How To Win a Jewish Argument

Image: Two women arguing. (Anetlanda/Shutterstock)

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Avot 5:17

Arguments among Jews are raging on social media and elsewhere these days. We argue about Israel. We argue about the rights of the groups who have been historically diminished or disenfranchised by Jewish communities: women, people of color, converts, LGBTQ Jews, disabled Jews. We argue about the proper labels for friends and enemies: Christian Zionists, Palestinians, Donald Trump. We argue about anti-Semitism: where it comes from and who it oppresses. The arguments grow bitter and lately I have come to believe that we spend too much time fighting one another while real dangers circle around us.

The rabbis worked out much of what we think of as Rabbinic Judaism through a process of machlochet [argument.] First a rabbi would raise a question, then the other rabbis would share what their teachers had taught them and what they had observed. These discussions have come down to us through the Talmud, and also by way of mouth through our teachers.

In the passage above from Mishnah Avot, the writer gives us an example of “argument for the sake of heaven.” His contemporaries would immediately recognize the reference to Hillel and Shammai, which is recounted at greater length in Eruvin 13b:

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha [law] is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

The Gemara asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

Eruvin 13b

The rabbis of Hillel’s academy “won” the argument because “they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted,” and when they taught the law they would teach both their opinions and those of their opponents, prioritizing the opinions of their opponents.

In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the argument for the sake of heaven is an argument in search of the truth. Its opposite, the argument not for the sake of heaven, is an argument in search of victory. When we argue to seek the truth by hammering it out between us, that is a wonderful thing. When we argue to diminish or humiliate our opponent, it is disgraceful.

When we argue only to win, when we make ad hominem attacks, when we wreak our anger by inciting others to words and acts of hatred, we tear down Am Yisrael [the Jewish People.] When we argue out of envy, out of spite, or out of a desire to humiliate, we do terrible harm. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully of other Jews we hurt ALL Jews. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully to other Jews, we are truly losers, no matter what our cause.

So let us ask ourselves, whenever the rhetoric gets heated, whenever we feel the adrenaline flowing, whenever we are arguing with another Jew, “Is this argument for the sake of heaven?” Am I seeking Truth, or attempting to impose my truth by arguing louder, more angrily, with more name-calling? The rabbis call to us across the centuries to tell us that how we argue matters.

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Do Not Believe These Lies

Image: Person w/ name tag, “Mr. Know-It-All.” (Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

I just had a conversation online with a very nice gentleman. He had been given a bunch of misinformation by a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer (SAJM.)

The question in this case was, “Can a person convert to Judaism?” The SAJM answered, “No, a person has to be born Jewish.”

It happens that I had that same conversation many years ago, with another SAJM. There was no reason to doubt this person, so instead of converting early in my twenties, I converted at age 40, after a better-informed Jew told me that the previous answer was bunk. I lost almost 20 years of Jewish living to that Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer.

SAJM’s do a lot of damage to Am Yisrael (the People of Israel.) They spread all kinds of misinformation, for instance:

NOTE: ALL OF THE STATEMENTS IN THE LIST ABOVE ARE UNTRUE! If you want to learn more about them, click the link for each UNtrue statement.

Sometimes misinformation (or even information, poorly delivered) can be cruel. For a real-life example, read “my teacher said im not jewish.”

How not to be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer:

  • Refer questions of Jewish identity or status to a rabbi. If you want to show off, offer the questioner names and contacts of several rabbis.
  • If you thought you learned it somewhere but you can’t remember where or from whom, at least look it up before you reply.
  • Remember that there is great diversity in Judaism. Not everyone is from your shul, your movement, your particular Jewish heritage. Even for rabbis, not all answers apply to all Jews!
  • Remember that humility is a virtue, and teaching error is a sin.

Don’t be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer! By making appropriate referrals, looking things up, and remembering the vast variety in Judaism, you can contribute to the Jewish world.

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to my Christian Friends

Image: Apples, Honey, and Pomegranates are among the traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Lakovleva Daria / Shutterstock/ all rights reserved)

Dear Friends,

You’ve likely noticed words like “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur” are coming up in the calendar. You may or may not know that those are Jewish holidays. You also may have noticed Jewish friends or co-workers maneuvering to take time off for those days. Here are some things to know if you want to be a good friend and a supportive ally:

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but it isn’t like secular New Year’s Eve. We spend part of it in synagogue and often the rest of it at a holiday gathering with relatives. For many of us, synagogue is not optional on that day, nor is the time with family: we really have to be there. It is both a joyful and a solemn day.

Yes, this applies even to the Jews you don’t think of as “religious” Jews. Rather than make a joke about how you wish you had holidays that “gave” you time off (which you do, it’s called Christmas) why not give a friend a break and help them take the time?

“Happy Rosh Hashanah” is OK but please don’t wish me a “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and we spend it fasting and praying for 24 hours. For many of us, that fast includes water. It’s not a fun day, nor is it intended to be, and we may not feel great the next day, either.

If you are curious about the High Holy Days, here are some articles that may help you understand what we’re up to:

18 Facts about Rosh Hashanah

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

The Jewish Calendar: Why 5779?

May the year 5780 be a good year and a year of peace for all the world!

Maimonides’ Advice for Social Media

Who knew? Reading this pasuk from Hilchot Deah, I got the feeling that Maimonides was not only a great philosopher but a prophet, because it’s great advice for social media:

The sages of yore said: “He who yields to anger is as if he worshiped idolatry”. 1See Nedarim, 22b. G. They also said: “Whosoever yields to anger, if he be a wise man his wisdom leaves him, and if he be a prophet his prophecy leaves him.”2 Pesahim, 66b. C. Verily the life of irritable persons is no life.3 Pesahim, 113a. C. They have, therefore, commanded to be afar from anger, so that one will train himself not to mind even the things which do cause irritation, for such is the good way. The conduct of the just is to take insults but not give insults, hear themselves flouted but make no reply, do their duty as a work of love, and bear affliction cheerfully.

Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 2:3

Social media crawls with individuals who are angry and with others who get their kicks from making other people angry. The temptation is to get angry, as well, but that accomplishes nothing. The problem with that is that the angrier we are, the less in control of ourselves, and wisdom goes down the drain.

This does not mean that we have to be doormats. However, the “block” feature on most social media is a powerful remedy for those who are seeking to make us angry for fun. It is tempting to stick around and trade clever insults, but as the old saying goes, if you mud wrestle with a pig, all that happens is that you get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.

Proverbs 9:8

Let us save our words for people who will at least give them a chance. Screaming into the wind is a waste of everyone’s time.

Dear God: Help Us

Image: A hurricane, from space. (Image by WikiImages / Pixabay)

A monster hurricane ground the Bahamas almost to dust

while

Men with guns killed people in several different places

and

One of them shot a toddler in the face

while

Alaska and Siberia and the Amazon rainforest burned

and

unspeakable crimes punctuated the news cycle.

This is the new normal, apparently: things that once would have been the big news of the entire month or season are now piled up in a single day, disaster upon disaster. These are human-made disasters: they aren’t earthquakes or tsunamis. Every few days, some guy grabs a gun and kills a bunch of people because he feels like it. Despite the political pressure to think otherwise, climate change is real and the evidence is all around us. For the past two years, the changed climate in California and the rest of the American West has engendered monster fires, fires so big that they are visible from space, and now the Arctic and the Amazon are burning, as well.

So how should we pray about these messes that we human beings have made?

Jewish tradition does not encourage us to pray for miracles. It does not encourage us to look towards the heavens and say, “God, please fix it.”

Jewish tradition encourages us to work to make the miracles we need. When we stood trembling at the bank of the Red Sea, God scolded Moses for stopping to pray and said, “Get moving!” (Exodus 14:15) In that story, God may have stretched out “a mighty arm” as the Haggadah says, but we were expected to seize the hand offered and ultimately, deliver ourselves. We did not fly out of Egypt; we walked.

For too long, we have whined and scuffed our feet at the edge of these Red Seas we face today. We have wasted precious time arguing instead of acting.

Can’t get the solution to gun violence that we want? Push our elected officials to get whatever compromise might help a little. Enforce existing laws, tighten what controls can be tightened. Fund more mental health care. Fund research. Explore every possible option. Do not simply blame it on “bad people” or “stupid people” or “liberals” or “conservatives.”

Let’s do the same with climate change. Let each of us push our elected officials to take it seriously, and do what we can individually. If our grandparents and great-grandparents could sacrifice to fight the Nazis, why can’t we make sacrifices to make the changes we must make to survive? WE – not “other people.” Let’s tell the corporations that they get to make sacrifices, too. We are all in this together; there is only one Earth.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gave us brains and intended that we use them. Please give us the strength to save ourselves from ourselves.

The Truist Name of God

Image: Cartoon of many people speaking, different colored speech balloons. (RudieStrummer / Shutterstock)

Recently I was answering a question about the names of God. In Judaism, there is only one deity but that one deity has LOTS of names: Biblical names like

  • El – name of an ancient Canaanite deity
  • Yud-Heh-Vav-Hey – The name we never say. (Ex. 3:14)
  • Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – (“I am who I will be”)
  • El Shaddai – (Genesis 17:1)
  • Elohim – (looks like a plural, but refers to one God) (Genesis 1:26)
  • Adonai – (also looks plural, and isn’t) Psalm 136:3

and newer names like

  • Shechinah – the Presence of God)
  • HaMaqom – “The Place” – God is everywhere, and right here.)
  • HaShem – “The Name” – a substitution for the name we don’t say, and for Adonai in some communities.
  • Ein Sof – The highest Kabbalistic name of God.
  • HaRachaman – “The Merciful One.”
  • Ribbono Shel Olam – “Master of the Universe”
  • Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, Our King”

… to name just a few!

As I was explaining, I flashed back on a wonderful memory. At Temple Sinai we used to use the Gates of Prayer siddur , which had gendered language in reference to God. (He/him, etc.) The congregation felt that this was not appropriate, and the clergy came up with a fix. Whenever we came to any name for God or pronoun for God in the service, everyone was encouraged to say whatever name of God they liked – any of the above or dozens others.

So our prayers would periodically erupt in a glorious cacophany of names, for example:

Blessed are You, {cacophany of names}, {cacophany of names} our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to light the candles of Shabbat.

Soon I came to feel that the real name of God was that eruption of voices and names, all the names together. The name of God was the sound of many Jews saying all the names of God, together.

By the time I came back from rabbinical school, the new prayer books had arrived, and there was no need to worry about gendered language: it had all been written out of the new siddur. It’s nice and tidy and tame, but sometimes the wild Jew in me would love to hear once again the cacophony of all the names of God, all together, spoken in love and awe.

Is Anybody Listening?

Image: Two birds interact on the edge of a birdbath. (Andrew Martin / Pixabay)

It’s a war out there. I’m talking about social media, but also our culture at large. I say it is a “war” because all I hear about is the need to fight.

The lefties are talking about the need to fight xenophobia, racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrationism, Trumpism, ICE, and Republicans, especially #Mitch. Some lefties are talking about the need to fight Zionism.

Folks on the right are talking about the need to fight Constitution-haters, liberals, socialists, communists, snowflakes, elites, Bernie Sanders, the Squad, reverse-racism, housewife haters, and Democrats, especially NancyPelosi. Some on the right are talking about the need to fight race traitors, the #Clintons, George Soros, and Jews.

And yes, I imagine I may have gotten your dander up just a little, with those lists. You’re thinking, “Not ALL…” or “Damn straight, someone has to fight for their principles!” and wondering what is wrong with me, that I don’t see the imperative to fight for what is right.

We’ve all got our talking points. I have mine, too – just read through a few posts on this blog, if you doubt me. We stand on our soapboxes and we holler our talking points at each other and when our words don’t make an impression, we start cussing, and when cussing doesn’t do it, we think of the meanest thing we can say and we throw that at those fools who Refuse. To. Get. It.

And what have we accomplished, after years of this?

We are screaming mad at one another, with no common ground upon which to build a peace. Some of our anger is rooted in tragic losses and real events. Some of our anger has been nurtured – cultivated! – fertilized, even! – by people with something to gain from us all being too angry to do anything but fight.

What would happen if we were to find something to do other than fight? What if I were to ask the next person who calls me an ugly name that I’ll listen to them – really listen! – if we could just identify some common ground?

What if we told each other our deepest fears?