conference with students from around the country at UChicago and released a subsequent Statement of Principles (which anyone can sign onto here!). In Judaism, there was a period of time where the schools of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai feuded constantly about every major issue of their day, and this got me thinking about their importance in the current debate about free expression on college campuses. I changed a little bit of this during the talk itself, but these are my thoughts on adding a Jewish perspective to free expression. Comments of any for are, of course, welcome!
Before I arrived at UChicago, I went to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, where we often joked that when two Jews walk into a room, you can rest assured that there will be no fewer than three opinions that they have on any given subject.
As everyone in this room likely knows, it’s hard to find many things that we all agree upon in our daily lives, and I view this as an incredibly healthy thing. Debating, arguing, and even complaining are ingrained in our history, going back to at least when Moses and Aaron led our ancestors through the desert, waiting to arrive home in Israel.
Let’s fast forward a few thousands years and look at where we are today, and where college campuses are across the country.
We’re increasingly seeing a rise on campuses across the country where students are all too willing to assert their knowledge over that of others. A few weeks ago, we saw students at Northwestern shut down a class because the professor brought a PR official from ICE to answer student questions during the course of the weeks they spent studying immigration reform.
One of the students argued that it was her “right” to prevent others from engaging with the speaker, making no mention of the “rights” of the students in the classroom to learn the materials their professor had prepared for them.
So, what bearing do some of the most famous debates in Judaism have on this topic, which I believe is one of the most important questions facing academia at this moment?
The answer is, quite a lot. When most of us think of Jewish debates, most of us at UChicago certainly think of our famed Latke vs Hamantashen debate, but it’s also likely that the famed schools of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai come to mind.
Over time, these two schools debated so often that a saying emerged that “the one Law has become two laws.”
While debate is central to Judaism, at a certain point there are questions that need answers. When it comes to betting on the battle of Hillel vs Shammai, one of them is a far safer bet than the other.
We all know that Rabbi Hillel and his school almost always carried the day, but why? There are two main answers to that question, the second of which is particularly relevant to the point I’m trying to make. The first comes from Eruvin 13b, which states that “A heavenly voice declared: ‘The words of both schools are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel.’”
So, Hillel was definitely lent a helping hand by God, but we can’t always rely on that in the course of our daily lives.
However, the “Talmud explains that the disciples of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own.” Hillel and his followers constantly acknowledged that their views were not the only ones on the subject, whereas Shammai and his followers constantly refused to acknowledge the views of anyone other than their own, and their results were weaker, and later Jewish tradition dictated that “where Bet Shammai is opposed to Bet Hillel, the opinion of Bet Shammai is considered as if not incorporated in the Mishnah.”
Is it possible for the opinions of Shammai to ever reassert themselves, despite having been cast aside as wrong by so many for so long? Before answering that question directly, let’s turn to world history. For hundreds of years before Galileo, the elites of the world believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Should Galileo have packed up his telescopes and gone home, simply because he was “wrong” in the eyes of his contemporaries? Of course not! So, while Hillel is regularly viewed as correct in almost all matters of dispute between him and Shammai, there is a possibility that Shammai’s worldview will be redeemed.
Some scholars, such as the sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, have argued that in the present world, Hillel carries the day, but when the Mashiach comes, we will side with Shammai.
One of the most important reasons for free expression is that today’s ideas might become unfashionable tomorrow, and the unthinkable today might become cliche tomorrow. The author Ronald Knox put it well, stating that “you do not believe what your grandfathers believed, and have no reason to hope that your grandsons will believe what you do.”
Hillel certainly has carried the day at the moment, but who knows if maybe one day we will all be looking to the writings of Shammai for guidance.
So what can we take away from the lessons of Hillel and Shammai?
Approach everything with an open mind
There can be more than one right answer to questions of critical importance
We all know this from writing papers, but remember that your arguments are weaker if you pretend there is no counter-argument
Something “right” today might be “wrong” tomorrow, and something unpopular today might be unanimous tomorrow
Despite their bitter disagreements, the followers of both schools managed to remain friends…for the most part. Learn from the better parts of their relationship, not from the “last days of Jerusalem’s struggle [where] they broke out with great fury.”