The first thing I did in my intro to Judaism class, was to read the story about the gentile who asked to be taught the whole Torah on one foot (b. Shabbat 31a). Shammay pushed him with a measuring a stick, while Hillel converted him, saying “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”
I always read it as a story shaming Shammay and praising Hillel, but yesterday I read it in a new light, for the first time sympathizing with Shammay. Perhaps the appropriate response, that of the reasonable man, is shown by Shammay, while Hillel acts lifnim mishurat hadin. Not a deplorable response viewed in a negative light, but simply reflecting a level that most people cannot achieve. That, of course, is the context in Shabbat, where it appears together with a collection of tales concerning Hillel’s famed patience.
And in that case, Shammay is not an evil, rude person, but a reasonable person, who responds to insolence with manifested agitation. Or even, I suddenly thought, perhaps Shammay shooed the gentile away jokingly, not violently. The gentile asked something to aggravate, partially in jest, partially insolently, and Shammay responded by gesticulating a “get out of here,” but with no intention to harm.
In any case, obliged to teach three millennia of Jewish history and texts in less than ten weeks, I found myself sympathizing with Shammay. I did not shoo away my students, but did not tell them they can learn it all in one sentence, either. I provided them a syllabus, and prepared them for the hard work ahead.