On effective leadership

In the Talmud, the basic unit of meaningful learning is the chevrutah, or studying with a partner. All throughout the classic Jewish sources we see Rabbis coming together to discuss different topics. The most famous of these rabbinic pairs was the one put together by Hillel and Shammai. They were so important and influential that two different schools were created after them. For years, the students attending those schools continued to disagree with one another. It is out of their many disagreements that we got some of the fundamental contours of Jewish law. 

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argued pretty much about everything. When one school said that something was pure, the other believed it to be impure. When the first one wanted to be lenient on a specific situation, the other one preferred to be strict. Both of them saw the world from a different perspective and yet, they shared a deep love for the Jewish people and for a life of Torah. That is why the Talmud, in Tractate Eruvin (13b), says: “For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: Jewish law is in accordance to our opinions, and these said: Jewish law is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living G-d.” 

This is such a puzzling statement, isn’t it? It is beautiful because it recognizes the virtue and the value of both schools, but there is something that doesn’t sound right. We are not used to a situation in which two opposing groups with two opposing views are both right. Especially in our days, when we are told once and again that we must have a winner and a loser. If somebody is right, then somebody else has to be wrong. The fact that the Talmud recognizes that both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai represent the words of the living G-d is a blow to our usual zero-sum mindset. At the same time, it is a wonderful opportunity to reconsider whether our current mode of thinking is the only one available to us, or if we can find a reliable alternative in our own sources when, for example, we engage in heated conversations about all sorts of things. 


In any case, the Talmudic text doesn’t end there. Right after claiming that both schools are the embodiment of G-d’s voice, we read: “But Jewish law goes in accordance to Beit Hillel.” Our Sages loved this type of paradoxical twists. So, both of them are right and yet we follow Hillel. Perhaps, the whole idea behind this last sentence is that even if both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai point to two equally valid options, even if both of them can be true at the same time, there are times in which we have to make a decision and stand by our choice. 

But, then, we can still ask why the law goes according to Hillel and not Shammai. To that, the Talmud responds: “The reason we follow Beit Hillel is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught Jewish law, they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.” 

The reason we follow Beit Hillel most of the time is not because they were always right and Beit Shammai were always wrong, but because at Beit Hillel they were willing to listen to the teachings of Beit Shammai. The reason for their effective leadership was anchored in the fact that, when facing a differing view, they didn’t shut that opposition down but instead, devoted time to listen to those arguments and, whenever needed, made amendments to their own ideas. In fact, the Talmud records a couple of times when Hillel was confronted by Shammai and after careful consideration, changed his position and accepted Shammai’s proposal. That is exactly what I read a few days ago, at the beginning of Tractate Chagigah (2a-b). And it was such a breath of fresh air. I don’t know about you, but I still find it very inspiring when people are willing to change their opinion when they understand that they have made a mistake. 

In his last book, Think Again, Adam Grant shares a conversation that he had with the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. During that conversation, Kahneman recognized that he genuinely enjoys discovering that he is wrong, because that means that now he is less wrong than before. Reflecting on that, Grant writes: “To unlock the joy of being wrong we need to detach. I’ve learned that two kinds of detachment are especially useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity.” 

I like the idea of an effective leadership that is founded on the premise of fallibility. I agree with Kahneman and Grant, even if I still have a long way to go before I can actually feel joyful when proven wrong. I think that Beit Hillel would have agreed as well, and that’s why most of the time we follow their lead in matter of Jewish law. Even when they were proven wrong, their ability to listen, change and adapt was all they needed in order to get back to the right path. 


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