For two and a half years, the students of Hillel and Shammai were locked in debate. It was a grave argument, a difficult argument, an argument that filled its participants with wells of intensity and indignation. Passion and intellect crashed against each other. Insults flew. Tears fell. When voices grew too hoarse to continue, long, sad meditations spelled the rancor.
What were they arguing? The school of Shammai started it, that uncompromising, pessimistic lot. In all their angst, their holy depressions, they had the gaul to contend that it would have been better for humans to have never been created. The school of Hillel disagreed (of course they disagreed!). They took after their master. They were optimists, lovers of beauty, believers in the basic good of people. So, as might be suspected, they were appalled at their counterparts’ formulation. Life is a gift! They yelled. It is an insult to God and humanity to say otherwise! On the day the whole thing started, the school of Hillel was certain that it would be a quick and decisive victory, an easy win. How could so important a topic as the basic worth of human life even be up to debate? They felt that righteousness and justice was surely on their side.
Day after day, the followers of Shammai responded to every optimistic argument with another example of the abuses of humanity against itself. They spoke of the oppressions of the Roman authorities, the tragedies of murder and enslavement between neighbors, the succumbing of their fellows to greed and violence. They spoke too of the grating existential frustrations that come from within, from the exhausting fight against the internal inclinations that push men and women to find safety and comfort in their darkest fears. The mystics of Shammai’s school (both schools had their mystics, naturally) reported visions of future atrocities, of violence and pain and mass death on a scale that was hardly fathomable, even to those old enough to remember the horrors of the Roman's conquest of Jerusalem and the Temple's destruction.
At the end of two and a half years, the students of Hillel were spent, broken. So much time being witness to the injustices of humanity will grind down even the most confident of optimists. There was little more to discuss, and so the matter was put to a vote: Are human beings better off never having been created? Of the many hundreds of arguments that occurred between the schools of Hillel and Shammai in their years of existence, we are taught that the school of Hillel won all but seventeen. This was one of Shammai’s seventeen. When the hands were counted, it was decided: humanity would have been better off never being created.
But, the sages add, since humans were indeed created, we must “search through our actions,” which is to say: we must be mindful, we must be reflective, we must find meaning.
What's this story really about?
It is a sobering and difficult story. A defeated vision of our species, albeit with a moralizing compromise at the end. But what’s it even really about? Such a strange question: would we be better off if we’d never been born? How is such a question even possible? Is life really so dark and difficult?
One can imagine the beis midrash, the room of learning, when it begins. There, a member of Shammai’s school is sitting and seething. He is a loner, quiet, a depressive maybe, but a deep thinker. While the rest have been basking in studies of texts, expounding on their beauties, memorizing their laws, he has been watching the events of the world. And, on this day, he can’t hold it in anymore. His despondency has become too great. So he stands and says, maybe even yells, “this life is a punishment!” The room grows silent. Some of the older students from Shammai’s side huddle and, in their advanced learning, figure out how to articulate this declaration as a question to be debated. The two schools rush to opposite sides of the room. It begins.
But what are they even really debating? They are not, after all, deciding whether or not to end their own lives, or to tear down their society, or even to stop their studying. They are not, it would seem, debating the merits of nihilism, or of turning away from their faith in God. In fact, the question seems to be very carefully formulated to not include God at all. It is an indictment of the wisdom of God as creator, but it's also not. So what is it? Perhaps best to think of it as a question of faith in humanity, in how to approach ourselves. A question of whether it is even possible to achieve those Godly qualities of peace and love that are surely within our grasp.
This Week, the Debate Renewed
I’ve been thinking of this story all week. Its original text comes from the Talmud: tractate Eruvin, daf 13b. I first read it in Elie Wiesel’s book Sages and Dreamers. There, he uses it as a lens to investigate the characters of those early rabbinic titans, Hillel and Shammai. The perennially sanguine and hopeful Hillel, and the ever severe and dour Shammai. Wiesel writes that, as a child, he was naturally enticed by the argument of the school of Hillel, by its love and optimism. He, like many of us I might guess, considered it a mistake that Shammai’s school was victorious. But, living through the horrors of the Holocaust, the “kingdom of night” as Wiesel often calls it, he writes that he began to see the school of Shammai’s pessimism as the more realistic truth. How could anyone paying attention say otherwise? Is it not an insult, Wiesel wonders (and I admit to wondering along with him) to remain optimistic in the face of humanity’s evils?
I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate some kind of thought after a week of tragic, infuriating events in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria, the West Bank. It seems to me that, to continue in this search that I’m undertaking - a search for spirituality in this country, and for a better personal understanding of God - without addressing these events would be to shy away from the very confrontation with belief, with faith, that I have been openly grappling with over the last few months. It would also mean ignoring on this blog the heartbreak and despair that’s come to dominate my relationship with God and humanity over the last week. And truthfully, it’s not just the last week. The horrors of terrorist attacks, and school shootings, and just base human depravity have, for my entire living memory, been an unending, seemingly unstoppable, occurrence.
For most of this week I’ve come up empty. It’s felt like even trying to articulate something was bound to come out clumsy and hollow. Truthfully, I don’t know that there's any other possible thoughtful response in the immediate aftermath of witnessing evil besides silence. But, as we know from history, silence cannot be a final response, and today, my silence is lifting. Articulate thoughts are materializing.
I am thinking of the debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.
I’d like to reopen it.
I recently heard a religious leader on the radio say that, after such horrible events as what happened in Paris, he tries to steer clear of having theological conversations with his congregation. It is too difficult a task to bring up God. “Unfortunately, we know from history, that man has the capacity for evil,” he said, “so what happened in Paris just doesn’t surprise us anymore. It can’t.”
Maybe this is the contemporary articulation of the school of Shammai’s side. To think of what God is, or how God operates in the face of humanity’s evil is just too difficult, causes too much anger and hopelessness. So, like the learned students of Shammai who conceived the question, we leave God out of this debate. And then to consider humanity, we ask: is it wise to let ourselves be shocked by these tragedies? Is it prudent to be surprised every time a bunch of soul-twisted, sick-hearted, lost-minded fucking assholes commit heinous acts? Or is this foolish? A means of leaving ourselves open to a constant barrage of body blows and heartbreak. Remember the original debate. Two and a half years they argued! That is a long time to sit in unending witness to humanity’s injustices. One can imagine those defectors from the school of Hillel being counted with the school of Shammai simply because they did not have the energy to continue. I don't think anyone could find fault in that exhaustion.
So what can the school of Hillel argue?
They, who force themselves to look at the broken souls of those human beings who perpetrate such acts of evil. Who cannot help but scream in pain at seeing the perversion of that soul, the one that utterly fails to see God in the faces and eyes of innocent men, women, and children in that moment of pulling the triggers or setting off the explosives. The students of Hillel, who hang their heads in defeat and misery, at least momentarily, when they are confronted with young men who see God only in death. They can understand the anger of these young men, yes, that is not beyond their compassions. It is anger born of hunger, of poverty, of xenophobia, of political oppression, of denied-eroticism. All of these are rational reasons to be angry, the students of Hillel know. But they cannot understand their theology, and the actions that result. They cannot understand young men who worship death, and so find salvation from their anger, however legitimate, by inflicting horrible deaths upon the world and upon themselves. Because this is not a holistic death, not a merciful death, not a death of renewal or rebirth, but one of a pitiless dispensation of pain, of terror. It is the worst combination of twisted faith and destructive action imaginable.
So what can the school of Hillel argue? They can list many examples of heroism, of love, of good acts, and beauties, and this they will do. But they know these do not stand up to the crushing blows of the worst of evils. Truthfully, they don’t have an argument. They have only the desire to continue arguing.
Until eventually some ask: is the school of Shammai right? Do those who worship death make it impossible to believe in humanity’s ability to achieve Godliness? To bring Love? And maybe it’s as true today as it was two thousand years ago: some of the students of Hillel will be turned. Though, it should be said, some will remain steadfast in their dissent.
Today, after a week of silence, of grieving and of being afraid and of feeling heartbreak, I find myself still desiring to argue. I just cannot commit to Shammai’s position. I cannot agree with the religious leader who says that “we are not shocked.” I am shocked. Maybe it will take work to not succumb to numbness, and maybe it will be painful, but I will remain shocked each time. It is too numbing a stance to not be, too accepting, too Goddamn (and, seriously, Goddamn it) deflating a position. Call me naive. Call me foolish. I intend to let myself experience the heartbreak, to let myself experience the despair that comes from knowing of my fellow humans’ (and my own) capacity for evil, every time, every single time. Because it is possible - necessary even - to find the gift of life in these experiences of despair and heartbreak. Recall the end of the original argument, the compromise. We must search for meaning, we must reflect. So in reflection, this is what I see: down deep at the root of despair is the choice to love. And into the gaping wound of a broken heart, hope and joy have pass to entry.
This has been a little disjointed I know. It's difficult to be coherent about these things. That said, I’m ending this blogpost with a prayer for us, the living, in reverence to those we’ve lost. In Judaism, when someone dies, we say “zichrono/a livracha:” “May their memory be a blessing," and I find myself moved today by that simple sentiment. Memory and blessing. These are our tools for responding to evil. They are the theme of this prayer.
I’ve never written a prayer before, so I hope it’s alright. Here goes:
May we remember to find hope in the depths of our despair. May we remember to do the work required to keep our souls untwisted. May we remember to never worship death, no matter our suffering. May we work to conjure good in the face of all evidence of it’s fading. May we find joy in the blessings of those we’ve lost, and let those blessings become the doorways to love in this life. May we let ourselves see love in the faces of our neighbors, as well as in the faces of strangers who require our help. May our anger and our struggles lead us to thoughtful action in the pursuit of justice, and never to blindness or hate. May our broken hearts mend with the strength of a faith that, by our efforts to heal this world, we can make things better, and we will.
Let all the horrors of today, all the terrors of history, make themselves known to me right now, and I will maintain the faith that we will do better, that despite its worst miseries, life is gift.
I vote with the school of Hillel.