The Blessing of Debate 

When reading Talmud or various Jewish commentaries, one thing is clear, over and over again: Jews love to argue. The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue and disagreement. Jews often study in havruta-in pairs with each member of the havruta challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional house of study is struck immediately by the noise level-havrutot (plural of havruta) read the text aloud and often argue at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.

One of the rules of this argumentative style of learning is to always respect your study partner. One is not locked in debate with a fellow learner in order to prove who’s smarter. The experience of havruta is embraced for the sake of heaven. To put it another way, arguing different positions with respect and honor is considered a sacred act performed with God’s urging and God’s blessing.

It used to be that within the Jewish community this foundational belief that there is a multiplicity of opinions on virtually anything was paramount and entirely accepted. The resilience of the Jewish tradition has been in its ability both to foster dissent of thought and encourage consensus of action. That does not mean that every community acts in the same way, but that communities while acknowledging disagreements, can still mobilize to do important work together.

Of course, Jews have been known to vituperatively go at it with their fellow Jews. History books include many examples of loud and painful schisms. Medieval rabbinic Jews vs. Karaites. Followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, the false messiah vs. Jews who did not accept him. The Hasidic movement beginning in the 18th century and the mitnagdim who bitterly opposed them. The Orthodox community and the first Reform Jews of the 19th century. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who called for an armed uprising, and the Jews who were vehemently opposed.
These internal struggles throughout our history have been deeply scarring. It can take a very long time for the wounds of opposition to heal.   Whenever we can hear perspectives that are not ours, and strenuously disagree, while still valuing the notion that we share a deeply personal bond, this is success. And whenever we disagree and disrespect each other, belittling the thoughts and the essence of the person with whom we disagree, then this is failure.

The sacred roots of havruta are being lost. There seem to be ever-wider rifts between us. There are few conversations and debates now, and more finger pointing and anger. I specifically don’t remember the subject of Israel ever being so dominantly divisive amongst American Jews.

Part of this is surely the “new normal” of political rallies. We see and hear people being insulted and booed at, accused of being liars and cheats, pointed out as being un-American because they believe differently than the party in power. We also see the use of the “us” vs. “them” paradigm, who’s on the right side and who is on the wrong side. In such an atmosphere there can be no constructive dialogue, just endless and tedious name-calling.

We have to listen more carefully to each other within our family circle. We have to support a true diversity of opinions and also unite when we collectively agree that something is harmful or dangerous. We have to work hard at bringing down the temperature of our differences and acknowledge what we can do together and what we cannot do. This is tremendously difficult, but not impossible.

On October 23rd at 7pm at TBA, we will be hosting a havruta: Mike Makovsky, President and CEO of the Jewish Institute of National Security of America, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street. Jeremy and Mike are on a speaking tour, modeling civil discourse and respect for each other’s commitment to the same goal – a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the State of Israel – while discussing their different approaches.

This discussion is a true model of what we can accomplish – respectfully. We can loudly disagree without calling each other names or accusing the other of being an antisemite or unpatriotic, or anti-Israel, or a fascist, and so forth.

This is how peace comes. This is how understanding comes. One conversation at a time, spoken in words of dedication to the truth and not to the sharpest arrow. Come be a part of this effort to listen and to understand, to agree and disagree, as the case might be, for the sake of heaven. For the sake of our children.

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