Hillel Circles the Wagons – What is in the Middle?

Sunday’s NY Times reported that Hillel, the national Jewish student college organization, has formalized a new policy banning any speaker or program that challenges the State of Israel and its policies from appearing at a Hillel sponsored event.  In doing so the organization is following in the steps of AIPAC, the Israel lobby group in Washington, which does not allow its representatives to appear at any program or meeting where a member of an organization that does not agree with its policies is on the agenda.  And about a year ago members of Atlanta’s Jewish community tried to ban Peter Beinart from speaking at a Jewish book fair there, saying that his views on Israel were not acceptable.

I understand the impulse.  We look around and see a world that is hostile to Israel, we see anti-semitism (just this morning reports of a French comedian’s anti-semitic gesture being used by French athletes), and we fall back on the old Hillel maxim (not the organization, the Talmudic sage) If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But while we are thinking about the sage Hillel lets remember that he was the bar plugta, the one who argued with, another great sage from antiquity, Shammai.  Hillel and Shammai always disagreed about matters of Jewish law.  If one said black, the other said white.  If one said something was permitted, the other said it was forbidden.  In the end, Hillel won the debate soundly, and in the over 300 disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, almost all of them were decided according to Hillel’s opinion.  Yet the opinions of Shammai and his house are all recorded and preserved in the Talmud.  Even though they were wrong.

This seems to me a fundamental Jewish ideal.  The Talmud, which is the core document of Jewish life, is a record of debates.  Page after page, disagreement after disagreement.  Sometimes the debates are about trivial matters, sometimes they are about issues that would have a long lasting affect on the entire Jewish community.  The point is that the Judaism we practice today, a rabbinic-Judaism, was formed through these debates, through the arguments.  And the record of those arguments is complete – both the winners and the losers are present on the talmudic page, both the main stream opinions and the radical ones.  That is authentic Judaism, the shakla v’taryia, the give and take, the intellectual back and forth.

To stifle debate, to close it out, or avoid it, to present only a single unified view, is just not the Jewish way.  Is it easier?  Yup.  Is it safer?  Maybe.  But since when have we Jews chosen the easier way?  And why should we start now?  And by the way, if Hillel’s mission is to foster authentic and meaningful Jewish life on campus, how can they do that when they are not operating in an authentically Jewish way?

So I say kudos to the Swarthmore Hillel.  They recently declared themselves an ‘open Hillel,’ and have stated they will not abide by the new national Hillel guidelines.   By doing so they have reminded us all not only of the importance of free speech in our country, but also of the role that open debate and discussion should always have in Jewish life.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

2 thoughts

  1. I don’t agree that National Hillel is trying to silence debate in their policy to regulate what programs Hillel sponsors or co-sponsors on campus. Supporting the existence of the state of Israel is what National Hillel encourages- so it does not seem inappropriate to me to require a speaker to believe that the state of israel should exist.
    The policy does not, in my understanding, require that the speaker agree with policies of the Israeli Government.

    In fact, there was no issue when Avram Burg, A former Knesset member who vehemently disagrees with the current government spoke at Harvard Hillel. He spoke under Hillel’s sponsorship and certainly debate of policies is encouraged.
    It would have been ill advised for a co-sponsor to be an organization that did not recognize Israel’s right to exist. A blurred line exists with regard to how we should respond if we want to see Israeli policy change. I for one disagree with many policies in the current government but I also feel that we are hurting Israel if we call for divestment or boycotts of Israeli products or scholarship and would not support an organization that chooses to use these methods to change government policies.
    In my view, your suggestion that Hillel policy requires adherence to one political view is false. As a funder of Hillel, I would like to know that the next generation supports Isrel wherever they stand (politically) and that having a Jewish democratic state is valued. I would hope that Hillel programs and birthright trips encourage a conversation about we intend to have a jewish and democratic state into the future, including the challenges and the opportunities.

    My understanding is that it is not

    1. hi Debs – happy 2014 –
      thanks for your thoughtful reply – I’ve posted a followup blog where there are links to the letter from the Hillel president in response to the Times article, as well as the Hillel Israel policy – and a few more of my now thoughts –

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