Process Over Product: Spiritual Lessons in the Tensions of Halakhic Debate

Shawn Fields-Mayer

Holy Cacophony

But nothing could be farther from the truth. Neither Halakhah itself nor the study of halakhic literature is static or one-dimensional. One of the keys to Jewish historical longevity is the dynamic quality of Jewish law through discussion and debate. Furthermore, it has always been characterized by articulation by a chorus of multiple voices, rarely singing in unison. The Babylonian Talmud offers a famous reflection of the dynamic, multi-hued nature of the study of Halakhah:

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the one asserting, “The Halakhah is in accordance with our views,” and the latter asserting, “The Halakhah is in accordance with our views.” Then a bat kol—a heavenly voice—came and declared, “The words of both are the words of the living G-d...” (Eruvin 13b)

For contemporary Jewish educators, this passage contains three salient messages. First, the two sides are engaged in what appears to be a long-standing, ongoing debate—it is as though they have agreed to disagree; second, there is no resolution agreed to by the parties; and third, when G-d finally steps in, the divine voice articulates praise, respect and acceptance for both sides. In other words, both the arguments and the arguers are holy and beloved of G-d.

Those three messages are brought into sharp focus when viewed through the lens of the Maharshal—Rabbi Solomon Luria, the great 16th-century Jewish legal scholar—who penned an astounding elaboration of the Talmud’s teaching in his seminal work of Jewish law:

All these views (in debates about matters of Jewish law) are in the category of words of the Living G-d as if each was received directly from Sinai through Moses… Each (person at Sinai) perceived the Torah from his own perspective in accordance with his intellectual capacity as well as the stature and unique character of his particular soul…one concluded that an object was impure in the extreme, another perceived it to be absolutely pure, and yet a third individual argues the ambivalent state of the object in question; all these are true and sensible viewsall positions articulated represent a form of truth. (Introduction to Yam shel Shlomo, Bava Kama)

At its core, traditional Jewish intellectual life is a multi-layered activity, honoring multiple voices singing not in harmony but rather in cacophony.

The Power of Pluralism

In the contemporary Jewish day school classroom, cacophony transforms into a chorus of pluralism. What constitutes pluralism? And how does it manifest in the study of Halakhah?

Nicholas Appleton, in his work Cultural Pluralism in Education: Theoretical Foundations, describes some manifestations of pluralism. At one extreme is assimilation (all individuals conforming to the majority); at the other end is modified classical cultural pluralism, an environment characterized by a common shared culture with a high level of interaction between individuals. In this issue of HaYidion, Michael Kay articulates that pluralism can be found in three forms: atmospheric, with multiple views coexisting; informational, in which multiple views are shared; and interactional, in which those views are discussed and challenged. Interactional pluralism demands that all views be seen as divrei Elohim Chayyim, the words of the living G-d. How do we make our schools—and in particular, our classrooms teaching Halakhah curricula—into interactional pluralistic communities? How to beckon Hillel and Shammai into the room?

The Spirituality of Cacophony: One Approach

At Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, we weave pluralism into our halakhic learning by three avenues: atmosphere, curriculum and pedagogy.

The Atmosphere

As a community high school, we welcome students from all parts of the Jewish religious spectrum. In any given classroom—or sitting around any given lunch table—students wearing tzitzit sit alongside students who are less observant. In this social setting, dialogue is organically created and nurtured. The physical plurality is deepened by multiple community experiences that encourage sharing of opinions, backgrounds and beliefs: Friday Oneg Shabbat programs offer regular cultural exchange; students join together for Shabbat and holiday meals; they plan and share Shabbatonim together; and they write their opinions in the school newspaper as well as our journal of opinion and debate. The school fosters creative, respectful open dialogue.

The Curriculum

An ongoing relationship with the halakhic process runs throughout all four years of high school Jewish studies; as students develop in maturity and intellectual sophistication, they return to matters of Halakhah with increasing levels of depth. Each year of study gives students tools for engagement in interactional pluralism.

Curriculum is divided into topical units of study reflecting both traditional values and resonance for Jewish teens. These units help the students to develop both a language and an experience of pluralism. In the ninth grade, for example, students consider the laws of ethical speech—both the Halakhah of tokhechah (rebuke) and leshon hara (gossip). After learning basic sources, they pose questions to one another: what limits on speech are necessary for a just society? What limits are reasonable? Which ones are extreme? Through debating these boundaries, students consider their own roles in the community and the difficulty of disagreeing in a truly respectful way.

Later in the year, students learn Biblical and Talmudic rules regulating Shabbat. They ask themselves: what does it mean to truly rest? How to best keep and honor the Shabbat in my family? My city? My community? What are the parameters of religious experimentation? Finally, later in the year, students will dive into Halakhah related to the most modern (and sweeping) aspect of their lives: technology. They’ll contemplate ethical behavior in light of the realities of social networking, cell phones, Internet searches and other aspects of digital life.


Both classroom learning and assessments are aimed at creating a space for debate and discussion through active listening, respectful disagreement, and creative integration of multiple ideas. But the purpose is not just argumentation. It is transformation. Students become teachers. The experience of the classroom is ultimately a re-enactment of Hillel and Shammai. It is respectful—even playful—and highly spirited. Texts become mirrors, in which students see reflections of themselves and others, consider what they have seen, and grow in spiritual depth.

Ultimately, in the best form of halakhic learning, each community member values process over product, questions over answers. Since Halakhah itself it dynamic, the process of learning it must be anything but static. For Jewish teens, perhaps the most lasting education will come not in studying what, but in asking why—spurring them to leave the sidelines and join the conversation—and add their voice to the holy cacophony, the vibrant and dynamic process of Halakhah. ♦

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is School Rabbi at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles and is co-author of A Day Apart: Shabbat at Home, A Practical and Spiritual Guide to the Home Rituals of Shabbat. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009