Could talmudic debate point the way to peace?

Young Israelis and Palestinians can learn from the fine art of rabbinic disputation.

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, March 8, 2012
A Palestinian protester squares up to an Israeli soldier on the West Bank

A Palestinian protester squares up to an Israeli soldier on the West Bank

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a pitch battle in downtown Jerusalem involving Israelis and Palestinians. Some of the Palestinians were former members of Hamas who had served time in Israeli prisons, while many of the Israelis had all been trained in elite units of the Israeli army.

The contest took place under the auspices of Debate Mate, an organisation dedicated to teaching debating skills in British schools and conflict areas around the world. The founder, barrister Margaret McCabe, and her team trained the protagonists in parallel workshops in Ramallah and Tel Aviv. Now, the as the two sides came together for the final joust, with Palestinians and Israelis competing on mixed teams to debate the motion, "This house believes in the two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians".

It was profoundly inspiring to witness these sworn enemies engage in serious discussion of the future of this country. The evening was chaired by Jamie Susskind from Radlett. Jamie has written speeches for several leading politicians and was ranked "best young debater in the world". He is convinced that these projects can make a real difference. "By training young people to present their own case and listen to the other side," he says, "we are educating a generation of future leaders who will be more capable of delivering a negotiated settlement of the Middle East conflict and more committed to doing so.".

Debaters are adept at understanding and presenting every possible angle of a complex issue. They must be able to argue a case even when they do not agree with it all. These skills were highly prized by the rabbis. A true talmudic scholar was distinguished by his ability to grasp complexity and appreciate nuance.

Admission to serve as judge on the supreme Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, was based on the ability to find logical ways to declare an impure object pure. One commentary suggests that this was to prevent them from becoming arrogant about their intellectual abilities and remind them always to keep an open heart and mind; another sees it as a metaphor for always searching for ways to find purity and goodness in those we have condemned as evil beyond reprieve - all valuable lessons in dealing with affairs of state.

A few weeks ago I witnessed a pitched battle in Jerusalem

At the heart of debating lies the constant search for truth. Listening to others forces us to confront perspectives that we might never have thought of. We might not concede every point immediately, but the arguments presented sometimes force us to rethink our ideas and this was also true for the rabbis of the Talmud.

An idolater once challenged Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai to explain the incomprehensible rite of the red heifer. The rabbi was a master debater and he quickly persuaded the idolater of the value of this ritual. But his victory was short lived, for his students were unimpressed. "You have blown him off with a reed (light argument)," they said, "but what about us? How will you explain the ritual to us?" The rabbi was forced to offer them a far deeper explanation.

Debating also has a fine code of etiquette. The rules and conventions of British parliamentary debating are fairly foreign to the Middle East, but the importance of debating etiquette is actually profoundly Jewish. The two great bastions of our legal tradition, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debated some issues for three years, each brought sharp intellectual arguments to defend their position, but neither side could defeat the other, until eventually the contest was declared a tie: "Both these and these are the words of the living God."

Since the law could not be determined by logic, another means had to be found and it was decided according to etiquette. Beit Hillel "were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own" and therefore the law follows their position (Talmud Eruvin 13b).

Clearly, the odds are against these intelligent, charismatic and polite Israelis and Palestinians bringing peace to this region when so many before them have failed. Yet, all of them are youth leaders wielding considerable influence with the next generation and some of them may go on to become politicians. If by meeting "the other", learning to reason with each other and passing on their experience to their own people, they manage to prevent even one act of terror, the project will have been worthwhile.

Beyond that, if we can train a generation to see the senselessness of violence and the necessity for debate, then surely we will have achieved something of great value, drawing one step nearer to the days prophesied by Isaiah, "When nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2: 4).

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi

Last updated: 11:36am, March 8 2012