We Jews are a fractious bunch.
This reality is reflected in the famous bon mot “Two Jews three opinions.” On the basis of the rabbinic tradition and its literature, the Mishnah and Talmud, it is even appropriate to speak of the Jewish culture as one of debate and disputation.
It was not always so. The Torah is quite clear that disputes should not go on for extended periods in communities, but rather they should be submitted to the priests or judges and resolved. The priests’ or judges’ decisions are final, and everyone who was part of the original debate had to abide by the single decision that was rendered. If anyone deviated from that decision, he or she was subject to capital punishment (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
Unity of this sort was short-lived. By the period of the Second Temple there were many different Jewish sects, and even various schools of thought within those sects. Thus, late Pharisaic/early rabbinic Judaism saw the beginnings of the “culture of debate” in the disputes between Shammai and Hillel, and even more clearly in the debates between their schools. We are told that once the students of Shammai and Hillel became numerous, disputes also became numerous. Soon the single Torah of Israel seemed like two different Torahs.
The question is whether the disputes between these two schools were considered good or bad.
We get some help in deciding this issue from the famous Mishnah tractate Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot). There we read: “Any debate that is for the sake of Heaven in the end will endure; but any debate that is not for the sake of Heaven in the end will not endure. What is considered a debate for the sake of Heaven? The debates of the schools of Shammai and Hillel. And what is considered a debate not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his followers.”
So it appears that there are debates that are legitimate and have integrity. Among them are the debates between the schools of Shammai and Hillel and the debates between their descendants, the many sages whose opinions so often went in opposite directions.
What made them debates for the sake of Heaven is that the disputants sought to find God’s will for the Jewish people and humanity – but they understood that human beings could understand God’s will only in part.
Each sage might glimpse a facet of that will, but being human meant never knowing God’s will completely. This led to a degree of humility and an unwillingness to end the debate, because who could really decide who was right?
Not all the sages were that generous. Once it became clear that the school of Hillel had won the hearts and minds of the majority of rabbinic Jews, some sages said that it was time put an end to debate. Hence, his colleagues told Rabbi Tarfon, who followed the school of Shammai’s practice of reclining for the evening Shema, that he was worthy of death for not following the Hillelite’s rules (Mishnah, Berakhot 1:3).
This attitude, however, could not and did not survive the basic tendency to argue that was so fundamental to the rabbinic house of study. Therefore, it is not surprising that about 300 years after their formation, the question of whether consistent observance according to the school of Shammai or of Hillel was acceptable still was debated (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 11a). A matter that seemed settled in the year 90 in the Land of Israel was reopened for consideration in third century Babylonia – with no resolution.
But there are unacceptable debates, which are not for the sake of Heaven. They are like the arguments of Korach and his followers, who rose up against Moses and Aaron in an attempt to wrest authority from their hands. That is not to say that leadership can never be challenged, but when the purpose is simply to gain prominence or power to feed the debater’s own ego, then that debate is not for the sake of Heaven. It’s for the sake of “Me, me, me.”
Debates about principles-fine. Debates for self-aggrandizement-unacceptable.
So, to bring us to our Jewish world today, I would ask: What has the dispute between the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and JStreet been? Has it been a high-minded debate about principles between the parties? If so, it has been a dispute for the sake of Heaven.
But what are the principles involved?
The Conference of Presidents claims that we must support the policies of the democratically elected government of Israel, because neither we nor our sons or daughters are on the line. Israel, not we, is in the Middle East, and that is not a nice neighborhood. Israel also lives in a world in which there is much unfair hostility toward it, and as a byproduct, toward Jews. Therefore, good policy would be to support Israel exactly as it wishes us to support it. Further, it is our task to withhold ammunition from those who are not friends of Israel or the Jewish people. That being the case, loud and public criticism of Israel is not the proper task of representatives of the Jewish community.
These are all principled positions.
JStreet claims to be fighting for principles as well. It holds that when the Israeli government puts itself and the people of Israel into a position where peace cannot be achieved and Jewish morality cannot be realized, then it is fair and even desirable to work to get Israel back on track, even if it entails appealing to the United States or to the UN to insert itself into Israel’s internal affairs. This must be done to preserve Israel for its citizens and for the Jewish people everywhere. Such intervention risks giving Israel’s detractors and its outright enemies ammunition with which to condemn the State. Nevertheless, we must take risks for the soul and safety of Israel. After all, Jewish values demand a high degree of moral purity and the ethical use of power – and Israel does have power.
Zionist Jews, wherever they may be, have the right to a state of they can be proud, and the obligation to help it become that state by taking practical action when it is possible. These, too, are principles.
If all this were clearly the case, the debate surely would be for the sake of Heaven. But matters are more complicated.
Maybe it’s the “old gang,” the Conference members, wanting to have the last word and the koved, honor, of having the ears of presidents and members of Congress. Maybe JStreet seems to the Conference like a Korach, looking to steal authority from the legitimate representatives of the American Jewish majority (perhaps silent) who care about Israel. And when it comes to young American Jews, who may not feel the same way about Israel as many members of the Conference do, well, they’re young and naive, and giving JStreet legitimacy will lead them in the wrong direction.
It also is possible that JStreet’s intentions may be not be as pristine as they are made out to be. Maybe its attempt to join the Conference of Presidents was a manipulative ploy. If it won, it would gain the same kind of influence that the Conference has wielded. Then its paternalistic “we know better” policy in relationship to the State of Israel could gain a mainstream bully pulpit it did not have before. If they lost, they could- as they have – cried “Censorship!”
If these scenarios are true, then this debate has not been for the sake of Heaven. In that case, it is immensely tragic.
I believe, however, that the two sides indeed have been involved in a debate for the sake of Heaven.
I believe the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is a principled organization. It does everything in its power to help Israel and protect its interests. If it has a fault, it may be that it supports Israel unquestioningly, perhaps not to Israel’s real benefit. I also believe that it has erred in trying to marginalize JStreet. If the Conference were secure, it would not need to build “fortresses up to the heavens.”
I also believe that JStreet is a principled organization. If it errs, it errs on the side of “outsider’s paternalism,” which despite my reservations might not be the worst idea when Israel conducts its diplomacy in a dysfunctional way. Often I feel that JStreet’s critique of Israel is too public. Similarly, I feel that it is naÃ¯ve about the power of completely free speech, and that it flirts with danger by allowing such speech at JStreet conventions. Often such freedom gives voice to awful ideas, which JStreet hopes to debunk by reasoned debate.
But do we not believe in helping people, especially the people of Israel, to find their way to being just and at peace? Don’t we believe in debate as the way to the truth? If these are JStreet’s principles – and I believe they are – then it belongs in the critical debate that considers what is good for the Jews.
As I hope I have made clear, determining whether a debate is or is not for the sake of Heaven is not easy. When we find ourselves in debates (and as Jews how can we not?), my bottom line is: Let us be careful in order to make sure the debates we must have are based on principles, and that they honor the God of the many truths that debate and dispute can uncover.