Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle on 27 October 1972.
Israel’s new Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren is often said to adhere to the school of Hillel in his rabbinical attitudes, RABBI DR. LOUIS JACOBS explains what this means.
Hillel and Shammai lived two thousand years ago. According to the conventional picture, rabbis ever since have been either followers of Hillel—gentle, liberal-minded, flexible and lenient in their interpretation of Jewish law—or followers of Shammai—stern, rigid and unbending, always preferring the stricter view.
This picture is based on two factors. First, the Talmudic sources do generally depict Hillel as mild and Shammai as cantankerous, though, interestingly enough, a saying attributed to Shammai in “Ethics of the Fathers”, (1:15) is: “Receive all men with a cheerful countenance.”
Secondly, in the sources there are hundreds of debates between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai (though not between the two heroes themselves) in which, as a norm, the School of Hillel is the more lenient. After the intervention of a “heavenly voice,” we are told, the rulings of the School of Hillel were followed even though “both these and these are the words of the living God.”
The conventional view needs to be challenged on a number of counts. First, modern scholarship, notably in the writings of Prof Jacob Neusner, is skeptical regarding the historicity of many of the statements about Hillel and Shammai. For instance, the famous reply of Hillel to the prospective convert who wished to be taught the whole Torah while he stood on one leg occurs in a series of tales about Hillel recorded some two hundred years after his death.
Secondly, we are still very much in the dark as to why the Schools of Hillel and Shammai differed, i.e. as to the governing principles which created the two schools. Thirdly, nowhere in the Rabbinic literature is it suggested that it is somehow more “Jewish,” more authentic, more to be preferred that legislation should be lenient rather than strict in all cases.
The oft-quoted passage (Betzah 2b) that the “capacity to permit is greater than to forbid” only means that greater learning and confidence is required to permit something because for this only an irrefutable argument will suffice whereas to forbid something can be done even where there is doubt.
The problems Jewish law has to face in the contemporary world are many and complicated, touching as they do on basic questions regarding the nature of Judaism. Among the serious issues at stake are those of tradition versus change, the notion of development, attitudes towards fundamentalism, the whole concept of a divine law mediated and applied by fallible humans, and. in the case of the mamzerim, for example, the demands of elementary justice.
These issues are only clouded by making them depend for their solution on the differing temperaments of individual Rabbis who are unhistorically and naively labelled either as obscurantist Shammaiites who refuse to tackle the problems or humanist Hillelites who have all the answers which they are ready to supply at the drop of a yarmulka.