Judaism's Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl

Jewish Publication Society  2012


Insisting that argumentation is at the heart of the Jewish experience historically and theologically, Rabbi Schwartz presents a concise guide to ten classic controversies. Representing various crucial periods in Jewish history, these debates are arranged in three categories: Biblical Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, and Modern Judaism. The author’s method of analysis for each debate is to consider its context, its content, and its continuity. The latter term involves the ongoing relevance of the issues at stake.

For, as Rabbi Schwartz insists, the importance of argumentation in Jewish culture is not so much its resolution as its process. Most of these controversies have outcomes that are not clearly resolutions. The issues remain alive. In cases where one view has prevailed, as in the Hillel versus Shammai debates, it is noteworthy that the prevailing view does not erase its adversary’s view.

In the “content” sections, Rabbi Schwartz takes the liberty of mixing direct quotation with dialogue that he invents to sharpen and clarify each issue. This poetic license may present problems for some purists, but it makes the discussions much more accessible for students. It is clear that the author intends the book to be a teaching text, an entry into a much vaster realm of Jewish thought and expression. Indeed, a student version of the book is forthcoming from Behrman House.

Representative topics include “Moses and Korah,” “The Five Daughters and the Twelve Tribes,” “The Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov,” and “Herzl and Wise.” All are handled with appealing vividness and spirit.

Throughout, Rabbi Schwartz encourages the exercise of “Holy Chutzpah,” by which he means arguing “for the sake of Heaven.”

Discussion questions, notes, recommended reading.

Read Barry Schwartz's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

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The First Jewish Debate

Where the Debate on Modern Judaism Really Began

Room for Debate: Questions for Reflection and Discussion

Chapter 1. Abraham and God

The Text: Genesis 18:22–32

1. Does “the Judge of all the earth deal justly” in the Genesis account?

2. Does Abraham have the right to question God?

3. Does Abraham win this debate, or does God?

Contemporary Issues

1. When is collective punishment morally acceptable?

2. Was the collective punishment of the Japanese by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified?

3. Are civilians who aid terrorists innocent and deserving of noncombatant immunity?

Chapter 2. Moses and Korah

The Text: Numbers 16:1–16

1. Should Moses have been willing to listen to Korah?

2. Does Korah have a case, that all are holy?

3. Were Korah and his followers legitimate dissenters?

Contemporary Issues

1. Is Jerusalem a holy city, and subject to political negotiation?

2. Is the Sabbath holy, and requiring cessation from work?

3. Is the Bible holy, and God’s word?

Chapter 3. The Five Daughters and the Twelve Tribes

The Text: Numbers 27:1–11, 36:1–12

1. Is the compromise of women inheriting but marrying within the tribe a good one?

2. Are women second-class citizens under biblical law?

3. Can the halakhah regarding the traditional role of women be categorized as separate but equal?

Contemporary Issues

1. Is the inclusion and equality of women in Judaism complete today?

2. Should gays be extended all religious rights in Judaism, including marriage?

3. Are illegal immigrants the equivalent of the biblical “stranger” and justified in receiving a path to full citizenship?

Chapter 4. David and Nathan

The Text: 2 Samuel 11–12

1. Should David have been allowed to remain king?

2. Does the punishment fit the crime?

3. Does David repent?

Contemporary Issues

1. What examples of prophetic figures speaking “truth to power” exist today?

2. Does this story have parallels to the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton?

3. Should immoral orders from superiors be refused?

Chapter 5. Ben Zakkai and the Zealots

The Text: Gittin 56a-b, Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5

1. Was accommodation—or resistance—to Rome in the national interest?

2. Does anything justify Abba Sikra’s actions against his fellow citizens?

3. Is there a middle ground between pacifism and armed resistance?

Contemporary Issues

1. Should Masada be a symbol of heroism today?

2. Should the United States support armed resistance against dictators?

3. Should Israel negotiate with sworn terrorist organizations?

Chapter 6. Hillel and Shammai

The Text: Shabbat 21b, 31a; Ketubot 16b

1. Is Shammai’s attitude toward a prospective convert understandable?

2. Should a bride be flattered even if involves a lie?

3. Doesn’t it make more sense to light the Hanukkah candles Shammai’s way?

Contemporary Issues

1. Should a greater effort be made to welcome interfaith couples into Jewish life?

2. Should the Jewish community make a greater effort to gain converts?

3. Should a qualified judge be denied a nomination based on judicial philosophy?

Chapter 7. The Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov

The Text: Various attributed quotes

1. Is prayer—or study—the primary means of relating to God?

2. Does excessive celebration lead people away from Torah?

3. Is “every spoken word” a message from God?

Contemporary Issues

1. Should Jewish prayer today be traditional or innovative?

2. Should it include chanting, meditation, folk singing, dancing?

3. What is the most appropriate metaphor for God: parent or ruler?

Chapter 8. Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis

The Text: Writ of Excommunication and Spinoza writings

1. What, exactly, are Spinoza’s “evil opinions and abominable heresies”?

2. Are they worthy of excommunication?

3. Was Spinoza an atheist?

Contemporary Issues

1. Should Judaism today be based on reason or revelation?

2. Should the humanistic congregation have been admitted to the Reform movement?

3. Should Brother Daniel have been given citizenship under the Law of Return?

Chapter 9. Geiger and Hirsch and Frankel

The Text: Rabbis’ sermons, books, and conference transcripts

1. Can the laws of the Torah change with the times?

2. Should Jewish prayer be all or part in Hebrew, or in the vernacular?

3. Should the Torah be subject to modern historical analysis?

Contemporary Issues

1. Is patrilineal descent (Judaism determined through the father) legitimate?

2. Should kashrut be eliminated, or modified to be more ethically responsible?

3. Is a civil divorce sufficient for a Jewish couple?

Chapter 10. Herzl and Wise

The Text: Herzl diary and speeches; Wise address to the ccar

1. Are the Jewish people a faith community or an ethnic group?

2. Is a Jewish homeland the only real answer to anti-Semitism?

3. Why was Wise so vehement in his opposition to Zionism?

Contemporary Issues

1. Can Jewish life flourish again in Germany and the former Soviet Union?

2. Should all Jews be Zionist, in the sense of supporting Israel?

3. Do Jews outside Israel have a right to criticize the government of Israel?

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