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Lessons on leadership, courtesy of Beit Hillel

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The Talmud records more than 300 debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the schools of Hillel and Shammai. They cover the entire gamut of Jewish law, from the proper recitation of Kiddush and Havdalah to the lighting of Chanukah candles and the laws of marriage, divorce, tithing, kashrut, purity and impurity, etc. With rare exceptions, the law follows the view of Beit Hillel. This is especially difficult, since the school of Shammai attracted sharper students. Why, then, does Halachah follow the view of Beit Hillel?

The answer can be summed up in one word: humility. The students of Hillel, the Talmud explains, did not feel the need to respond to every criticism hurled their way. Furthermore, they would always quote the views of Beit Shammai before stating their own view. This is a very nice trait, but it does little to explain why we should follow their legal views. Let them win the derech eretz award, and let’s follow the views of those greater legal scholars who attended Shammai’s academy.

Our sages understood that humility is much more than a nice character trait. It’s the prerequisite for leadership, be it rabbinic, political, military or business. Leadership should be entrusted only to those open to the ideas of others, to those who are ready to admit mistakes, yet have a thick enough skin to do what needs to be done. 

Leadership is rarely about choosing between what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong. Rather, it’s about choosing between the various shades of grey that life is made up of. The right decision is often difficult and sometimes impossible to determine. It may only become apparent years later, and sometimes not even then. Difficult decisions require one to be open to varying, and even conflicting, views. It’s for good reason our Sages ordained that we must pray for the leaders of our countries.

When Beit Hillel quoted the view of Beit Shammai before stating their own, it afforded an opportunity to sharpen their own ideas in light of other perspectives that they may not have thought of on their own. The expert who realizes he may be wrong is more likely to be right.

It’s most noteworthy that the Talmud lists a variety of instances where, after hearing the arguments put forth by Beit Shammai, Beit Hillel “went back and taught according to the opinion of Beit Shammai.” They did not just quietly change their minds hoping no one would notice. They actually went out and publicly let it be known that, in these cases, the view of Beit Shammai must be followed. Tellingly, there are no instances recorded of Beit Shammai recanting their views to follow those of Beit Hillel.

We have the great fortune of living in a great democratic nation with unprecedented freedoms. Never in human history has the average person been granted the opportunities that the great democracies of the western world afford us.

Yet at the same time, the world is beset with greater, more complex and threatening challenges, and it’s not at all clear that our leaders are up to the task of preserving our beautiful way of life.

People, especially, but not only, in a democracy get the leaders they deserve. Do we, the people, look for humble leaders, who are open to changing their views not for political expediency, but for moral reasons? In a political culture where the first rule is to get elected, is it any wonder leaders make decisions that may work in the short term, but are often disastrous in the long term. There are good reason why we don’t elect Supreme Court judges. As lifetime appointments might be disastrous in the realm of political leadership, it behooves us to elect people who follow in the footsteps of Beit Hillel.


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