Issue No. 3,
Delivered at the Schechter Institute Memorial Service for Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z"l, on the Hebrew yahrzeit of his assassination – October 16, 2013 – 12 Heshvan 5774 (November 4, 1995)
An awful crime was committed. That is a fact. It does not matter where you stand politically. It matters only where you stand morally. Violence was used to silence a voice that offended some people. That is not acceptable, and it is fitting and proper to dedicate a day in which we make that statement clearly to ourselves and to each other.
Why do some have to resort to violence as part of an argument? What can be done about that?
In Tractate Yevamot, there is a Mishna in which some of the key disagreements between Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai are listed; disagreements that are potentially disruptive of communal living. In Judaism a woman is consecrated as the betrothed of a man on the basis of receiving a ring that must be valued at a certain minimum amount. If, according to one of these schools of thought and halakhic understanding of the Torah, a woman is betrothed on the basis of her receiving a ring worth a peruta, while for the other school the value of a peruta is not sufficient, and therefore betrothal with such a ring is not possible, and the woman is still single - it does not take great imagination to foresee that down the line there will be serious problems agreeing if that woman is single or betrothed. And if she then marries someone else, and has a child with that person, is that child a “mamzer”, born to an adulterous union, or not? Weighty issues. Still, says the Mishna, with perhaps some degree of rose-colored-glasses, Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel never stopped marrying with each other. And somehow it did work out.
What interests me is the “how”? What enables two radically different perspectives to live together, and indeed to cooperate with each other? What made it possible for two argumentative groups, for whom there were issues of ideology, theology and much more, to accept the legitimacy of different opinions?
Within the parameters of this discussion, I am unable to enter into study of the fascinating gemara in Tractate Yebamot, as that would take hours. Instead, I wish to provide part of a contemporary answer, one that can be used by each of us – today.
The model is the Holy One Blessed be S/He. When God came to create the universe, there was a challenge. How can there be creation, how can there be existence, when all of existence is GOD? Yes, according to the Jewish view of the Big Bang – המפץ הגדול - all of existence on all levels was just GOD. There could not be creation, there could not be existence, unless God yielded some of that exclusivity. And, so, GOD reduced His/Her totality in the universe, releasing some space in which something else could exist: the world as we know it. That is the Jewish Big Bang! GOD, as it were, reduced Him/Herself (the Hebrew word is “tsimtsum”) and that “tsimtsum” enabled creativity and life.
Something similar is necessary in our daily lives. If I permit my ego to exist unchecked and without borders or boundaries, it will be limitless. It will not permit any alternatives, different opinions or behavior; just mine. In order to reign in and give structure to my ego, I must recognize the validity of alternatives. That is, I must come to terms with the reality that I do not have a monopoly on truth, wisdom, knowledge, or anything else, for that matter.
Some levels of violence – maybe most of them – are based on an ego that has not limits, that does not recognize its boundaries – social, legal, moral and more.
When next we are in a disagreement, and if we find ourselves emotionally distraught and overly engaged in the disagreement, let us ask ourselves what is happening? Perhaps we have forgotten to do a personal “tsimtsum”. Perhaps we are permitting our egos to occupy too much space, and we are not enabling another position to exist. Perhaps we can make room for difference, understanding that we do not have a monopoly on truth.
Rabbi Shlomo Tucker is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary since 2012. He joined the rabbinical seminary teaching staff in 1992, serving as Associate Dean for most of those years. In addition to his administrative duties, he also teaches Homiletics and Torah Reading to the Ordination Students.