Judaism has many gifts to offer the world. The Sabbath, the Psalms, centuries of musical legacy, and of course, bagels. But our most important contribution is a concept called, “machloket l’shem shamayim.” The phrase comes from the ancient rabbinic literature. Generations of sages sifted through the words of the Torah, inspired by and dedicated to the illumination of God’s word.
I am convinced they did not take their work too seriously, nor did they interpret the Torah too literally. But they brought a great passion to their work as something holy. As the liturgy for Shabbat morning says, “I have no light to bring the morning, my gift is words.”
The foundation of a society is built upon the direct interaction of two people seeking to understand one another. Two becomes four, becomes eight, and a community grows. And we know, today more than ever in our lifetime, that we will each bring a unique perspective to the conversations we have. And that used to be celebrated. Like an interfaith prayer service, we used to revel in the things which made us different. We used to lift them up to examine and appreciate them. We did not have to agree with our friends, we simply had to respect and honor them.
A machloket l’shem shamayim is an argument (machloket) entered into for the sake of heaven (shamayim). When studying a text, and seeking deep truths embedded in it, our disagreements, our different perspectives become valuable tools to help us hone in on our own understanding.
We benefit from having others around us who see the text differently than we do.
But this pillar of society has begun to crumble. I fear it can no longer hold up a country filled with so much vitriol. A country which seems to no longer value difference, but stamp it out like the name of the evil Haman on Purim.
We still experience this beautiful sense of engagement with each other when we study. But our task is to shine the light of this great gift of understanding to the world. We must find those places of engagement and not shirk away from our neighbors.
In twenty years of my rabbinate, I have never seen so many people willing to literally walk out on a sermon I might give about Social Justice, Immigration or Criminal Justice reform. Nowhere is it written you must agree with me, but a disagreement for the sake of heaven requires us at least not to walk out on each other.
The barriers to healthy conflict (as a consultant might call it) have led to some very scary moments in our country. Political polarization, the divide of news agencies into private echo chambers of opinion, mass rallies organized by groups hell bent on hate turn violent, even on the steps of our nation’s capital. And the fallout is severe. After the recent school shooting in Michigan, school remains closed for days afterward across the state due to a flood of copycat threats. Who would do such a thing? Today across the nation, a threat of more shootings in more schools which spread like wildfire through social media, has school districts on edge, and even our own districts increasing a police presence on campus.
This hatred clearly stems from many societal ills. The lack of adequate mental health support in America, and the lack of common sense gun legislation are the largest pieces of the puzzle. But this toxic brew of intolerance for difference, and the spread of misinformation, hyperbole, simple meanness, and real persecution – hate speech, it all leads to only one place. And we are staring at that place in our headlights now.
To hopefully inspire all of us to pick up the mantle once more of machloket l’shem shamayim – whether with a neighbor or family member, fellow congregant or even our state representatives, I’d like to share a story meant to explain this mysterious gift of the Jews. Where do our different perspectives come from? What shift in mindset is required for us to take this step away from the precipice? I hope you find the story humorous, but I also hope it is only the beginning of a conversation between you and I.
The rabbi’s friend approached him one day and said, “You know, this religion of yours is very interesting to me. I think I’d like to study the Talmud with you, to see what I might learn from it.” “I love you like a brother,” says the rabbi, “but trust me, you are not ready to study the Talmud.”
“I graduated Ivy League cum laude in philosophy. I just finished my doctoral dissertation on Socratic Logic. Surely I have what it takes to look at Jewish logic?!” “I tell you what,” offers the rabbi. “I will test you in logic, and if you pass this test, I will study Talmud with you.” “Sounds fun,” he said.
The rabbi held up two fingers.
“Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face; the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?”
The friend stares at the rabbi. “This is the test in logic?” The rabbi nods.
Warily he answers, “The one with the dirty face washes his face.”
“Wrong. The one with the clean face washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his own face must be clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. So the one with the clean face washes his face.”
“Very clever, give me another test.”
The rabbi again holds up two fingers.
“Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face; the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?” “We have already established that. The one with the clean face washes his face.” “Wrong again. Each one washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. So the one with the clean face washes his face. When the one with the dirty face sees the one with the clean face wash his face, he also washes his face. So each one washes his face. “I didn’t think of that,” says the friend. “Test me again.”
The rabbi holds up two fingers.
“Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?” “Each one washes his face.” “Wrong again. Neither washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. But when the one with the clean face sees that the one with the dirty face doesn’t wash his face, he also doesn’t wash his face. So neither one washes his face.”
His friend is desperate. “I know I am qualified to study the Talmud. Please give me one more test.” He groans when the rabbi lifts two fingers. “Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face; the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face? “Neither one washes his face!”
“Wrong again. Do you see now, my dear friend, that Socratic logic is not enough to understand the Talmud. Tell me, how is it possible for two men to come down the same chimney, and for one to come out with a clean face and the other with a dirty face? It is impossible!
And there the story ends. Using the peculiar language of the Talmud, this wise rabbi teaches his friend that life is not black and white. And that the most valuable thing is to find others who, by sharing their unique perspective with us, help us to expand our understanding. Rather than worrying about who is right, the real measure of a person is how much they grow.