Can friends argue without falling out?

Debate is great in our tradition but disputes can sometimes spiral out of control


God chose the Jews because He likes a good argument, the Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks joked. Jews are a quite an argumentative lot, said Simon Schama in his recent TV series.

For us, the hoary old quip about “two Jews, three opinions” expresses a positive stereotype. “Argumentative” is generally a complimentary word in our lexicon. Our religious tradition, exemplified in the Talmud, is built on debate and discussion.

So what makes a good argument? That at first seems straightforward. According to Ethics of the Fathers, arguments “for the sake of heaven” have lasting value, such as the disputes over Jewish law between the sages Hillel and Shammai. Whereas the opposite of an “argument for the sake of heaven” is represented by the rebellious Korah, who challenged the leadership of Moses in the wilderness. Arguments over religious truth are noble and integral to our culture: those motivated by ego and desire for power are worthless and fleeting.

But the question of what constitutes an “argument for the sake of heaven” is itself a matter of debate and goes to the heart of conflicts within the Jewish world today. For many, perhaps most, Jews, the differences between Orthodox and Progressive, between religious and secular, are all about “arguments for the sake of heaven”. But for some, discussion of religious truths within Judaism is legitimate only between parties committed to classical rabbinic doctrine and traditional halachah: non-Orthodox theological views are beyond the pale and to be condemned as heresy.

What you accept as an “argument for the sake of heaven” defines your place in contemporary Jewry and the boundaries you set to engaging with your fellow Jews. It will dictate, for instance, whether you will go to events such as the Limmud conference or not.

On the final day of this year’s Limmud, a panel discussion took place among an Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbi on same-sex marriage. You could have hardly had a better demonstration of how to conduct a civilised debate on a sensitive and emotive issue, where the speakers where respectfully heard by both their fellow-panellists and their audience. Many Jews would regard this as a perfectly unexceptionable example of an “argument for the sake of heaven”. But for some Jews, for an Orthodox rabbi to appear on the same platform as a non-Orthodox rabbi inadmissibly blurs the distinction between “authentic” and “pseudo” Judaism.

Even if we could all agree the definition of acceptable argument, the complications do not stop there. Two stories from the Talmud illustrate why. The story of the oven of Achnai must be the most often quoted from the whole Talmud. The sages are arguing over the kashrut of a clay oven. Rabbi Eliezer rules one way, his colleagues the other.

To prove his point, Rabbi Eliezer enlists the assistance of a number of miracles for supernatural vindication, finally summoning a heavenly voice, which declares that his opinion is the correct one. But the sages tell the voice to mind its own business, as the Torah is no longer in heaven. The prophet Elijah, when asked what the reaction in heaven was to this display of rabbinic chutzpah, reports that God laughed and said, “My children have defeated me.”

The story is usually cited to demonstrate the principle of majority decision-making or the validity of human interpretation of the Torah. Often when it is taught, it is left there. But the ending is far from upbeat. The Talmud passage continues with a dark and disturbing turn. Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated by his colleagues and is so aggrieved that his tearful eyes are said to scorch whatever he gazes on. So great is the fallout from this split among the sages that it eventually brings about the death of the head of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamliel.

In another episode, Rabbi Jonathan and his intellectual sparring partner, and brother-in-law, Resh Lakish, are discussing at what point implements such as a sword or dagger may become unclean. The result hinges on the process of manufacture. When Resh Lakish takes a different view, Rabbi Jonathan remarks, “A robber understands his trade”. It is a dig at Resh Lakish about his past: before he came to the study of Torah, he was said to have been a brigand or gladiator, hence his knowledge of swords. The cutting comment destroys their friendship. Resh Lakish dies and Rabbi Jonathan is left ruing their quarrel till his deathbed.

Emotions can get the better of even those who are among the greatest exponents of “arguments for the sake of heaven”. When people care about things, passions run high. These talmudic tales entail a warning that the way an argument is conducted may be just as important as its content. And perhaps even more valuable than knowing how to make an argument is knowing how to end one.

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