Why we need more debates

Why we need more debates

Tis the season of debate for everyone, from the candidates for president to those running for local office.

So much of the debate is negative and substandard that we are tempted to dismiss its value – but that would be a big mistake for us, both as Jews and as Americans.

Ever since Abraham’s famous argument with God, Judaism has been full of debates. In my new book, “Judaism’s Great Debates,” I present 10 such arguments – between Moses and Korach, David and Nathan, Hillel and Shammai, the Vilna Ga’on and the Ba’al Shem Tov, Spinoza and the Amsterdam rabbis…. The list goes on.

But in truth every one of the debates, while situated in history, is timeless. Every one of them has ongoing relevance. Abraham, for example, was arguing about the haunting question of collective punishment, about proportionality when confronting evil. That question is everywhere.

I would go so far as to say that debate and disputation not only are encouraged within Judaism, they are at the heart of Jewish history and theology. The great debates are still being argued! Have you ever thought about Judaism not so much as a series of resolved doctrines but as a tapestry of unresolved arguments?

What a culture values often can be gleaned from the special vocabulary that develops to describe that value. The Talmud in particular is full of debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. It is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression, machloket l’shem shamayim – an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.”

Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.

Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history after Abraham and God was Hillel and Shammai. In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples who did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin tells us: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – both are the words of the living God.”

Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and both have the welfare of the community in mind.

Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint usually will prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because… [they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as … advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, contractions that make space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments, “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without machloket the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.”

Some people will tell you that we need less debate; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate.

Some people will tell you that we need less denominational division in the Jewish community, again for the sake of Jewish unity. In fact, that was some people’s reaction at a major forum on the subject in Philadelphia last spring, when leaders of the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements met in dialogue.

I say we need more diversity, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But we need the right kind of diversity, the kind that respects pluralism and affirms that while the differences are real and important, what unites us is greater than what divides us.

A few months ago I spotted a new book at my public library, “America’s Great Debate,” by Fergus Bordewich. He chronicles the epic debate over slavery in the mid-19th century that led to the Great Compromise of 1850, which averted, at least for a crucial decade, dissolution of the Union and civil war. Listen to what Bordewich says about this debate in the preface:

“Something else intrigued me, too, the more I read the records of the debate itself: never did American politicians speak to the nation more honestly, more persuasively, more provocatively and more passionately, in language that was often so splendid it nearly reached the level of poetry.

“The pool-tested, spin-doctored, shoddily argued and grammatically challenged ‘messaging’ that today passes for political communication is pathetic and often incoherent by comparison.

“It can be no surprise that many Americans have lost interest in politicians who have forgotten how much can be accomplished by the persuasive power of well-crafted English.

“In 1850 … men who believed in slavery said so, as did those who hated it, no matter how much odium their words attracted. By listening in on the debate, we can learn … not only about the profound ways in which slavery warped our political system, and about the creative craft of compromise, but also about how to talk politics to each other so that we actually listen.”

My own study led me to the conclusion that worthy debate, debate truly for the sake of heaven, must contain three essential elements: sincere intention, deep listening, and careful articulation. Like the disciples of Hillel and Shammai, we must have the greater good of the community in mind. We must strive to understand the opposing point of view, and we must be careful and masterful in our choice of words and civil in our tone.

Does our discussion and debate in the Jewish community today, never mind in our society at large, pass this three-part test?

The Talmud itself wonders out loud why the opinions of Beit Hillel prevailed so often, answering its own question this way: “Because the followers of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and always mentioned the words of the other school with great respect and humility before their own.”

As Joseph Telushkin comments: “It says something about Judaism that both Hillel and Shammai, and many of their followers, remain revered figures within traditional Judaism even when they embody opposite approaches to the law and to life itself. It isn’t simply the answer that is prized, it is the argument itself, the culture of disputation, the wrestling with the truth.”

And so, in the spirit of Abraham and Moses and the prophets and the sages, I urge us as a community, and my fellow citizens as a nation, to question without inhibition and to debate without intimidation. Let us seek out those opportunities, for they are the lifeblood of our Judaism and our democracy.

Let’s debate more, not less, and let’s make sure that our argument is for the sake of heaven!