Middle Israel: Shammai 1, Hillel 0

It was a clash of personalities: Hillel communicated with the other; Shammai – like Mati Dan – could not even bear the other’s presence.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
The new moon having risen at night, I rose after dawn and went to the Wall.
Once past the metal detector, I ambled ahead, west of where our ancestors would announce the new month’s arrival by kindling a chain of mountaintop bonfires that extended “from the Mount of Olives to Sartaba, and from Sartaba to Agrippina, and from Agrippina to Houran, and from Houran to Beit Baltin,” until “a man could see the whole Exile before him – like a bonfire,” as the Mishna waxed nostalgic well after this early version of a viral tweet had been lost along with Jerusalem itself (Rosh Hashana 2:4).
By the end of this day, much of the so-called Exile would again be on fire, albeit for less festive reasons, but this I didn’t know as I stopped by Robinson’s Arch, where I imagined the multitude surrounding the monumental staircase it once shouldered suddenly falling silent in awe of the shofar and two silver-lined trumpets that were blown on Rosh Hashana from the tower that adorned that arch’s stairs.
And having ambled but a few steps further, I now heard the singing of several dozen women, tucked at the edge of the women’s section, some wearing colorfully embroidered prayer shawls and yarmulkes. Tender, pure and harmonious, their singing brought to my mind novelist S.Y. Agnon’s speech while receiving the Noble Prize, in which he told his distinguished audience, headed by the king of Sweden:
“In night’s vision, I saw myself standing with my brothers the Levites in the Temple while singing with them the Songs of David, the king of Israel; such tunes have not been heard by any ear since the day our city was destroyed and its people went to exile.”
The women ahead of me were also singing the songs of David, but unlike the ancient Levites’ singing, theirs was now drowned in a cacophony of whistles and yelps.
HAVING NEVER witnessed this spectacle until last Sunday, I climbed a chair in the men’s section and saw beyond the partition a handful of women with maxi skirts, long sleeves, and woolen hats pulled down their faces producing with great effort what sounded like Beatlemania screams mixed with a fire drill’s whistles and the quacking of Hitchcock’s birds.
At a certain moment the noise was silenced at once, as if responding to an invisible conductor’s baton. The women whom the shouters were out to muzzle, it turned out, had reached the “prayer of whisper,” giving the noisemakers an opportunity to clear their voices and unwittingly join their adversaries in creating a silence as deep as the agonies of the Jews.
They are loud but anecdotal, I figured, now walking away from the plaza toward Robinson’s Arch, where I climbed down the stairs opposite the ruins of the Tyropeon Market, where Jesus might have encountered the money changers whose tables he overturned.
To my left sprawled the wooden platform that the government last year said it will – and today will say it won’t – designate for non-Orthodox prayers.
A group of high school girls seated quietly several steps from the platform listened attentively to a young guide, doubtfully 20, his mother’s milk hardly gone from his lips, who now said confidently to his impressionable audience that the women out to pray differently from him were “confused.”
On the platform I found an embattled David Ebstein, a Jewish Theological Seminary-trained rabbi who frequently leads here Conservative bar and bat mitzvas. I now learned that the fundamentalist Ateret Kohanim organization, eager to undo this location’s non-Orthodox designation, regularly sends its people to hold Orthodox prayers on this platform, slicing it with an Orthodox partition in a display of triumphalism much like the Wakf Muslim religious trust does, in its own context and ways, several meters from there.
“They have a new religion!” charged recently Ateret Kohanim’s leader, Mati Dan, referring to all non-Orthodox Jews.
This, unlike the screamers by the Wall, is not an anecdote.
The powerful nonprofit that has been fanning intolerance for years has formed a pincer movement of ultra-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox zealots who now derailed the imaginative, inclusive and peace-seeking formula conceived by Natan Sharansky, a hero of Zionism and Judaism whose wisdom, humanity and toleration mean so little to the spiritual Lilliputians he has come to face.
These zealots would surely have cried “new religion!” had they been there when our forebears decided that the biblical dictum “eye for an eye” should be a financial fine rather than a Saudi-style mutilation.
They also would have yelped “new religion!” had they been there when Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, responding to the Temple’s disappearance, assembled in the coastal plain the Supreme Court that until then would convene only in the Temple.
Had it not been for his “new religion,” the Jews in their many lands of residence would have ceased to celebrate their holidays on the same days, because the court that managed the Jewish calendar would never have gathered. And had it not been for his “new religion,” Judaism would have ceased to accept converts, because they would still be demanded to make a sacrifice at the Temple, a duty that ben Zakai canceled with the Temple gone.
Ben Zakai could emerge as such a religious reformer because he was a disciple of Hillel, the sage who preached tolerance, while his rival, Shammai, was so rigid that after being asked once by a non- Jew “convert me while I stand on one foot” he chased him away with a builder’s instrument. The man then went to Hillel, who converted him and said: “That which is hateful to you – don’t do to others; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”
It was a clash of personalities: Hillel communicated with the other; Shammai – like Mati Dan – could not even bear the other’s presence.
BACK at the non-Orthodox platform the women’s praying along with the lean trumpeters’ tooting and the ancient Levites’ singing had all faded, and given way to the battle cries of the civil war that raged here 1,947 summers ago, when the Jewish zealots fired darts and catapulted rocks across this very wooden platform, between their fortifications in what now are the Aish Hatorah, Hakotel and Porat Yosef yeshivot, and the Temple’s walls that loomed opposite them.
The zealots included Shammai’s disciples, whose response to the war they ignited and the defeat in which it resulted was total despair, in the spirit of one opinion in those days that, with the Temple gone, the Jews had better cease to reproduce (Bava Batra 60b).
The Jews ignored this suicidal advice and followed instead the leadership of the disciples of Hillel who accommodated otherness and digested change. The House of Shammai, as shown by historian Yisrael Ben-Shalom in his study The House of Shammai and the Zealots’ Struggle against Rome (Hebrew, 1995), vanished the morning after the Destruction. Hillel and Ben Zakai won, and so will we. •