June 2, 2012
Learning from Hillel and Shami
A Brooklyn based newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, has recently tried to cast more inclusive sections of Orthodoxy in a negative light. Instead of understanding Rabbi Zev Farber’s recent Morethodoxy post about the cultural place of women in shul as a tension between two competing values, that of traditional prayer architecture and process on the one hand and that of the desire by the halacha to honor and include all Jews (even women) on the other, Yated saw only one side.
In the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) Hillel and Shamai argue regarding conversions. Convert after convert comes to both Shami and Hillel and each convert presents themselves as insincere, desiring to convert to only some of the laws of the Torah or to convert for selfish reasons. Obviously the decision to accept or reject such converts lies again in a tension between two competing halacic values, on one side the need to not dilute the Jewish people and their commitment to Torah, and on the second the Jewish value of embracing others and not mistreating the stranger. Shami emphasizes the first value over the second in an extreme way, so much so that he chases the would be convert out with a stick, and Hillel emphasizes the second value, so much so that he immediately embraces the seemingly insincere (yes I know what Tosfos says) convert and converts them all right away. Which is right? Both are legitimate Jewish opinions, both the word of God, but only one is the halacha, the path we as Jews are to follow, that of Hillel. Indeed the Talmud explains that the law is like Hillel due to his embracing, tolerant personality (Talmud Aruvin 13b).
Today Yated is suggesting YCT Rabbonim continue to be excluded from the RCA. In times past their camp suggested the RCA be excluded from Orthodoxy. Today they suggest YCT’s future talmide chachomim are illegitimate, in years past they (or papers like them) suggested the RCA’s Godol was illegitimate.
When I was growing up in the Charedi world I heard only slander about the RCA and Yeshiva University. That YU was a, “Rabbi factory” and that their musmachim knew nothing. I think I was 15 before I realized that “JB” was not a famous criminal but a Gadol Ba’torah, Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovetchik.
Any orthodox person who is over 30 and grew up to the right of modern orthodoxy remembers these things. But the RCA did not become a new movement as people feared; the RCA saw itself as legitimately orthodox and in the eyes of much of the orthodox world remains so.
Less tolerance for fellow Jews and human beings, a less embracing attitude toward the would-be proselyte, dismissing ways within halacha to include women in traditional tefilah, these things, though perhaps sounding pretty frum, do not make one more of a Torah Jew. Just ask Hillel.