Consider and Converse: Constructive Argumentation

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of Machlochet L’Shem Shamayim:Argument for the Sake of Heaven. The perspectives shared in these pages are meant to be expansive — to inspire reflections on Judaism and possibility in ways you may not have considered before. They aim to hold discord. We hope that the richness and diversity of these essays will show you new perspectives that are personally meaningful and edifying.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and conversation prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation with a small group of friends and family members you have invited to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Chanan Weissman introduces readers to the idea of machlochet l’shem shamayim (argument for the sake of heaven) and examines Jewish historical precedents for valuing constructive argumentation. The relationship between the houses of Hillel and Shammai is the best-known example. Was that a historic anomaly? How do we recreate the fabric of that type of disputation today — what should be replicated and what should be discarded? What does “for the sake of heaven” mean in this context? Is every opinion worthy of respect — and, if not, what are the boundaries of conversation? Digging deeply into this concept, what does Jewish wisdom teach us about elevating the mechanism and orchestration for disputation?
  • Rabbi Daniel Roth reflects on the emotional skill set necessary for healthy argumentation, including empathy, patience, humility, trust, tentativeness,and chesed (loving kindness), among others. What additional emotional skills would be important to develop in order to practice machlochet l’shem shamayim? What environment needs to be created? How might the 49 vs. 49 rule (“…every law must be understood with 49 reasons to rule one way and 49 reasons to rule the opposite”) apply to Jewish communities today that are so diverse — where conversations on some topics such as Israel or American politics break down almost immediately?
  • Joseph Levin-Manning writes about triggers (something that reminds a person of a past traumatic experience) and trigger warnings (alerts to an individual that something disturbing — an unsettling piece of information or experience — is about to follow). Recently, discussions about creating safe spaces in classroom settings and at conferences have led to larger questions about freedom of speech. Levin-Manning guides our readers through the complex arguments for and against “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in an effort to examine these issues. Have you experienced classes or discussions that employed “trigger warnings”? How did it affect the experience? Who defines the boundaries of an argument? How are decisions about the substance and the tactics of argument made?

Reflective Questionscan help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Melissa Weintraub urges us to consider political opponents more expansively, without assigning to them our binary reactions. She writes, “As if we must choose: Fight or dialogue, agitate or heal, condemn or introspect, rally the base or reach out to the other. As if seeking to understand one’s political opponents necessitates suspending moral judgment. As if noticing the neglect for the grievances of the rural heartland obliges us to obscure the suffering of immigrants, African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and the urban poor.” After the election and the inauguration, as we imagine the next four years of a Trump administration, are you trying to understand the swath of voters that live in our country’s heartland? How so? Do you sometimes feel that living in a “bubble” is just fine, but also feel — because you know you should — that you want to engage the world? What does living as an internal exile or foreigner in your own country feel like? How are you imagining reaching out to know the segments of our society that feel foreign to you? How are you balancing that with protecting the rights of the most vulnerable, who may be even more marginalized in the coming years?
  • In NiSh’ma,, three writers explore the verse from the Talmud, “Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Shammai and Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying the children of Beit Hillel.” (Yevamot 14a) Rabbi Andrea London writes, “Not every opinion is worthy of our respect — certainly, not the torrent of bigoted and
hateful speech that was unleashed in the past election cycle. Such speech must be
condemned and marginalized. But, like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we must find our
higher purpose and engage in vigorous debate across the many divides in our nation to
build a society in which all people live with dignity.” What are the limits of free speech and how do you handle situations when you come across vile language and hate-filled speech? Have there been times when you’ve ignored hatred, and, if so, for what reasons? When has hatred played a significant part in the drama of your own life?

Additional Resources on ‘**** Machlochet l’shem shamayim’

  • February 19-25 is the date of this year’s 9Adar Project: Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict. 9Adar seeks to cultivate a culture of constructive conflict across personal, political, religious, and other divides. Historically, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Adar marks the day when, approximately 2,000 years ago, mahloket l’shem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven) turned destructive between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The date serves as a powerful reminder of what can happen when these values and skills are neglected. This project is an initiative of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, part of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Learn how to join the movement by going to 9adar.org.
  • Two thousand years ago, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai knew how to engage in “Disagreements for the Sake of Heaven” or constructive conflicts. BimBam (formerly G-dcast), a Jewish digital media studio, partnered with the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolutionand 9Adar Projectto create a video that explains how it worked then, and maybe how it can work now http://www.bimbam.com/conflict-resolution/ as well as a Hebrew language version: http://www.bimbam.com/machlochet/.

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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