Hitlamdut and the Art of Dispute for the Sake of Heaven
Approximately 2,000 years ago, on the 9th of Adar, according to some of our traditional sources, the initially peaceful and constructive conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai erupted into a violent struggle over 18 matters of law, leading to the death of many rabbis and students (according to some sources, 3,000 of them!). According to other sources, there was no physical violence, but the 9th of Adar was the day that machloket (dispute) first emerged between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, which itself was sad and potentially destructive. Both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmudim say that the day was as tragic as the day the golden calf was created. It was later declared a fast day, like other days of tragedy in Jewish history (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, Laws of Fasts 580).
Whatever precisely happened on that day, it is a remarkable story. After all, the word on the Jewish street is that debate is a good thing: it is important for honing the intellect, and besides, it’s fun and it’s what Jews do! But here is an account of physical violence exploding in the beit midrash, or, at least, a cautionary tale about the way we meet situations of conflict in our lives.
The tradition’s rich sources on machloket l’shem shamayim (dispute for the sake of heaven) invite deep reflection on the phenomenon of human conflict. As students and practitioners of Mussar, we must ask ourselves, why is conflict so difficult for us as human beings? Why in the midst of arguments do we so often “lose it,” falling far short of our aspirations for our lives? How can our practice strengthen us and prepare us to meet situations of discord with self-awareness, wisdom, chesed (lovingkindness), and equanimity?
In moments of painful interpersonal or ideological conflict, the primitive part of our brain reacts as if we were under physical attack. We are flooded with stress hormones, preparing us to fight or flee. The heart pounds, fists clench, and blood gathers to protect our vital organs. Our bodies are screaming that we are in mortal danger, while a moment’s reflection would allow us to realize that the stakes are not nearly as high as they seem.
In short, these are moments in which we need our practice the most. Several middot are at play: arrogance/humility (“he is absolutely wrong!”), chesed (“I’ll never give her the time of day again”), equanimity/menuchat hanefesh (“there is only one way to resolve this and it is my way”), and others. We are out of balance, and the yetzer hara (evil inclination) has leapt into the driver’s seat.
Above all, I am struck by the connection of hitlamdut (stance of learning) to situations of painful conflict. As I have learned from my teacher and colleague Rabbi David Jaffe, the great Mussar master Rav Shlomo Wolbe taught that at the core of Mussar practice lies hitlamdut, an attitude of engaged curiosity and openness to learning throughout our lives. Rav Wolbe delves deeply into the meaning of the mishnah, “Eizehu chacham? Halomed mikol adam;” “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person” (Mishnah Avot 4:1). To take this mishnah seriously is to seek out learning from every person—not just those who obviously have wisdom to teach us and not just those we like and admire. Rav Wolbe defines hitlamdut as the very goal of Mussar practice, even the goal of righteous living, saying, “If we reach this point, dayyenu—it is enough. If all Mussar practice brought us just to a stance of hitlamdut, this would be an enormous achievement” (Alei Shur, vol. 2, p. 194).
When I am flooded by stress hormones and furious at a real or perceived attack, I am certain who is wise and right in the situation—I am! But when I allow the fevered moment to pass, I can reconnect with who I want to be in my life. I might remember that I have things to learn from every person, even from my antagonist’s perspective on the issue, or at the very least, from my own reaction to it. A stance of hitlamdut opens the mind and heart, mutes the fear-based arrogance of the moment, and invites reflection on how I might use the encounter for the good. In short, hitlamdut is precisely what is needed to cool the fires of passionate conflict and restore curiosity, humility, and a sense of possibility.
The Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution has called for Jewish communities around the world to observe February 12-18, the week during which the 9th of Adar falls, as the worldwide Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, dedicated to promoting the Jewish value of machloket l’shem shamayim (disputes for the sake of Heaven)—disputes conducted in a positive, respectful and generative manner. More broadly, the 9Adar Project invites Jews and Jewish communities around the world to rededicate themselves to redifat shalom—a way of being in relationship in families, friendships, workplaces, and communities that appreciates difference and also acknowledges the underlying unity of all people, including those with whom we disagree.
Since we live in relationship with other human beings, conflict will always be a reality in our lives. But our Mussar practice, and particularly the concept of hitlamdut, provides us with rich and potent tools to meet experiences of conflict with the best of our selves—with humility, balance, openness, and kindness. We can even pray that our practice might in some small way contribute to a more peaceful world.
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