Thursday, December 03, 2009

A brief comment on the history of machloket

Rabbi Pruzansky of Teaneck posted an essay on his blog which included the following:

A “machloket,” I assume, was not always perceived the way it is today. Abaye and Rava (yeah, yeah, no one is Abaye and Rava here) did not engender the support of partisan factions in their several thousand areas of conflict. (Typical conversation on the Babylonian blogs in the 4th century CE: “Supporters of Rava: ‘Have you heard? Our master Rava says that when a married woman is accused of infidelity by only one witness, and does not deny it, the one witness is still not believed. But Abaya says that the solitary witness is believed! [Kiddushin 66a] He must be anti-woman, that troglodyte!’” Typical ? Somehow, I don’t think so.)

The hostile reaction here was so visceral that I could only conclude that, contrary to traditional halachic methodology, people are emotionally vested in a certain outcome. Like the rabid sports fan who supports his favorite team and wants them to win at all costs – even if they cheat, even if the umpire or referee blows a call [“a win is a win”] – one group of polemicists wants its side to win. They have little interest in halachic process, but rather a passionate desire for a particular result.

I submitted a comment, which apparently he chose not to publish, so I'm putting it out here:

The schools of Hillel and Shammai represent both extremes in partisanship. One the one hand, although they disagreed about kashrut and mazerut they ate in each others' homes and married one another(*).

On the other hand, the Yerushalmi lists the 18 halachot passed by Beit Shammai after they used force (including murder!) against Beit Hillel to create a majority. (Tosef., Shab. i. 16 et seq.; Shab. 13a, 17a; Yer. Shab. i. 3c).

So I would say that passion in the pursuit of Torah is not a new thing. Indeed it goes back even to the days of the second Beit Hamkidash, as related in the story of why a lottery was instituted for determining who would change the ashes on the altar.

(*) Personally I assume this to mean that the 2 schools practiced full disclosure with one another - "Although I believe this woman is fit to marry, by your understanding of halacha she is a mamzeret" and so forth. I wonder if this approach can at least provide a breathing space with respect to the current conversion controversy.

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