Culture, Politics, Religion

Getting in Touch with my Inner Beit Shammai

A few weeks ago, someone asked me to find him an introductory book about Judaism- seemingly an easy task for someone who spends as much time as I do studying Torah.  I promised to get back to him- and set off in search of the perfect book.
I wanted it to be simple.  Understandable to an English speaking Canadian with no prior knowledge of Judaism.   But as I started to read the simple books- to get a sense of what they would be like for a first time reader- I noticed that these books could not possibly represent my religion.
In my world- nothing is simple. Especially judaism.  All at once the idea of boiling down thousands of years of tradition into a simple, introductory text seemed like the worst idea ever. How could anyone try to explain judaism in simple words? In one book? How could anyone possibly understand judaism without first living in a jewish community like the one I grew up in, and then living in another jewish community that was totally different- and in another that didn’t even try to be the same?  How could anyone begin to approach the Torah without at least having read the five books of moses, and some mishnah, and some talmud and a little bit of the tosephta?
In short, over the course of a few weeks, I felt myself slowly getting in touch with my inner Beit Shamai- and I reminded myself of a story:
“There was a certain gentile who came to Shamai and said: “Convert me- on the condition that you teach me the entire torah while I stand on one foot.” Shamai pushed him away with his measuring stick.  (then) He came before Hillel- and he converted him.  He (Hillel) said to him:  What is hateful to you- do not do it to your fellow person- that is the entire Torah.  The rest is commentary- go and learn.” (Shabbat 31a)
It seems to me that Shamai, here, is impatient with the very idea of learning Torah quickly.  He has devoted his life to the study of it, and knows that it is full of complexity.  A person cannot learn the entire torah while standing on one foot- or maybe ever- it is too rich a tradition.  He worries that a person who learns such a small amount of Torah before committing his life to it,  will end up living a life that is antithetical to it- not at all what g-d wanted. On the other hand, Hillel sees that the man in front of him is seeking wisdom, and wants to live a life of goodness- but that before he devotes his own life to learning, he wants to be sure that what he will be learning is worthwhile, and true.  So he needs to know what it is all about. For that, Hillel has an answer- one that still rings true to me, many generations later- that the Torah is all about being good to others.
So when I finally came up with a reading list- I surprised myself from accompanying it, not with the comforting words of  Beit Hillel- but with the caution of Beit Shamai. “Everything in this book” I found myself saying “is at least a hundred times more complicated than it seems.”
I would have it no other way.

3 thoughts on “Getting in Touch with my Inner Beit Shammai

  1. I suggested (with the above mentioned disclaimer):
    Jewish Literacy:The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish People, it’s Religion and it’s History. (Joseph Telushkin)
    How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (Blu Greenberg)
    To be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary LIfe (Hayim H. Donin)

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