Divre Harav – Summer, 2021

The Talmud consists of 38 volumes of disputes. As such, it has much to teach us about how to engage in discussion and, even more important, how to disagree agreeably. What happens after a group reaches a non-unanimous decision? 

In one tragic model, Rabbi Eliezer was the sole voice in a decision that was decided against him. He took the disagreement personally and kept arguing long after the vote was over. The sages took his intransigence personally and excommunicated him. Rabbi Akiva tried to soften the blow, but Rabbi Eliezer was distraught. Tears and waves of anger, as described in the Talmud, threatened to destroy the world. His wife, Imma Shalom, wouldn’t let him say certain prayers lest his fury do more damage. She left him alone for a few moments, however, and his unsupervised prayer led to the death of her brother Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the Sages who had voted for his excommunication.

Ill feelings might not literally destroy the world, but when we are unwilling or unable to let go of anger and resentment when something doesn’t go our way, a disagreement can become a rift that seriously damages a community. The losing side needs to know when it is time to stop fighting and start adjusting to the new reality. The winning side should behave with sensitivity and not gloat over its victory, understanding that the other side had good reasons for their passionate arguments. 

The better model is that of Hillel and Shammai, who fundamentally disagreed about the nature of Jewish Law. Yet even though they disagreed about fundamentals of marriage and divorce in ways that might cast doubt on the validity of the children’s status, their respective students continued to marry each other’s children. The respect that each side had for the other’s position prevented the dispute from fracturing the Jewish people into two different religions.

Our United Jewish School model includes language in our governance documents that asks us to work towards consensus decision-making. Neither congregation can take action alone – significant decisions require a majority from each side. Virtually every decision we’ve made in the past 15 years has been consensus. But this is an unusual situation. More often, our decision making bodies do occasionally reach a point where a principled disagreement requires a vote. Organizations cannot allow an inability to reach consensus to paralyze them into inaction. At those times, we turn to the Talmudic model, reaching for “disagreement for the sake of heaven” in which both sides listen deeply to what the other is saying, discuss ideas rather than attack ad hominem, argue with reason rather than fear, and strive to reach for truth rather than for victory.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mahloket – disagreement
  • Vikuah – debate
  • Ta’anah – argument
  • Riv – dispute
  • Sikhsukh – feud

The dire consequences of turning away potential converts – a Talmudic Midrash

In a piece of Midrash I was studying last week from Sifre D’varim, I came across a fascinating midrash in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 99b.  Here’s the original, followed by an translation/explanation.

מיהת אחות לוטן תמנע מאי היא? תמנע בת מלכים הואי, דכתיב (בראשית ל”ו) אלוף לוטן אלוף תמנע. וכל אלוף מלכותא בלא תאגא היא. בעיא לאיגיורי, באתה אצל אברהם יצחק ויעקב ולא קבלוה, הלכה והיתה פילגש לאליפז בן עשו. אמרה: מוטב תהא שפחה לאומה זו, ולא תהא גבירה לאומה אחרת. נפק מינה עמלק, דצערינהו לישראל. מאי טעמא דלא איבעי להו לרחקה.  סנהדרין דף צט ע”ב

The issue behind the Midrash is prompted by a verse in Genesis “The sons of Lotan were Hori and Hemam; and Lotan’s sister was Timna.”  (Genesis 36.22 JPS)

It is very unusual for women to be mentioned in a genealogy.  In this case, Timna is mentioned because of something we learned 10 verses earlier:  “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz”  (Genesis 36.12 JPS)

The impetus for the Midrash, however, is an inference we can draw from the fact that Timna and Lotan were siblings.  We know a little about Lotan from verse 20, “These were the sons of Seir the Horite, who were settled in the land: Lotan” (Genesis 36.20 JPS).  Lotan would have been the prince of a tribe of Seir, and therefore Timna would have been a princess.

Here’s where the imagination of the Midrashist takes over — Why would Princess Timna become a concubine to Esau’s son Eliphaz, rather than marry a tribal chieftain?   Perhaps she went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and told them that she wanted to become part of their family, to convert.  For some reason, they did not accept her as a candidate for conversion.  Her response?  “I would be better off as a concubine to this people than the wife and queen of another nation.”  She wants to be a part of the family so badly that she refuses to marry outside of the family of Abraham and Isaac, even if it means becoming a kind of servant.

Every midrash has a purpose and a message — Here’s the punch line of this one:  She married Esau’s son and gave birth to Amalek, the arch-enemy who afflicted Israel. Why? — Because they should not have turned her away.

Amalek is the Biblical ancestor of Hamen, the spiritual ancestor of every Hitler-like evil man or woman who attempted to eradicate Jews or Judaism.  This Talmudic midrash is suggesting that there are dire consequences for turning away prospective converts.

This piece of Talmud suggests that the actions of the modern day Israeli rabbinic establishment, including retroactively invalidating conversions, refusing burial in a Jewish cemetery to individuals whose conversion they question, and throwing up tremendous barriers to immigrants to Israel who want to become Jewish, are endangering the physical safety of the state, which depends of a strong and loyal Jewish population for growth and protection.

Isn’t this something to think about?  1700 years ago, at the point of Jewish history when the early Christian church was beginning to pressure Jews into giving up their historic openness to accepting converts, an anonymous rabbi preached a sermon or taught a lesson reminding his fellow Jews not to turn away those who want to convert to Judaism.