Rab­bi Bar­ry Schwartz is direc­tor of The Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety in Philadel­phia and rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion Adas Emu­no in Leo­nia, NJ. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates (Behrman House, March 2012 stu­dent edi­tion; Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety, May, 2012 adult edi­tion). 

Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty; 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….

My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desir­able but is cen­tral to Judaism. Abra­ham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hil­lel, the Vil­na Gaon, Geiger, Her­zl… heroes of every era of Jew­ish his­to­ry are engaged in great debates. More­over the Tal­mud is replete with debate; it is at the very core of rab­binic rea­son­ing. Indeed it is the Tal­mud that coins a unique Jew­ish expres­sion, makhloket 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.” (5:20) 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 was Hil­lel and Sham­mai (after Abra­ham and God that is). In actu­al­i­ty it was not these two sages but their dis­ci­ples that did most of the argu­ing. A won­der­ful pas­sage in trac­tate Eru­vin states: For three years there was a dis­pute between Beit Hil­lel and Bet 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 hay­im, 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 have the wel­fare of the com­mu­ni­ty in mind. 

Sam­son Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in prac­tice one view­point will usu­al­ly 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, mak­ing 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 makhloket…the hori­zon of human dis­cov­ery would be severe­ly limited.”

What your moth­er taught you is true: you can dis­agree with­out being dis­agree­able. A true debater must respect­ful­ly lis­ten to the oppos­ing view­point in order to artic­u­late a response. A true debate is a con­ver­sa­tion, not a yelling match. Would we only remem­ber the next time we get into a Jew­ish debate that despite our dif­fer­ences we are actu­al­ly on the same team, that because of our dif­fer­ences we will emerge more enlight­ened, that our argu­ments are for the sake of heav­en, and that in the very act of debate we are echo­ing the divine!

Rab­bi Bar­ry Schwartz will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.