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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Diversity is a Jewish Tradition, Too

I came away from the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit with a renewed sense of the diversity of Jewish life all through our history. Even though we talk about Am Echad, One People, we are one people with a multiplicity of opinions and practices.

The Jews at Qumran seem to have been deeply caught up in a fascination with the end of the world. They believed themselves to be living in the end of time. Indeed, that particular sect of Judaism was dead and buried and nearly completely forgotten until the scrolls came to light.

The exhibit also contained a vast number of female figurines and small private altars, both of which represent Jewish practices that did not survive. Today Jews do not make sacrifices at private altars (thank goodness) and we don’t reverence any deity other than the Eternal. But the evidence was there, right before my eyes, of how different Jewish practice had been at one time.

I hear regularly from other Jews who remind me that there are some Jews who disapprove of something I’ve said or something I’ve done. I am well aware of that. But I would ask you who are worried about “some Jews:” do you realize it’s always been like this? Jews disagree about Torah; it’s nothing new.

History sorts us out eventually, I hope for the better. We stopped keeping small idols. We stopped sacrificing animals (although there are those who’d like to go back to that.) Some of us have commenced giving women the privileges once reserved for men. Others of us are experimenting with other aspects of Jewish life.

The way I see it, we are all busily carrying Torah forward through history. I don’t know what Judaism will look like in 500 years, but I suspect some of the same old arguments will continue, and some new arguments will arise.

Beit Shammai didn’t approve of Beit Hillel’s rulings. The Ashkenazi rabbis were apoplectic over Maimonides’ Yad Hazaka. The cultured Sephardic Jews of New York were horrified by the Ashkenazi cousins who came off the ships in 1889. Reform Jews tried to do away with brit milah; we were wrong about that one.  My friend and teacher René Molho z”l was told (in Auschwitz!) that he couldn’t possibly be Jewish because he didn’t know Yiddish. Reform Jews ordained Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972 and “some Jews” predicted doom.

History moves on, and Jews still disagree. Everything changes, and some things remain the same.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9