Hillel and Shammai Strike Again

“Would it have been better had humans never been created?” This dark, brooding query carries the weight of postmodern existential angst. It sounds like something Kafka thought about as he dolefully sipped coffee in a Prague café.

In fact, the question was posed over two thousand years ago. It’s from the Talmud, Eruvin 13b. No one knows who asked it; the author remains anonymous. But the people who studied the question back then were considered the most extraordinary legal and philosophical minds of their generation. To this day, they remain icons and are revered as deeply ethical and thoughtful teachers.

Shammai and Hillel are the forebearers to our shared. Diverse Jewish tradition. Without them, there would be no such thing as rabbinic Judaism.

Both scholars and the academies they formed reflected intellectual acuity, devotion, and rigor to the study and practice of Judaism. Neither scholar pushed or practiced an ascetic lifestyle. They exemplified the Jewish tradition’s notion that “Life is with people.” Escape from the world, sitting for long periods of study in solitude, was frowned upon. We need others: for a prayer minyan, as witnesses, as a community. On this, Hillel and Shammai agreed.

But on so many other issues, these two men and their students were on absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum. They engaged in vigorous, passionate debate. When ruling on Jewish law issues, Hillel was generally seen as the more compassionate of the two. He would often take into consideration the particular context of an individual’s unique vantage point. Shammai believed in the principle itself as the most crucial element in a judgment. He was seen as being hard-edged and less forgiving. They were indeed the yin and the yang of Jewish tradition.

Would it have been better had humans never been created?” That both schools entertained the question is at first blush curious. The problem posed at least subtly questions God’s judgment. Is our existence an accident? Are we God’s mistake?

Hillel and Shammai do not question the integrity of the question. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that they studied it for 2 1/2 years, showing no small degree of dedication and seriousness of purpose. They pursue the most profound question humans ask: why? Why are we here? What is our goal? What is our place in the Universe?  It forces them to consider how we treat each other, how we behave, the things we do to the people we love and the people we hate…  It forces us to ask whether or not we have even earned the “right” to exist?

This question pushes us to the very limits of understanding. How can we imagine existence without human consciousness?  It is truly impossible to understand this except in the most theoretical ways. Yet the thinkers do not approach this philosophical, legal exercise as superfluous. They ponder its implications: what is our purpose? What is the meaning of our lives? Are we serving humanity as we should? Are we serving God as we should?

The first time I learned of this question and the fact that Hillel and Shammai, and their disciples chose to discuss it, I assumed I knew the ruling. Shammai, the dispassionate, rational thinker, would say that it would be better had humans not been created.  Hillel, the compassionate one, would say that, of course, it was better that we’d been created.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that, on this issue, Hillel and Shammai agreed! After 2 ½ years, both schools decided that iw would be better had humans not been created. What a statement! If this is so, if these scholars agreed that we were a mess, a failure unworthy of existence, then what are we to do?

Luckily for us, there is a coda in the Talmud. After reiterating that it would better had we never shown up, since we are here, we must examine our actions and seek to correct our mistakes.

We make a mess of things. We are very slow learners. Repetition compulsion is rampant. Meanwhile, the planet slowly deteriorates. Relations between the haves and the have-nots worsen. Then there’s Covid and well, the rest of it.

So what’s your pleasure? You can be part of the solution or a part of the problem. You can seek to make it better or just let it go like a balloon and watch as it all careens out of control. Hillel and Shammai teach us that life is hard – very hard. It’s not solemn or poetic – just true. While we’re here, we have a job to do.

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