Do the roots of the Rabbi Slifkin Book Ban go back to the dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai?
Perhaps they do.
… Fisch is a philosopher of science, which has led him to what I find to be fascinating reflections on the methodology and intentions of the Babylonian amoraim.
The first part of his book explains what he means by "rational inquiry". It is a process characterized by testing and troubleshooting both the subject matter of field of study and its methodology. As an example, he gives the field of science which endeavours to understand and explain the functioning of the world. Certain problems present themselves, and science produces theories to resolve these problems. In turn, these theories make predictions, and should the predictions be born out, the theory is strengthened. On the other hand, theories whose predictions are contradicted by observation are rejected. But, more than this, a rational study is one where the standards themselves by which success in solving problems are measured, are themselves subject to such troubleshooting.
It is Fisch's thesis that the Talmudic sages were engaged on just such a rational endeavour. This is not to say that they were doing science. Far from it. Rather, they applied the rational approach to Torah.
In the Tannaitic material recorded in the Bavli, especially the material relating to the Yeshiva in Yavne, Fisch discerns a dispute between two schools of thought, or attitudes, towards the development of Torah shel b'al peh. The first, exemplified, or stereotyped, by R. Eliezer ben Hyrqanus, is what he calls traditionalist. The traditionalist holds that the strongest support for a viewpoint is that it was learned from one's teachers extending back to Moshe b'Sinai. In the traditionalist's view, precedent is absolute.
Opposing the traditionalist, is the anti-traditionalist who, in Fisch's view, is a rational actor. Tradition must be tested against new cases and more developed thoughts, and, where necessary, refuted and overturned. For the anti-traditionalist, everything is open to question.
In Fisch's reading, the Bavli's version of the Yavne stories clearly supports the anti-traditionalists, most tellingly in the famous dispute regarding the tanuro shel acknai (Bava Metzia 59a-b), the story where we learn Lo be shamaim he, that the Torah is not in heaven, but decided by the Beis Din in this world.
This strikes me as a workable theory. It becomes even stronger when one realizes that Eliezer ben Hyrkanus was a member of Beit Shammai known for refusing to adopt the halakha as determined by the majority, Beit Hillel. He would eventually be excommunicated for this.
The Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4 tells a story of those times. The sages were meeting at the home of a prominent supporter, on the roof of his house. Beit Shammai appeared armed, murdered several members of Beit Hillel, and blocked the exit from the roof. No member of Beit Hillel was allowed to leave until he agreed to uphold the halakha of Beit Shammai, the minority. Beit Hillel – fearing for their lives – gave in. The sages then passed 18 gezerot (decrees) proposed by Beit Shammai. Most were aimed at separating Jews from Gentiles, and included kashrut gezerot that exist to this day. The Jerusalem Talmud calls this day the blackest day ever to befall the Jewish people.
Beit Shammai was traditionalist. Its halakhot (laws) were restrictive. Its worldview was anti-modern and anti-rational. We carry the effects of Beit Shammai's intransigence to this day.
If Beit Shammai had been met with arms, if Beit Shammai had been expelled from normative Judaism, our halakhot would be less strict and our reaction to the Gentile world – and its science – would be more open.
But on a Jerusalem day 1950 years ago, fanaticism won, crushing the democracy the sages used to guide the Jewish people in the process. The 18 gezerot were left in place – removing them meant more violence, more terror, more death.
With the destruction of the 2nd Temple, caused largely by the fractured polity of the Jewish people – it is not surprising that many zealots and sicariim appear to be from families associated with Beit Shammai – it became clear that Jewish unity must take precedence over doctrinal disputes. It was in that atmosphere that Eliezer ben Hyqanus was excommunicated and the mantra "The Torah is NOT in Heaven!" entered Jewish discourse as a response to his zealotry.
Fast forward almost 2000 years.
Today's rabbis are largely traditionalists. The historical lessons of the Beit Hillel / Beit Shammai dispute are largely lost on them. Today, unity means caving in to the most extremist of traditionalists' halakhic and theological views. Moderates are pushed out of the debate; liberals, out of Orthodoxy all together. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and his supporters may not use arms to enforce their views – although threats and physical violence are not unheard of in that world – but their methods of operation mirror those of Beit Shammai, who 1950 years ago proved that in Judaism the sword is in fact more mighty than the pen, and terrorist acts and threats more persuasive than democracy and the rule of law.