We’re in the three weeks and Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller was kind enough to allow us to repost this article on Beyond BT. For more tapes and articles by Rebbetzin Heller please visit her site. To listen or download her mp3s (including a free one about the 17th of Tammuz) please visit the Aish Audio site.
By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
I’d like to talk about loving each other freely, and Jewish unity.
An interesting gemara (statement from the Talmud) tells us something we already know: Jews are the most quarrelsome of people. And the talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) are the most quarrelsome of Jews.
Everyone knows the joke about the island where the man built two synagogues: the one he’ll go too, and the one he won’t set foot in. I’ve been to places like this, where there are several synagogues and none of them has a minyan (quorum). We do this to ourselves. In Israel, if there weren’t a law requiring that every political party have at least somebody voting for it, there’d be 5 billion political parties.
There’s a famous joke that dates from the beginning of the state. President Weissman visited President Truman, and Truman asked him, “So, isn’t it something, being a president?” Weissman replied, “It’s incredibly burdensome.” Truman said, “What do you mean? I’m the president of 186 million Americans. You’re the president of only one million Israelis.” To which Weissman replied, “No, I’m the president of one million presidents.” This is who we, the Jewish people, are.
The Fragmentation of Truth
The Maharal asks why Jews are so divided. He brings a gemara that lists many predictions about the world before Mashiach (the Messiah) comes. One is: “Truth will be absent from the world.” The word for absent is nehederet, which Rashi (the foremost medieval commentator) explains comes from the word eder, flock. Before Mashiach comes, truth will be such that every group is like a little flock. And within each flock will be sub-flocks. The fragmentation will be enormous.
The reason for this, the Maharal explains, is that to Jews, truth is very significant. We can’t be laid-back and say, “You have your truth; I have my truth; they’re both true.” It doesn’t sit right with us.
At the same time, we each have our own individual access to truth—and this is what divides us. What do I mean by “access to truth”?
There’s a gemara that says that when G-d created the world, He conferred with all His attributes. He asked Kindness, “Should I create the world?’” Kindness said go for it. Then He asked Justice. Justice was much more equivocal.
Then He asked Truth. If you were Truth, what would you say? “Forget it! There’s no place for me in Your world. I can’t exist there.” Why? Because the world is defined by time and space, which are subjective. And subjectivity means no truth.
So what did G-d do? He picked up Truth and smashed it to the earth so that it shattered. Concerning this, it says in Tehillim (Psalms): “Truth will sprout forth from the earth”—meaning there’s a little piece here and a little piece there.
But because we’re Jews, when we find our own little piece of truth, we see it as the whole picture. To give in and say “Maybe what you see as true is also true” is very painful—because how can I be tolerant of your view and still be a person of truth?
Because of this, the gemara says Torah scholars are the least accepting people, because for them truth is The issue. Either something is true, or it’s not.
In the era before Mashiach, the yearning for the whole picture, in which each fragment of truth joins with the others and forms something larger, becomes very great. But it’s presently beyond our grasp.
Different Kinds of Truth
This is one reason for our disunity. It’s not just ego. It’s not just limitation. It’s the fact that we care about truth, and we’re unwilling to move from our position. The question is: Is this something we should adapt to, or move beyond? And if we move beyond it, do we still retain truth?
We can get an idea by looking at the classical example of Beit Hillel (the house/school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the house/school of Shammai). They disagreed about a lot of things. And the Talmud’s conclusion, “These and these are words of the living God”—i.e. they both speak truth—doesn’t seem to work. How could they both speak truth while saying different things? It’s nice, but is it honest?
Let’s look at an illustration of their differences. In the times of the Mishnah, people would dance before the bride singing songs about her. The Mishnah asks: How do you dance before the bride?—i.e. what do you sing about her? Shammai’s school of thought was: Tell it like it is. “The bride is nasty, vindictive, selfish”—say the truth. Hillel, on the other hand, said that no matter what she’s like, say that she’s kind and nice (as the groom undoubtedly thinks).
The gemara explains that this dispute is really about the nature of truth. Is truth in the mouth of the speaker or in the ear of the hearer? Shammai would say it’s in the mouth of the speaker. If you believe in truth, make sure nothing false comes out of your mouth.
Hillel disagreed: Truth is in the ear of the hearer. What’s important is not so much what you say as how it’s received.
Let me give you an example. Suppose I said about my neighbor, “He isn’t going to be arrested.” If he’s done nothing criminal, that’s certainly true, but what image is created in the listener’s mind? Or how about, “He’s not being charged with wife-beating.” Again, this is true, but the image that he may be beating his wife is false. And that image is created because the listener is who she is.
Now, Beit Shammai would say that’s the listener’ problem—let her learn not to hear what isn’t said. Hillel would say you can’t expect her to do that—hearing what isn’t said is the human condition. The halacha (Jewish law) is according to Hillel. But both are equally valid interpretations of truth.
When Mashiach comes, we’ll rule according to Shammai, meaning that we’ll have to take responsibility for how we hear truth. If we yearn for messianic perfection, what does this mean? It means we have to learn to hear the truth, no matter what it sounds like or whom it’s coming from.
Dealing with Differences
We see truth differently because we have different personalities and experiences. Imagine a nice, empathetic person, the kind who could easily attach to anything—the kind who cries when she sees ads for Kodak moments. If you convince her that someone is persecuted, she’ll immediately side with him.
Now picture an entirely different person—one who loves reality. “I don’t want to know your feelings about the sunrise—I want to know how hot it is. The people in the Kodak moment are not real—they’re actors who don’t even know each other. Lassie will not come home.” Such a person won’t automatically empathize with someone portrayed as a victim. She’ll be concerned with truth and justice.
So the first problem in dealing with interpersonal differences is that we tend to see the world through our own eyes. The only person who rose above this was Moshe (Moses). The gemara says that Moshe saw through an “aspaklaria meira,” “clear glass.” The rest of us see things through the shadings of our personality and experience. So two people can see the same thing, but not see the same thing.
The other factor influencing our vision is experience—our circumstances and upbringing. Different people are raised to see the world in different ways, and can wind up with completely different frames of reference.
For example, a student of mine, before she was religious, had an abortion clinic. She’s an extraordinarily compassionate person who believes very strongly in life. But her education taught her to see only the mother’s life and needs. She therefore concluded that abortion equals compassion. As soon as she realized that compassion includes the unborn child, her perspective changed.
Unfortunately, none of us will ever see things as clearly as Moshe. Our middot (character traits) aren’t perfect, and neither is our education. So we see as far as we can, but it’s not far enough. The only truth we can rely is the Torah, because it comes from G-d and not us.
One rule, then, for getting beyond the issue of “your truth” versus “my truth” is to question whether or not your picture of truth fits G-d’s truth. If the answer is no, then you may have to accept the fact that your vision is limited.