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Debate is a Jewish sacrament

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.

When the great Rabbi Resh Lakish died, his brother-in-law and intellectual sparring partner, Rabbi Johanan, was inconsolable. The other rabbis, seeking to comfort Rabbi Johanan, sent Rabbi Eliezer ben Pedat, who was known as a very fine legal mind, to engage and perhaps distract him. It did not go well.

Every time Rabbi Johanan offered a teaching, the learned Rabbi Eliezer ben Pedat would say, “There is a baraita (rabbinic statement) that supports you.” Finally, Rabbi Johanan burst out: “Do you think you are like Resh Lakish? When I stated the law, he would raise twenty-four objections, which led to a fuller understanding. All you do is tell me there is a teaching which supports me.” (B.M. 84a)

The Talmud is unclassifiable, but one would not go too far to describe it as one long dispute. Unlike most books, the Talmud enshrines a large number of voices, and they disagree with one another. The argument continues among the later commentators on the page until, if the words could be suddenly vocalized, you would get a cacophony of indignant argument.

Our tradition enshrines disagreement — debate is a kind of Jewish sacrament. There are limitations, of course. Blasphemy existed in Judaism, and there were things one was simply not supposed to say. But the rabbis often found a way to say even seemingly forbidden things nonetheless.

Making a play on the verse “Who is like You among the gods? (elim) the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught “Who is like you among the mute? (illemim) (Gittin 56b).” After all, God has a disconcerting habit of not joining in when the divine voice would be deeply appreciated. Still, labeling God as dumb is pretty daring.

The verse in II Kings about “those who wage war” is taken by the author of Sifre (Haazinu 321) to be those who engage in the dialogue and debate in the war of Torah. In other words, the arguers.

So how sad and un-Jewish it is to hear people shut down argument and debate. Name-calling and epithets are not debate. But increasingly there are certain arguments one is simply not permitted to voice, because they offend or disconcert others.

Learn a bisel Yiddish with Rukhl Schaechter’s “Word of the Day” video series on YouTube.

Several years ago I was talking to an Israeli entrepreneur about the way ideas are presented at meetings. I mentioned that in most of the meetings I attend, when we are brainstorming, there is no criticism of ideas permitted. He scoffed at the notion: “In Israel, if you don’t criticize other people’s ideas, everyone thinks you must be stupid.” He laughed as he said it, but we both agreed that the legacy of Talmudic dispute found its way into Israel’s corporate culture.

Being ready to criticize, however, should not mean you are ready only to throw bombs over the fence at others. True criticism entails self-criticism. Notice that Rabbi Johanan was not upset because R. Eliezer ben Pedat wasn’t criticizing other Rabbis, but because Rabbi Johanan wanted his own ideas challenged.

Like most rabbis, I receive articles daily from my congregants that urge their point of view on political issues, Jewish religious issues and Israel. For many of them, as soon as I see who penned the editorial, I know what the argument will be; so many writers are not analysts; they are polemicists.

To such writers — and you can easily make a list — the other side never makes a good point, does a good deed or promotes an honest politician. If they are liberal, then the conservatives are prejudiced and narrow; if they are conservative, then the liberals are unpatriotic and foolish.

The drumbeat of ideology is so loud I wonder how it doesn’t give the writers themselves a headache.

It is possible to be passionate and still open to debate, to acknowledge the merit in other views and still believe they are wrong. But sadly, to many, any concession is seen as betrayal by the tribe to which you belong, so that you don’t only risk losing the argument, but you risk losing your friends.

Arguing a point becomes an act not of honesty but of loyalty.

Dialogue across ideologies, cultures, races and religions is essential. When retired basketball player and friend of the slain George Floyd, Stephen Jackson, backed football player DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitic remarks, I was eager to engage in dialogue with him (you can see the dialogue on my Instagram @davidjwolpe). Inevitably, there were people on both sides who urged us not to talk, to believe that the other was insincere or hateful. How easily we claim to know what is in another’s soul, when our own are so complex! Nonetheless, the dialogue proved both fruitful and helpful, and I hope will spark others.

Let’s do the Jewish thing and argue. But also, let’s do the Jewish thing and listen.

In other words, we must learn to be less like social media, and more like Rabbi Johanan.

David Wolpe is a writer and the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He has been named Most Influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World by The Jerusalem Post. Rabbi Wolpe is the author of eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. His new book is titled David, the Divided Heart. It was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, and has been optioned for a movie by Warner Bros.


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