Living with Complexity: On One Foot
Once a rabbi was sitting in his study, pouring over the holy books, when two sisterhood members approached his door. Please do not read too much into the fact I’ve made this about sisterhood, it is not essential for this story to work. Nor is the rabbi’s gender necessarily male, I’ve just placed the story closer to home.
In any case, two congregants meet the rabbi to help them with a particular conflict. The first one begins to explain the case with much passion and vigor, as sisterhood members are wont to do, and the rabbi says, “You know something? You’re right.” This prompts the second member to jump in, “Hang on, listen to my side of the story.” And she explains her case with passion and vigor as well. And the rabbi says, “You know something? You’re right!” At that moment the rabbi’s assistant comes running into the room and says, “Wait a minute rabbi, it can’t be that she’s right and she’s right!” And the rabbi says, “You know something? You’re right, too!” And you know something? He’s right.
In old jokes, there is great wisdom, and in this oldest of Jewish jokes is perhaps the oldest Jewish wisdom. Tonight we gather to seek answers to life’s deepest questions, some unplumbed knowledge from our ancestors to help us make sense out of the complexity of life. Tonight we sit with only what matters most. How might I make peace with the past, and find more meaning in tomorrow?
Teshuvah is not merely our efforts to right the wrongs of the past, nor to heal our relationships and resolve. We also come to this place seeking insight, new understanding of our world, and our own lives. What great revelations might we find in the wisdom of our ancestors, which might add meaning to our days? On Rosh Hashanah I reminded us of the many stories our ancestors used to carry this ancient wisdom forward, and new stories we reveal Jewish wisdom. I reminded us of the importance of our relationship with Israel, through which we remember who we are. Tonight, I hope to explore with you a few unusual pieces of Jewish wisdom, texts which nourish something in our Jewish souls, the answers to questions we carry with us into this Day of Atonement.
One of our most beloved stories revolves around the well-known characters from Talmud, the sages Hillel and Shammai. A person comes to Shammai first, and asks him to teach the whole Torah to him while standing on one foot. If he can do so, the man suggests, he would be interested in conversion. We might assume that this fast-talking stranger has an important business meeting to get to. Perhaps he has heard something intriguing about Judaism, but he doesn’t have time for a whole lecture about it. So, passing by Shammai’s academy, he pops in for a brochure. He just wants the headline, not the full eight week course.
Shammai sends the man packing, chasing him away with a yardstick. Undeterred (apparently), the man makes his way to the Academy of Hillel, who welcomes him with a bit more warmth, and the summary teaching, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary,” he adds, “go and learn it.” (BT Shabbat 31a)
Our tradition clearly favors the response of Hillel. He is loving, kind, and generous. He encourages the man’s curiosity, welcomes him into the tribe, and sends him off to continue his studies. I have taught this story many times, focusing largely on Hillel – who, we are taught, deserves the honor of deciding the law over and over again, because of his demeanor and welcoming practice. This is the wisdom of Hillel.
However, this year I have been thinking more and more about the good sage Shammai, whose is so often overlooked. In truth, at the time these texts were authored, in the first century, Hillel and Shammai ruled together over the Sanhedrin, that great body of Jewish creativity and authority. In fact, the two of them were the last of the great “zugot” or pairs of scholars who governed over the Jewish people from the time of the Maccabean revolt and for 300 years. The Talmud, that most formative of Jewish texts, is shared by the two of them together. Although they establish their own houses of study, they are “chevruta,” study partners in the truest sense of the word.
There simply is no Hillel without Shammai. They complement each other; make each other stronger through their rigorous debate. And they both deserve their place in the chain of tradition. Where one is strict, the other can be lenient. Where one suggests change, the other leans towards preserving the past. And Jewish wisdom heeds them both.
The text ask this question directly, “Why should the law always follow Hillel?” And the answer begins, “Eilu V’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim – both this one and that one speak the words of the living God.” So the law follows Hillel, and most of our rituals and traditions do as well. But there is a time and a place for the other opinion, a different way of looking at things. Shammai is no pariah, his wisdom has also been preserved for centuries in the very same books as Hillel.
I think I am drawn to Shammai’s response to this rather demanding stranger, because it is one of conviction and pride. A person approaches with an incredible request, “Teach me all of Torah. Pack this 3000-year-old tradition into one easily digestible meal, and please make it worth my time. I want you to boil down all you’ve learned, all your insight. And if it seems valuable maybe I’ll consider it.” And we are left wondering, what’s motivating this guy? Where does he need to go that is so important he cannot sit down for even a first proper conversation?
In our fast-paced world, driven by quick access to screens and thirty-second entertainment on social media, what should our response be? And what if we can’t reduce the recorded wanderings and wonderings of our people through a hundred generations, into a single compelling, engaging, accessible, inclusive, affirming and welcoming package? Does that make it less valuable, or more so?
My respect and love for our tradition has only strengthened with age and experience. And I believe that Jewish practice can and should be engaging, inclusive and welcoming, of course. But given the ultimatum of, “make it easy, make it quick, and make it meaningful too,” I just might, from time to time, understand the urge to reach for a yardstick.
Our society encourages us to look for easy answers to tough questions. What’s the secret to happiness? How can I have a more successful marriage, be a better parent, find peace and tranquility? Can I double my bank accounts and lose twenty pounds while I’m at it.
The real truth is that wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Wisdom is rarely simple. And Judaism’s wisdom can not be gleaned through a single book or online video. Wisdom is not a technique, it’s a way of being. Wisdom is accrued; it is the character we build for ourselves over a lifetime. It lives in our souls.
Many things can be learned quickly. There are facts and skills we can know, and that we can teach others. But Judaism is about something else. A spiritual path is about searching for deeper truths – the ones we have to find on our own. The things we learn through doing, over time.
And the Sage Hillel knew that also. While he withheld judgement, his answer to his guest was also not a simple one. He accepted the challenge of condensing Judaism into only one principle. But he quickly added, “the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Remember that what Hillel and Shammai have dedicated their entire lives to, that’s commentary. Commentary is not dismissive. Commentary is central. The entire Talmud, Midrash and Mishneh are commentary. For three thousand years our people have been involved, all of us, in commentary. “So,” Hillel says to the man, “I’ve welcomed you. But all that I can do is start you on your path. What lies before you is much, much more.” He challenges him to begin, to open the door, to not be satisfied with just the brochure. Judaism has so much more to offer.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard calls this “indirect learning” – the kind of life-truth that I can’t explain, I can only point you towards. Teaching can only start you on the path towards that wisdom.
The High Holy Days are an opportunity, at the end of a year and the beginning of another, to consider what wisdom we have gleaned from our experiences, and to set an intention for the coming year to learn more, do more, give ourselves more chances to be better. And to embrace the moments when simple answers and pithy quotations just don’t suffice. Honest meaning, and deep truths emerge from our commitment to our personal journey.
I think maybe Shammai was trying to teach his guest in an indirect way. He did answer the man’s question. Chasing him away was an answer. The student was expecting a simpler lesson – a story, a proverb, an allegory, a sound bite; something he could put on a bumper sticker. So maybe he didn’t understand the answer he received. “You want the Torah on one foot? You want the whole Torah in one shot? Here it comes.”
Or maybe Shammai was simply refusing to answer. Maybe he understood that this stranger wanted something he simply could not give him. Torah is anything but monolithic, or some prescription for healthy living, an easy pass to get through the pearly gates. Do this. Believe this. Here’s the truth, neatly wrapped.
That is just not how Jews think. And Shammai knew that, because of his powerfully strong, if somewhat love/hate relationship with Hillel. Jews are dialectical. We exist in tension, in polarity, in relationship. We all know the saying, ‘Ask two Jews get three opinions.’ The world is too big to fit into simple precepts and simple answers.
The great physicist Niels Bohr once remarked that the opposite of a simple truth is a simple falsehood, but the opposite of a great truth is always another great truth. The Bible, and the Mishna and Talmud, all Jewish texts contain this same thread of tradition: a rich culture of conversation and debate. It is the language of the rabbis, the language of the prayerbook, even our High Holy Day machzor. It is never on one foot.
We wrestle with the image of God as forgiving, even as we fear punishment. We pray for justice even as we beg for mercy. We long to feel God’s closeness as a parent – Avinu, even as experience God as the distant Sovereign – Malkeinu. During the afternoon we will explore the story of Jonah, who struggles with his desire to see justice done to those who so richly deserve it, even as he knows that God accepts repentance, teshuvah and prayer. These are theological dilemmas our ancestors wrestled with on Yom Kippur in every time and every place.
To be Jewish is to live with, and grapple with lifes contradictions – to live with tension, as one friend put it to me. There are many contradictions in our history and our lore. Abraham Joshua Heschel called it ‘polarity’ which, according to him, is central to being Jewish. He wrote, “To ignore [this] paradox is to miss the truth. At the very heart of Judaism lies the polarity of ideas and events, of mitzvah and sin, of intention (kavanah) and deed, of regularity and spontaneity, of uniformity and individuality… of time and eternity, of this world and the world to come, … of the word and that which is beyond words, of humanity’s quest for God and God in search of man…”
The answers we seek on this day of all days, cannot be simple. Rabbi Chernow-Reader will give us a beautiful example of this dilemma tomorrow morning in her sermon. Any conceptualization of the Divine is by definition, incomplete and inconsistent. Is God all knowing and all powerful? If so, then God must create evil and then God is not all good. Is God all knowing and filled with righteousness? Then perhaps God is not responsible for evil acts, and is therefore not all powerful. And yet, how could God not be all good, all knowing, and all powerful?
Every morning as we wake, we are confronted with contradiction. We pray that God is: yotzer or u’vorei choshech, oseh shalom u’vorei et hakol. Blessed is God, who creates light and darkness, peace and conflict. In God’s Oneness are contained the multitudes of good and evil, of joy and suffering, of the very human experience of being of dust and ashes, while also resting little lower than the angels.
So what is the answer? We often cry. The sages actually placed a very high value on their own ability to sit with inconsistency and dilemma. The great Rabbi Meir is a beautiful example – his very name means the one who brings enlightenment. Yet the Talmud records he could present a compelling argument for any side of a debate, a treasured attribute.
When Reb Yochanan lost his long-time companion and study partner, he mourned the loss greatly, saying, “When I would study with Resh Lakish, he would answer every one of my statements with twenty four different way he disagreed with me. And I would answer him with twenty four different arguments, and because of this, our learning and the law itself was deepened and enriched.” This is a powerful description of Jewish wisdom.
In a sense, this is the perfect way to understand Yom Kippur. We stand as part of all humanity, and acknowledge the ways in which, in the past year, we felt the pull of both our inclination to do good, as well as our inclination to do evil. We acknowledge that we are part of the animal world of God’s Creation, and that we are also called to be like divine beings, to live in the image of God.
Yom Kippur is our time to say aloud – my urges, desires, inclinations do not serve me, and I strive to overcome them, even as I know they will always be a part of me. And also to recognize this truth: that my soul contains the spark of the Divine which animates every human being. I resolve to change and do better to honor the God in me.
Rabbi Harold Shulweis of Los Angeles taught that truth, and Judaism are a moving pendulum. And if you say this is Judaism, its high point or this, its center point, or this other point, you have it wrong. And he wrote, “What you have to do if you want the vitality of Judaism is to see to it that people and ideologies and movements and denominations do not pounce upon that pendulum and say, “this is it,” where it points to, “this is the essence of Judaism and all else is heresy…” That, he argued, was the definition of idolatry.
Ismar Schorsch, the director of the rabbinic program at the American Jewish University put it this way, “The prism of the human spirit refracts the undifferentiated light of God into a rainbow of colors. Or, in the words of Scripture: “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard. (Ps. 62:12) “Behold, My word is like fire, God declares, and also like a hammer shattering rock (Jer. 23:29).”
May we commit ourselves over the next day to search for complexity and nuance, and resist the mass appeal of what we might call “pediatric” Judaism. Your life is complicated. Mitzvah and Sin are complicated. Our relationships with one another and with God are complicated. Allow the tension, allow the conversation to unfold. Promise yourself that in the coming year you will take up the challenge to fill your life with meaning. Embrace this ancient tradition, and make it new again. Return to your roots, and know there is real wisdom there. Yesterday in our Torah study, we ended with these words from the Torah portion, spoken by Moses just before his death. He encourages the people, “Remember the days of old, consider the wisdom of ages past. Ask your parents and they will explain it, be curious of your elders, and they will tell you of it. (Deut. 32:7) Our work of teshuvah, of return, of learning and meaning-making, continues on this day of Yom Kippur.
 Harry S. Broudy, “Kierkegaard on Indirect Communication,” The Journal of Philosophy 59/9 (1961) 230.
 Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, ed Paul Arthur Schilpp, p 240. 1959
 Paradox and Polarity, Israel
 jtsa.edu/torah/the-polarities-of-judaism/ April 13,2004