Madison & Rava

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Jonathan Mansfield

Devarim 14:1 includes an apparent prohibition against self-cutting as an expression of mourning.

בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

But the Gemara (Yevamos 14a) interprets תִתְגֹּדְדוּ as referring not to self-cutting, but rather to forming communal factions, אגודות אגודות. And it is easy to feel these days that factionalism casts an overwhelming and worrisome shadow on both religious and civic life.  Which makes it worthwhile to inquire: What is the nature of the Torah’s prohibition against factionalism?

One of the most famous treatments of the problem of faction shows up in the Federalist papers. In Federalist No 10, Madison explains his approach to factionalism:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

Under the heading of removing the causes of factionalism, Madison notes that we either:

destroy the liberty which is essential to its existence…or give to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

Neither of these solutions being very palatable to a liberty-loving people, he concludes that it is hopeless to try to prevent faction. In his words:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man

and thus the only way of protecting against the danger of faction is to accept its inevitability and guard against its bad effects.

But did Chazal share Madison’s view that factions are inevitable?  On first glance, it seems they did not.  The simple meaning of the drasha is לא תתגודדו = לא תעשו אגודות אגודות, “you shall not make factions”!  But to properly understand the nature of the prohibition, we need to look a little deeper into the Gemara.

The Mishnah in the first Perek of Yevamos (13a, bottom) discusses different relationships which would exempt a woman from Levirite marriage. There are 15 basic relationships — so to take a somewhat famous example, if a niece married her uncle, who then died, she would (obviously!) be exempt from levirite marriage with her own father.  Marriage in exempt cases is forbidden as incest, and the children of such marriages are mamzerim, unable to marry within the Jewish community.   

There are disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel about exactly who is exempt.  Beit Shammai require levirite marriage in many cases that Beit Hillel exempts.  In such cases, Beit Hillel would consider the progeny from women who followed Beit Shammai to be illegitimate. The Gemara therefore asks: How could Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree on something that would perforce split the community in the realm of marriage — isn’t this a problem of factions?

The Gemara (14a) records that some Amoraim took this problem so seriously that they contended that Beit Shammai never implemented their own theoretical positions.  But other Amoraim found this implausible.  How did they solve the problem of factions?

The gemara offers two possible limitations on the scope of the prohibition against factionalism:

(1) According to Abbaye, the prohibition applies only when two courts in the same town render competing decisions, but in separate towns there is no problem of factions.

If two courts ruled differently in a single town, this would undermine the authority of Torah, since it would appear like there are two Torahs. But this is not a concern if each court rules for its own community, and the two communities do not mingle.  It seems that in Abbaye’s view, the presence of a distinct minority within a single community is ipso facto intolerable — the problem of faction is its mere existence, not any particular effect it generates.

(2) Rava, however, contends that the presence of distinct minorities within one community is not a problem per se — after all, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai themselves lived in one community!  Rava therefore declares that two courts can always disagree, even if they share a town; the problem of factions is only when a single court is split by dissent.

But this view is difficult to understand. What is Rava worried about in the case of a single court that is not a problem for two distinct courts? 

Perhaps having two distinct courts that disagree on a whole variety of different matters is really equivalent to having two separate ideological communities, which for Rava is not a problem.  Trouble occurs when when you have a single court that agrees on nearly everything except for one issue, and that one issue generates schism, machlokes.

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed on a panoply of issues, and according to Rava, that sort of difference of worldview is acceptable even within a single geographic community. Rava is not worried about the perception that there are two Torahs due to competing ideologies; rather he’s worried about destructive fights within a single ideological camp. For Rava, the presence of faction is not itself a threat, it’s the type of faction that viciously divides an otherwise united camp which the Torah warns against. (For more on this approach, see שו”ת אהלי תם סימן קסח)

(It seems that Rava’s approach is accepted as the halacha.  In general we have a rule that when Rava and Abbaye disagree, except in certain instances, we follow Rava’s view. And in this case, nearly all of the major poskim do so, with the important exception of the Rambam. But against the Rambam stand the Rif, the Rosh, the Ramban, Rabbeinu Yerucham, the Sefer haChinuch, the Sefer Agudah, the Ravaan, the Meiri, the Tashbetz, the Rid and later still R. Yosef Karo, the Shach, and the Magen Avraham.)  

But isn’t there something naive about Rava’s view? Unlike Abbaye, the Madisonian Rava seems to accept that faction itself is part of human nature. But just as faction is inevitable in human society, isn’t it equally inevitable that when you have two ideologies outwardly expressed in a single community, there will be friction and enmity and ultimately fighting? How realistic is it to allow faction but proscribe the inevitable friction? In other words, what is Rava’s recipe for treating the bad effects of faction?

The example of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel can give us some hint of an approach to navigate this precarious situation. How did Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai live together despite their enormous differences in a most serious areas of law?

The mishnah that we started with concludes with the following statement (13b, top):

אע”פ שאלו אוסרים ואלו מתירין, אלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי. כל הטהרות והטמאות שהיו אלו מטהרים ואלו מטמאין, לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גבי אלו

Though these forbade what the others permitted and these regarded as ineligible what the others declared eligible, Beit Shammai nevertheless did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Shammai. Similarly, with respect to all questions of ritual cleanness and uncleanness, which these declared clean where the others declared unclean, neither of them abstained from using the utensils of the others for the preparation of food that was ritually clean.

It seems that despite the danger of friction and machlokes, in actuality an almost unbelievable comity prevailed. The Gemara explains (14a, bottom) that דמודעי להו ופרשי, that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel each held by their own views, and insofar as they could cooperate, they did, but “they informed each other” when their conflicts were irreconcilable and in those cases “went their separate ways”. Where their views conflicted, they did not marry each other, nor did they use each other’s pots and pans. But they had the combination of confidence and trust to inform each other where they could not unite, rather than trying to coerce each other into an artificial unity. 

Rava’s Madisonian approach places the enormous burden of pluralism on our shoulders. By rejecting Abbaye’s view of unity above all, Rava makes a far more challenging demand on us — to live together with ideological adversaries and not be tempted by the urge to coerce communal unity in the name of some higher principle, nor by the urge to denigrate and malign those with whom we disagree. But this means mustering the inner confidence in our own approaches, so that we can we can rely on those with whom we disagree in some areas and go our own way in others without having to write them out of religious and civic communities entirely.  

Rava’s approach to the problem of faction is also indicated in the very verse we began with. The verse, on its plain meaning, proscribes cutting oneself in mourning. The Maharal explains (in Gur Aryeh) that

דודאי שייכי שפיר יחד, שכמו שהגדידה מחלק גוף האדם – עד שאין בשרו אחד ושוה, כך כשנחלק הבית דין שהוא בעיר אחת, חציים מורים כבית הלל, וחציים כבית שמאי, כאילו גופו של אדם מחולק

Certainly the two meanings of תתגודדו are related: just as cutting one’s flesh in mourning separates the body until the flesh is no longer one, so too when there is a schism in a single Beit Din, it is as if the body of a human is divided.

What the Maharal doesn’t say, but his analogy makes clear, is that cutting the flesh is not merely dividing parts of the body up, as might occur in a necessary surgery — rather we are talking about a painful and unnecessary self-injury. And that is what Rava was worried about: not merely division of collective selves, but division which is painful, division which is unnecessary. And thus the challenge of לא תתגודדו is somewhat counter-intuitive: to live with the healthy division, to embrace our ideological opponents not malign them, to remain confident enough to value the divisions as much as the unity. 

Jonathan Mansfield (SBM 2003) lives in Washington, DC and works for the Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).


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