Two Jews, Three Opinions!

Image: Two arrows on a blackboard, facing opposite directions (Geralt/pixabay)

And God said to Moses: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.”

Exodus 32:9

News flash: Jews argue.

We argued in Canaan, we argued in Egypt, we argued in the wilderness, and once we got to the Promised Land, we argued some more. We argue with our closest relatives, and we argue with outsiders. We argued with the Romans through two bloody rebellions that nearly wiped us out. Our Talmud is the record of centuries of debate. “Two Jews, three opinions” is a popular saying and it carries the truth: Jews argue, even with ourselves.

Visit a synagogue on Saturday morning, and you will find a group of regulars doing Torah study together, chewing over the text, arguing.
Visit any beit midrash [house of rabbinical study] and you will see pairs of students arguing with one another, striving over the interpretation of scripture (and interpretations of interpretations of scripture) as to exactly what the words mean. Study of this kind is an art form, and a form of prayer. It hones the mind and shapes the character.

The most fundamental rule for these arguments is in Pirkei Avot, a first or second century collection of rabbinic advice, part of the Mishnah. It reads:

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.

Pirkei Avot 5:17

Hillel and Shammai were great scholars of Torah who lived in the 1st century BCE. They disagreed sharply about many things, as did their students after them. However, Mishnah Yevamot tells us that despite their tough disagreements:

Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from Beit Shammai. [With regard to] purity and impurity where these ruled [a matter] pure and these ruled [it] impure, they did not refrain from using [utensils] the other deemed pure.

M. Yevamot 1:4

In other words, despite their bitter arguments in the academy, they respected one another. They allowed their children to marry each other (accepted each other as Jewish) and they were willing to eat in each others’ homes (even though they disagreed about kashrut.)

The sages of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argued the merits of their cases, but as we can see from the friendly relations they maintained, they did not descend into ad hominem arguments. They did not attack or belittle an opponent in order to undermine his argument. Instead, they kept their methods of argument on the high road.

The example of Korach has to do with both motive and method. In Numbers 16-17, the chieftan Korach challenges the authority of Moses. Korach wanted power. He wanted the respect and honor that he saw Moses getting. He was willing to stir up the community and divide it in order to get his way. He and his followers died a horrible death as a result.

Lately I’ve seen a number of arguments among Jews that saddened me, because they engaged in tactics more like Korach’s than those of Hillel and Shammai. They were arguments in which individuals sought to “win” the argument by making ad hominem attacks on their opponents, saying that so-and-so isn’t a “real Jew” or so-and-so is a convert.

News flash: Jews disagree. One of the things we disagree about is the exact location of the “who is a Jew” line. There are Orthodox standards, and Conservative standards, and Reform standards, and the standards of the Israeli Law of Return. Traditionally, this is a subject upon which we take someone’s word unless there is a urgent reason to raise a question.

But even if someone is “faking” their Jewishness, using that to discredit them is a logical flaw. It weakens rather than strengthens the argument. It is stronger to base an argument on facts and persuasion, rather than a cheap shot.

We need to get back to arguments for the sake of heaven, arguments like those of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, conducted with mutual respect and derech eretz [common courtesy.]

“Two Jews, Three Opinions” – it is a well-known fact that Jews disagree. We differ, we argue, we nitpick, we split hairs, we pilpulIt’s part of who we are as a people. When we have done it badly, we have brought disaster down upon ourselves, but when we do it well, for the sake of heaven and the pursuit of truth, then it is truly sublime.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

One thought on “Two Jews, Three Opinions!”

  1. Interesting article……I find though, that most of us are much the same… is all about eagerly wanting to know the truth…..and so it is that many men and women have given their all , in such a quest…..this article reminds us how closely we are all related…..😊

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