Tuesday, / November 29, 2022

A Question of Social Tact

There are seventy “faces” to the Torah, says the Midrash. Like a prism refracting disparate colors of light, Torah enlightens the entire spectrum of humankind with the wisdom of the Divine. In this feature, we invited individuals who have come to Torah study as adults, to reflect upon something that they have learned.

כתובות יז: תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן כֵּיצַד מְרַקְּדִין לִפְנֵי הַכַּלָּה בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים כַּלָּה כְּמוֹת שֶׁהִיא וּבֵית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים כַּלָּה נָאָה וַחֲסוּדָה

The Sages taught: How does one dance before the bride? Beit Shammai say: One praises the bride as she is. And Beit Hillel say: One praises her as a fair and attractive bride

Only after I had sung it dozens of times did I really sit down to study the words to the song: Kaytzad m’rakdim lifnei ha’kallah, “How are we to dance for the bride?” A stalwart of wedding playlists, its upbeat tune signals the moment when chairs get pushed to the middle of the dance floor and guests perform for the bride and groom. It is a sacred and silly time.

It was a Jerusalem summer day that was hotter inside than outside, so I sat on a wooden bench with my chavruta and studied the page from the Talmud (Ketubot 16b-17a) that is the source for the song. My study partner was Israeli, from Tel Aviv. I am an American from New York. The Talmud is Babylonian, from the Mesopotamian twin cities of Sura and Pumbedita. And somehow we were all huddled together asking the question: “how should one dance before the bride?”

The question is not a rhetorical one. It is an earnest one disputed by the great rivals of Jewish thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. One instance of their eternal quarrel about religious life and practice. The query is not about choreography, but how a bride should be addressed by her wedding guests.

Beit Shammai says, “one praises the bride as she is.” This does not mean to allow for insults, but rather the scrupulous avoidance of hyperbole and exaggeration. Beit Hillel orders the guest to say that the bride is “fair and attractive,” regardless of how she looks.

Any good Talmudist knows that what matters is not only the penthouse of a rabbinic debate, but the underlying principles that comprise its ground floor. Studying Gemara is about the arguments, but it’s also figuring out what the arguments are about. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are really debating fundamental questions of honesty and kindness, social tact, and the legitimacy of flattery.

This has always felt to me like such a human question. Do we owe one another a kind word, or an honest assessment? Both sides are right of course, but even righter is the tension between them. I felt then and I feel now that this is Torah — precisely attuned to human frequency, a seismograph for the soul.

I think it’s perfect that we dance to this debate, that we sing it with joy. It’s like an emphatic question that never gets answered, only asked again and again, with an open and wondering heart.

Ari Hoffman is a reporter and editor at the New York Sun. He holds a PhD in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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