Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; and that which is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai.... .

Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17


Why would we want a dispute - albeit one that is "for the sake of Heaven" - to endure?

But first we must understand the nature of the Torah dispute (machlokes). For the existence of differing opinions regarding the interpretation and application of Torah seems to run contrary to the very essence of what Torah is: the unequivocal word of G‑d.

And yet, the Torah itself foresees a situation in which two groups of sages, each applying their knowledge and cognitive powers to an issue, arrive at two differing conclusions. The Torah instructs that, in such a case, one is to follow the majority opinion - an opinion that now assumes the status of halacha, a law that is the expressed will of the Almighty.

In other words, a conclusion that is based on subjective human logic, on debatable arguments and proofs - a conclusion that may even be the result of who happened to be in attendance when the matter was put up to a vote in the study hall or rabbinical tribunal - represents the absolute and inviolable will of G‑d!

Marriage of Minds

For this is what the Almighty desired His Torah to be: a collaboration between Divine revelation and human intellect. It is the human mind, with all its inconsistencies and shortcomings, that G‑d chose as the instrument of His Torah's translation into the terms of the created reality. When man applies his rational powers to the principles revealed at Sinai, and does so in a manner that is faithful to the guidelines established by the Almighty, the result is nothing less than "Torah" - G‑d's communication of His wisdom and will to humanity.

The Talmud takes this a step further, citing the Heavenly voice that proclaimed, regarding a machlokes between two groups of sages, "These and these are both the words of the Living G‑d." Not only is the ultimate ruling an expression of divine will, but also the "rejected" view is nothing less than "the words of the Living G‑d."

Since both opinions are based purely upon the Divine will revealed in Torah; since both conclusions have been reached by applying the guidelines and techniques that Torah itself establishes; since both seekers have subjugated their minds to the pursuit of truth without the slightest nuance of personal consideration - both ideas become part and parcel of Torah, products of G‑d's "collaboration" with the human mind.

Plural and Singular Expressions

In practice, we can obviously apply only one conclusion. In the concrete and definitive realm of physical action, where two differing rulings are mutually exclusive, only one of them can be actually implemented. The hundred dollars belong either to the plaintiff or to the defendant; the piece of meat is either kosher or it is not. Hence, the Torah-ordained rule of adopting the majority opinion.

But in the nebulous world of the soul, conflicting perceptions can exist side by side and be constructively applied in unison. Here, the variant opinions in the machlokos of Torah form the basis for the many dualities which could - and should - be part of our outlook, our feelings and our approach to life.

Thus, we have two dimensions to each machlokes. On the pragmatic, "bottom line" aspect of Torah, known as halacha, only one of the conflicting views becomes law. Only one of the disputing parties merits that, in the words of the Talmud, "'G‑d is with him' - the halacha is as he says."

But regarding the "soul" of the dispute - the concepts and perspectives that underlie its arguments - we have the dictum, "These and these are both the words of the Living G‑d."

This distinction can be seen in the different names for ``G‑d'' that he Talmud employs. The phrase, "These and these, are both the words of the living G‑d" (in Hebrew, eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chayim), uses the Divine name Elokim, while the other, "'G‑d is with him' - the halacha is as he says" (v'Havaya imo - halacha k'moso), refers to the Almighty as Havaya. Elokim describes G‑d as He relates to His creation, speaking of His power as expressed by tremendous multiplicity and variety of His work; indeed, the very word Elokim is plural in its construction. Havaya, on the other hand, is the Divine name that refers to G‑d's transcendence of creation, to His absolute singularity and oneness.

When applied to the Divine wisdom and will vested in Torah, Elokim connotes G‑d's projection of His wisdom into the multifaceted and dichotomous world of human intellect, where it finds expression in differing, even contrasting, ideas. The Havaya of Torah is halacha, the singular, unequivocal rulings of Divine law.

The Anatomy of a Machlokes

Many of the famed Torah disputes are contested by the disciples of two great talmudic sages, Shammai and Hillel - indeed, it is regarding a dispute between "The House of Shamai" and "The House of Hillel'" (as these two schools of Torah thought came to be known) that the Heavenly voice proclaimed "These and these, are both the words of the living G‑d." The Hillel and Shammai schools differed on a wide range of issues, including criminal law, torts, laws regarding ritual purity, the festival observances, marital law and virtually every other area of Torah. Ultimately, however, their many differences can be traced to a few basic principles that characterize each school's distinct perspective and approach.

Let us consider the following cases:

(A) How many lights are to be kindled in the Chanukah menorah on each of the eight evenings of the festival? According to the House of Shammai, one is to kindle eight lights on the first evening, seven lights on the second evening, and so on, concluding with a single light on the last evening of Chanukah. The House of Hillel rules that one should begin with a single light on the first evening, increase to two on the second, three on the third, and conclude with eight lights on the eighth evening.

B. Historically, which is to be considered the precise moment of the Exodus? According to the House of Shammai, it is Passover eve (Nissan 15), when the Jews were free to leave Egypt. According to Hillel's disciples, it is midday of the following day, the moment in which our forefathers physically left Egypt's borders. (The practical implication of this dispute is the question whether Psalm 114 (("When Israel went out of Egypt...")) is to be recited before partaking of the pascal lamb at the Seder).

C. The Torah commands the Jew to read the verses of the Sh'ma ("Hear O Israel...") twice a day, "when you lay down and when you arise." Our sages differ on how to interpret the phrase, "when you lay down."

Rabbi Eliezer, a member of the Shammai school, understood this as a reference to the time period during which people lie down to sleep - i.e., the first few hours of the evening. Rabbon Gamliel and other Hillelian sages interpreted it to include the entire duration of time in which people sleep, and thus allow the reading of the Sh'ma at any time of the night.

D. At what point does a fish become susceptible to ritual contamination? One of the rules that govern the laws of ritual impurity (tum'ah) is that living plants and animals do not become impure through contact an impure object. According to the House of Shammai, as soon as the fisherman hauls his net out of the water, his catch is subject to contamination. The House of Hillel disagrees, holding that a fish retains its immunity to contamination up until the moment it actually dies.

These four disputes between the disciples of Hillel and Shammai, and many others as well, are all expressions of a single underlying point of contention: Which is the more basic definition of an object or phenomenon - its potential or its actual state?

What is freedom - the potential to act freely or the actual removal of all constraining and limiting elements? What is the "time of sleep" - the time when people are actually sleeping, or is it the time when they engage in the activity that results in the state of sleep? Is a creature that is still actually alive, but devoid of all potential to live, to be considered immune from contamination by virtue of the "life" it possesses?

The menorah's lights reflect the number of days embodied by a particular evening of Chanukah. So do we count the days which that evening possesses in potential, or those which have been actualized to date? The first evening of Chanukah represents the actual experience of but (a few minutes of) a single day, yet holds in store the potential eight days to come. The opposite is true of the eighth day. Its value in terms of potential is "one," while it can boast of the realized accomplishments of eight days (seven, plus the opening moments of the eighth).

In each of these cases, we are confronted with two realities, the potential and the actual. Which is to serve as our primary point of reference? Are we to deal with the elements of our world as they exist in actuality and regard the potential they contain as an axillary phenomenon? Or, are we to relate more to their essence and potential, while our experience of a certain aspect of this potential as ``actuality'' is to be regarded as a secondary truth?

"These and these" may both be the words of the living G‑d, but only one view can be incorporated into our lives. The fish in question cannot be both ritually pure and impure, the psalm cannot be both recited and not recited before the eating of the Pascal Lamb, one either can or cannot recite the Sh'ma at 2:00 a.m., and the number of lights to be kindled on the first night of Chanukah is either one or eight. Either what is actual in our lives is to take precedence over the potential, or vice versa. They cannot both take precedence over each other. Or can they?

First Things First

Perhaps the most basic machlokes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel is one that appears in talmudic tractate, Chagiggah:

The House of Shammai says that first the heavens were created, then the earth. The House of Hillel says that first the earth was created, and then the heavens.

The very first words in the Torah state, "In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth." So, obviously, the schools of Shammai and Hillel are not debating what came first in the sequential sense. Indeed, much of kabbalistic teaching centers around the Seder HaHishtalshelut (literally, "order of evolution"). This is the process by which G‑d first emanated from Himself a series of Divine Attributes (sefirot), out of which He proceeded to evolve a chain of "worlds" and realities, each further "removed" from His utterly abstract and intangible being.

Put another way, G‑d began by creating all existences in their most sublime and spiritual form; He then caused them to evolve and metamorphose, in many steps and stages, into their more concrete incarnations, ultimately producing our physical world, the final and most tangible embodiment of these realities.

So spirit preceded matter. What the schools of Shammai and Hillel are debating, then, is: Which is the primary focus of G‑d's creation? Did G‑d create all of existence, including the physical universe, for the sake of the spirituality of the heavens? Or, does the Divine purpose in creation lie in the existence of material life on earth, and everything else exist the serve this end?

Final in Deed, First in Thought

Yet, here, too, there seems to be no room for debate. The Torah's view on G‑d's purpose in creation is clear: the entirety of the created existence, from the most sublime spiritual entity to the most corporeal creature, was created so that physical man should implement the Divine will in the physical world by observing the mitzvos of the Torah.

Thus the soul of man, which is "carved out of the heavenly throne of G‑d," "descends" to earth to assume a physical body, character and life. Thus the Torah, which originates in the heavens, has not only been revealed on earth, but has been given over to man; after Sinai, the Torah "is not in heaven," but in the hands of its earthly students and observers.

The following passage in the Talmud says it all:

When Moses went up to heaven, the angels said to G‑d: "What is a human being doing amongst us?" Said He to them: "He has come to receive the Torah." Said they to Him: "This hidden treasure, which was secreted with You for nine hundred seventy-four generation before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood?... Place Your glory upon the heavens!"

Said G‑d to Moses, "Answer them."

Said [Moses]: "Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? `I am the L‑rd Your G‑d who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.' Have you been descended to Egypt?" asked Moses of the angels, "Have you been enslaved to Pharaoh?

"What else does it say? `You shall have no alien gods' - Do you dwell amongst idol-worshiping nations?... `Remember the day of Shabbos' - Do you work?... `Do not swear falsely' - Do you do business? ... `Honor your father and your mother' - Do you have parents? `Do not kill,' `Do not commit adultery,' `Do not steal' - Is there jealousy between you? Do you have an evil inclination?"

The Midrash puts it this way: "G‑d desired a dwelling place in the lowly realms." He desired that there be a realm that is lowly and distant from Him, a world that is inhospitable to His presence - in other words, a mundane, physical world - and that man transform this world into an abode for His manifest presence.

"This is what man is all about, this is the purpose of his creation and of the creation of all the worlds, supernal and ephemeral," writes Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya.

So the objective of creation lies in our earth-bound existence. It is to this purpose that G‑d first created the spiritual heavens: so that they yield a physical world that is descendant of a higher, more G‑dly reality, and thereby possess the potential to transcend its lowliness and corporeality and become a "dwelling" that houses and expresses the Divine.

So what comes first, the heavens or the earth? In sequence, the heavens, in essence, the earth. That much is clear. So what is the dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel?

The Cosmic Experiment

But there are two ways in which the Divine desire for "a dwelling in the lowly realms" may be understood: the Shammaian way and the Hillelian way. From the perspective of potential or from the prospective of the actual.

A muscular fellow lifts a barbell at a weightlifting competition. A scientist conducts an experiment to prove the accuracy of his calculations. What is the purpose of these acts? Is the objective to lift a few hundred pounds of lead several feet off the ground, or to push up the mercury in the scientist's thermometer that many millimeters? Obviously not. These things are being done not because we wish for certain physical developments to take place, but in order to establish the truths they reflect: the strength of the weightlifter or the validity of the scientist's theory. Here, the actual is not an end in itself, but the means by which to express a potential.

The purpose of creation may be seen in a similar light: as G‑d's desire to express His infinite potential. The intensity of a lamp is measured by the farthest point its light reaches. The true mark of genius is the ability to explain the most profound idea to the simplest mind. In the same way, a physical world that conveys the Divine truth is the most powerful indicator of G‑d's infinity and omnipotence. If G‑d is truly infinite, then His light can extend everywhere, even to the darkest corners of finiteness and corporeality; if the Divine truth is truly absolute and unequivocal, then it can manifest itself everywhere, even in the brute physicality of our existence.

This is the Shammai perspective on reality. What is the primary element of G‑d's creation? The spirituality of the heavens. True, the soul and the Torah descended from heaven to earth, but this a "descent for the sake of ascent" - a descent whose objective is manifest their heavenly potential. True, our material world is the arena in which the Divine purpose is realized. But what is this purpose, if not that the material itself should be made to express a higher truth?

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the Besht) expressed this concept thus: "G‑d makes the spiritual physical; the Jew makes the physical spiritual." When a Jew does a mitzvah, utilizing his physical faculties and elements of his physical environment to fulfill G‑d's will, he is, in effect, reversing the Divine act of creation. G‑d first projected the spiritual potential of creation from Himself, then embodied it in a physical reality. Conversely, a mitzvah penetrates the mundanity of its object to reveal the spirit within; it redefines reality in terms of its Divine essence and function rather than its physical husk. Indeed, this is why the physical evolved from the spiritual: so that it may ultimately come to reflect it and prove its infinite extent and scope.

So the question arises, "Which is more real to Torah, the potential of a thing or its actual state?," the Shammai sage's reply is: "The potential." To him, the actual possesses no significance of its own: What is real is creation's potential to express the Divine, while the way that things actually are is merely the "experiment" that proves the underlying truth.

Simple Desire

The House of Hillel disagrees. Does G‑d "need" to prove or express His potential? Indeed, can there be any rationale for His desire, any motive that drives Him to want for a something? Ultimately, not. If "G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms," then this is what He desired, period. No reason or utility can fully describe this desire, much less cause it or define it.

G‑d created the heavens and the earth because He desired that His will, as expressed in the mitzvos of the Torah, be implemented by our physical selves in a physical world. If this is G‑d's desire, then it is an end in itself, not an exercise in the fulfillment of some other goal.

The fulfillment of this desire may also prove the infinity and all- pervasiveness of His truth, but this is certainly not its ultimate source and objective. On the contrary: the spiritual dimension to creation - its potential to express the Divine - ultimately exists to serve this desire, by aiding and inspiring our observance of the mitzvos.

So, from the Hillel perspective, the actual, physical state of a thing is the primary point of reference as to its status in Torah. For ultimately, the purpose of creation (and the function of Torah) is not to "spiritualize" the material existence, but that the material existence, as it is, should serve the Divine will. Everything else is of secondary significance.

To Be or Not

These two perspectives are reflected in another philosophical debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel:

For two-and-a-half years, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated. These said, "It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created"; and these said, "It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created."

Before the soul of man assumes a body and physical identity, it is a wholly spiritual entity - that is, an entity devoid of ego and individuality, one whose very being is defined solely as an expression of its supernal source.

So from the Shammaian perspective, the soul would indeed have been better off not to have fused with a body and become "man." If, as the House of Shammai maintains, our mission in life is to divest ourselves and our world of their material nature, then the initial state of our soul is also its most perfect state. Its corporeal embodiment is truly a "descent" - a departure from its true essence and function.

The soul endures this ``descent'' in order to carry out the Divine objective in creation. But this objective itself is defined as the endeavor to regain its, and the physical universe's, initial spirituality. So there is no intrinsic value to the material: all it is is the testing ground upon which the Divine potential invested in the soul and in creation ``proves'' itself by making the journey to mundane earth and back.

The stated aim of creation, according to the House of Shammai, is its reversal. Every mitzvah is an exercise in nullification: that man "nullify his will before G‑d's will" ; that he establish the truth that "there is none else beside Him," by demonstrating that everything exists only to serve the Creator. In a Shammaian world, man is created so that he uncreate himself; spirit evolves into matter only that it revert to its quintessential insubstantiality.

Born to Be

The school of Hillel, however, maintains, "It is better for man to have been created."

True, the soul in its "uncreated" state is more spiritual than when saddled with a materialistic self and character. True, the self-focusing human ego is far less expressive of the Divine truth than its selfless pre-incarnation. But only through its "descent" into being and individuality does the soul of man come to relate to its Creator in a far more meaningful way: by implementing His will.

For it is a "dwelling in the lowly realms" that G‑d desired. Not a dwelling in what used to be a lowly realm, not a dwelling that transforms the lowly realm into a lofty realm, but a dwelling within the lowly realm itself. The ultimate purpose of creation is realized specifically in the physical reality - retaining its physicality and realness - and specifically by the human being - retaining his humanity and beingness. G‑d wanted that this ``lowly'' world - retaining it ``lowliness'' and worldliness - should welcome Him and house His truth.

From the "actual" perspective of the Hillel school, the ultimate function of a mitzvah is to involve the physical creation, as it is, in the fulfillment of the Divine will. Furthermore, a "dwelling for G‑d in the lowly realms" means more than physical deeds and materials being used to fulfill G‑d's commandments. It also means that the very essence of physicality - the very features that deem it lowly - are also enlisted to serve this end. Ego, individuality, pride - the antitheses of the soul's affirmation of the Divine truth - these, too, are forces to be harnessed and directed to drive our efforts to build the world that G‑d desires.

The Enduring Dichotomy

Which are we to adopt, the vision of the Shammai school or that of the Hillel?

How are we to view reality, in term of its potential or its actuality? Which should come first in the "miniature universe" that is man, heavens or earth?

Should we see our world as spirit or as matter? Should we grant validity and significance to the material demands of life or view it all as nothing more than a test of our spiritual integrity? Should we strive for self-abnegation or for the constructive application of ego?

These and these are both the words of the living G‑d.

When it comes to deciding how many lights to kindle on the first night of Chanukah, we can either stress the potential number of days or their actual number, not both. Here, the majority opinion must decide the halacha.

Yet when it comes to the manner in which we view ourselves, our world and our mission in life, we have no such limitations. We can embrace both the perspective of Shammai and that of Hillel. Both are valid Torah viewpoints; both are part of the Divine blueprint for existence.