The Unfortunate Problem of Missing the Context of the “Pluralism” of the Academies of Shammai & Hillel

The Academies of Hillel and Shammai were not the only groups in their time

The Academies of Hillel and Shammai were not the only groups in their time

Not infrequently, I come across articulations in Jewish writings about the need for pluralism in the Jewish world/community and listening to peoples’ views, which is fine. However, unfortunately, the writer/speaker will usually make recourse to referring to how the Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel would debate, looking to them as differing, yet still viewing the other as part of the Jewish community and having valid views within that context.  They typically point to the following text (Eruvin 13b):

אמר רבי אבא אמר שמואל שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו יצאה בת קול ואמרה אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן והלכה כבית הלל.

and here is a translation:

Rabbi Abba said: “Shmuel said: ‘The Academy of Shammai and the Academy of Hillel disagreed for three years; these were saying “The halakhah is like us” and those were saying “The halakhah is like us.”  A heavenly voice emerged and said, “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakhah is like the Academy of Hillel.”‘”

All of the above is fine and pretty important in considering that this heavenly voice (בת קול) emerged and said that “These and these are the words of the living God”, which is interesting.  However, what contemporary writers often do is to point to these two academies as if they are the entirety of the Jewish community and that all voices were valued.

However, we know that this is certainly not the reality then.  For instance, there’s a statement of Rabbi Yohanan‘s that there were two dozen different groups of heretics.  We also know that there were so many other groups – whether the Boethusians, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Early Christians, etc. (for an amusing take on groups in this time period, see here).  Thus, it would really be that the Academies of Hillel and Shammai were part of the Pharisees and that the Rabbis inherited their traditions, leaving out all others.

What emerges is, as I’ve written elsewhere, that “for the rabbis, there is room for disagreements and still be included within the range of acceptable opinions, but it does not mean that all opinions that are voiced fall within the acceptable range.”  Thus, when our Jewish leaders write/speak about including opinions and being pluralistic, it can be somewhat problematic to make reference to the Academies of Hillel and Shammai – they excluded many groups and opinions!

We should be more careful about how we reference the disagreements of the Academies of Hillel and Shammai when discussing the range of opinions within Jewish communal discourse.

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