Today’s daf (Shabbat 116a) makes reference to ‘The House of Avidan’ which was a location where scholars of various nations and faiths met to conduct philosophical discussions and debates.
We are told that Rav would not attend the debates at ‘The House of Avidan’, while Shmuel was prepared to do so. We are also told a story where Rava was invited to participate in a debate at ‘The House of Avidan’ to which he conjured up a variety of excuses why he couldn’t do so, while Mar bar Yosef then added that on one occasion when he did engage in a debate at ‘The House of Avidan’, his interlocutor and his supporters subsequently tried to kill him.
It is noteworthy that the debates at ‘The House of Avidan’ are also mentioned elsewhere in the Gemara (see Shabbat 152a & Avodah Zara 17b), and based on these sources it is clear that ‘The House of Avidan’ was a state-sponsored institution which, at least during certain periods, Jewish scholars were expected to attend or at least offer a good excuse for not doing so.
While it is possible that some Jewish scholars were suspicious of the type of content that was debated in ‘The House of Avidan’, it seems that most were more simply worried about the consequences of their participation in these philosophical debates, such that whether they won or lost, they may have been harmed. However, precisely due to the fact that ‘The House of Avidan’ was a state-sponsored institution, none of these scholars felt able to directly communicate their fears to the authorities which is why Rava (here in Shabbat 116a), as well as R’ Elazar ben Perata (see Avodah Zara 17b) and R’ Yehoshua ben Hanania (see Shabbat 152a), conjured up a variety of excuses why they couldn’t do so. Given all this, I would like to make two points which I believe have relevant application to our day and age:
- From the fact that both Shmuel and Mar bar Yosef did attend debates at ‘The House of Avidan’ and were not criticized for doing so, it seems clear that the content of these debates was not regarded as being theologically problematic. Instead, as mentioned, the primary reason why Jewish scholars avoided attending these debates was due to the possible violent consequences (as evident from Mar bar Yosef’s remarks). Today, thank God, participating in particular events may not lead to violent consequences. However, they may at times have real and at times severe professional consequences which may be hard to explain to others but still very clear to those involved. What we learn from here is that when a person doesn’t attend a particular event, we shouldn’t presume that they have a problem with the content being discussed at the event per se. Instead, their choice not to attend may well be due to other considerations that, for various reasons, they are unable to explicitly share.
- While Shmuel and, at least initially Mar bar Yosef, believed that they could feel at ease in ‘The House of Avidan’, it seems that Rav, Rava, R’ Elazar ben Perata and R’ Yehoshua ben Hanania did not feel the same way. What we learn from here is that some religious leaders at times feel more comfortable in some settings where other religious leaders may not feel the same way, and the very fact that some attend settings which others don’t simply tells us that religious leaders differ in their temperament. Ultimately, every person has the right to diplomatically excuse themselves from attending a setting where, for whatever reason, they may feel uncomfortable. At the same time, while this right should be recognised, so too should the responsibility of a leader to deal with a range of things which may, at times, go beyond their comfort zone. Thus it is crucial for all people, and especially for leaders, to reflect on their abilities, as well as their own limits, or as Rabbi Sacks explains: ‘A leader should never try to be all things to all people…Leaders must have the strength to know what they cannot be if they are to have the courage to be themselves’ (Lessons in Leadership p. 133).