Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Jesus, Shammai, and Divorce

As my adult ed/sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount continues, my class ran into the portion of that challenging, essential text that always comes as a gut punch.

It's Jesus, talking about divorce.  Just a couple of verses, sandwiched in between telling his listeners to be faithful in their relationships, and not to lie, but it still hits hard.

Divorce, Jesus says, should not happen, not unless there is infidelity involved.  Then and only then may a husband leave his wife.  Doing otherwise creates sin in both parties, Jesus says.  He is not gentle about it.

I've read this passage before, and interpreted it in preaching.  But I didn't do that again this Sunday, because I've found it's not the kind of thing you can just preach at people without offering the opportunity to talk about it.  I've watched as the good souls I know who've gone through the pain of divorce responded.  Seen that twinge, as if I'd just administered a mild electric shock.  And then me, up there, trying to interpret Jesus, but without the insights and reflections of their stories.  

So we talked about it in class instead, about how hard that teaching felt.  We talked about how divorce functioned in the context of a radically patriarchal first century near Eastern society, about the impact it had...disproportionately...on women.  And how in placing a radical demand on his male listeners to fidelity in relationships, Jesus was speaking up for the powerless in his culture.

But I had another minor revelation, as I studied.  I realized, in my own preparation to teach the class, that I was...with Jesus...for the first time agreeing with Rabbi Shammai.

Two great proto-rabbinic schools of thought shaped first century Jewish study of Torah.  There was the strict conservative school of Shammai, and the liberal school of Hillel.   Jesus almost always comes down on the side of Hillel.  

Take, for instance, the old Jewish tale of the student who wanted to know if the law could be summarized in a single sentence.   He goes to Shammai, and asks, rabbi, I'm a little thick in the head, can you summarize Torah for me in 140 characters or less?  Shammai was enraged at his insolence and stupidity, and drove him away with a stick.  The same student...now a little bruised...went to Hillel.  Hillel smiled, and said, "Love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.  All the rest is commentary."

This sounds familiar, eh?  Hillel and Jesus tended to go the same way.  

Except when it came to divorce.  

There, the liberal school of Hillel suggested that a man could divorce his wife for any reason.  If he displeased her, she was out.  "Even if she just burns dinner," went the formulation, with a bit of a wink.  This, of course, consigned the woman to a place of social approbation, rejected by the family of her husband, separated from her own, and without any means of providing for herself.

Shammai, on the other hand, argued that you cannot break that commitment lightly.  You have a duty to that relationship, one that cannot be broken on a whim.  

The paradox, here, is that Shammai's strictly disciplined interpretation would have, in practical terms, ended up being functionally more gracious...particularly to those who found themselves lacking both a Y chromosome and power.

Liberal though I may be, it was a helpful reminder that justice and mercy sometimes may reside outside of my own way of thinking.