For many, like me, who’ve been privileged with an extensive Jewish education — mine ranged from kindergarten (Yeshiva Zichron Moshe) to elementary school (HILI) to high school (RJJ/MTA) and college (YU) — biblical stories and characters are as familiar as the plots of famous novels and hit musicals and the names of record-setting athletes and political leaders.
We therefore expect, sometimes foolishly, that others will have the same familiarity with those stories and characters as we do, and thus too often we refer to these stories and characters in discussions (or mention them in a column) without bothering to explain who or what we’re talking about.
I really should know better, because after I moved out of my cloistered educational environment into a more heterogeneous world, I learned that isn’t always the case. And I’m not talking just about minor biblical characters, like Gehazi or Jair. I’m speaking about our patriarchs and matriarchs; names like Abraham, Sarah, Moses, or King David, that are oh-so-familiar to many of us — but not to everyone. Indeed, my sense is that were it not for Andrew Lloyd Weber, the story of Joseph and his brothers would not, despite Thomas Mann, be as widely known as it is. (Sadly, the same is not true about Noah, Shem, Ham, and Jafeth, since Two by Two, one of my favorite musicals, never made the splash that Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat did.)
This was hammered home to me when I was a member of what once would have been called a Jewish law firm. (I don’t think law firms are referred to in that way any longer — which is a good thing.) Every year on the day after Purim, I brought several plates of Sharon’s delicious homemade hamantaschen and chocolates, leftovers from our Purim celebration, to my office to share with my work colleagues. I’d circulate a memo inviting all to come to my office to partake, and would usually add, for a bit of fun, a little quiz about the holiday. Now I’m talking fastball across the plate stuff — what was the name of the queen in the story? Or, what is its scroll called? And yet every year I was amazed by the number of blank stares the questions engendered from the highly educated and mainly Jewish attorneys. (Yes, I allowed the blank starers to enjoy the goodies as well.)
(A slight detour for a favorite story. One year I added a tough bonus question, with the promise of an extra chocolate gragger to anyone who answered it: What were the names of the sons of Haman? No one knew the answer — many did not even know who Haman was — until Widge Devaney — let me repeat that name, Widge Devaney — walked into my office and rattled off the 10 names so quickly I thought I was back in shul, hearing the megillah being read. When, in incredulity, I gulped and sputtered, “Of all people, Widge, you?” he smiled and replied: “I had a Georgetown education. The Jesuits really knew how to teach Bible.” I wasn’t surprised to learn, while writing this column with a side dish of Google, that Widge — ne William — is now a senior partner in Baker & McKenzie.)
Sometimes, though, while a particular biblical story is not well known, one line of it is transformed into a well-known idiom; for example, “Am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9), or “How the mighty have fallen” (2 Samuel 1:19). And that’s what happened to the story of King Solomon and the two mothers who fought over a baby. (1Kings 3:16-28)
A quick recap. Two women lived in the same house and gave birth to live babies in the same week. One of them died quickly. The two women came for judgment before King Solomon, each claiming the live baby was hers. After considering their testimony, Solomon called for his sword and decreed: “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other” (3:25). One of the mothers immediately cried out, “Give the other mother the live child, only don’t kill it!” The other, though, insisted “It shall be neither yours nor mine. Cut it in two” (3:26). Whereupon Solomon ruled: “Give the live child to the first mother and do not put it to death; she is its mother” (3:27). And, concludes the biblical author, “when all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice” (3:28).
And so was born the expression “let’s cut the baby in two,” a phrase often heard in dispute resolution situations like litigation settlement conferences, negotiated business transactions, family quarrels, or organizational disagreements. In those contexts, splitting the baby in two usually means, “You give a little and I’ll give a little and we’ll agree somewhere in the middle.”
In many disputes, especially monetary ones, that often is the best resolution method. But not in all. In the very case out of which the idiom arose, Solomon, “the wisest of all men” (1Kings 5:11), certainly did not propose to resolve the matter by literally slicing the baby in half and killing it. Solomon’s ruling was only a means to reaching a resolution; it was not, it could not be, the resolution itself.
What Solomon actually was doing, as the people of Israel realized, was “executing justice” — not proposing a compromise or, indeed, not even determining the truth. As Charles R. Nesson, the eminent Harvard Law School professor, explained (h/t to my good friend Harman), the trial before Solomon was not a search for the truth of who was the child’s biological mother. Rather, it was a search for justice. For good. And justice meant determining what was good for the child; that is, which mother would be the better caretaker. That’s what Solomon meant by saying “She is its mother.”
Indeed, when God settles disputes, She not only doesn’t compromise, She doesn’t even always use truth. We see that in Bereishit Rabbah 8:5, which concerns a dispute in heaven about whether God should create Adam. Chesed (lovingkindness) and tzedek (justice or righteousness) argued for creation; truth and peace argued against it. God finally ended this disputation by “taking Truth and casting it to the ground,” thereby breaking the tie and creating Adam. While compromise and truth are critical to resolving some disputes, others require chesed, justice, or peace to achieve the best result.
Conflicts and disputes are inevitable in all areas of life. And our tradition teaches us that determining which values to use to resolve them should be done on a case-by-case basis; the same technique does not always work for every problem. Once we fully understand the issues, we must examine all the tools in our handyman’s box. Using the unwritten volume of our code of law called seichel (common sense), we can choose the right screwdriver to turn the particular screw that needs tightening. And if we choose wisely and act skillfully, we often can make the broken as good as new.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.