BARER: Engaging in Productive Disagreement

Discourse about the pressing issues of our day — from feminism and religious liberty to climate change and anti-Semitism — models a profound lack of respect and goodwill. The ways in which I consume news and learn about the world are so effectively siloed off from the political other that I can live my life blissfully unaware of how others are telling the stories of their lives. With few shared narratives that underlie our discussions, civic discourse frays. One of the blessings of Judaism is that to study its history is to know that societies in the past have engaged in vitriolic public discourse just as we are today. As a people — not just a religion — that values productive argumentation as a core value, Judaism has much to teach all of us about how best to engage in the difficult work of repairing a deeply divided and antagonistic society. Beginning with the very form of the Talmud, Jews are taught that multiple contradictory opinions can and must coexist on the same page, literally. The centuries surrounding the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. were the most religiously productive period of Jewish history, in part because they were defined by bitter debates about what Judaism was and what it would look like in the future. Just as that time produced the Talmud and what we now call rabbinic Judaism, we know that we can overcome such bitter divides and emerge stronger, only to repeat the process in time. While Jews often struggle to live up to the highest ideals of Judaism, such as approaching dialogue and debate with a productive mindset, these ideals can still serve as a reminder of how to carefully repair communities in crisis, as much of America seems to be today. There are two ideals of productive argumentation that are constitutive of what it means to be a committed Jew. First is the concept of Eilu v’Eilu. Literally “these and those,” this value stems from a famous story in the Babylonian Talmud. The two most prominent schools of rabbinic thought, Hillel and Shammai, argued constantly, and they were only allowed a break from their arguing when a divine voice issued from heaven, declaring: “These and those are words of the living God.” The fact that the two major camps of Judaism, who disagreed about everything, could both be affirmed in speaking a divinely accepted truth ought to remind us that there is always another way to see things, another narrative that can help us understand an issue more fully. The Talmud elaborates that, among the virtues that Jews should approach disagreement with are humility, calm and the ability to articulate the other’s position before articulating your own. Next time you start to feel smug about how obviously right you are about the issue of the day, ensure that you can first articulate the other side of the argument persuasively. The second ideal of productive argumentation is disagreement for the sake of heaven, or makhloket l’shem shamayim. The early rabbis knew that they needed to codify what separated a good argument from a bad one if they were to flourish. The language of arguing for the sake of heaven is the earliest articulation of how we can know that our arguments are productive, or life-giving. In the words of Pirkei Avot, a second-century C.E. code of Jewish ethics: “Any argument that is for the sake of heaven will endure, and any argument which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure.” An argument for the sake of heaven is one that strives to better understand the truth, not to “win” the argument. This slow, intentional work that trains us to shed our certainties and listen more deeply for the truth that we can only access through the other is what gives me hope that our current challenges need not persist. The rabbis also teach us that an argument’s endurance is a sign of an argument’s success, not a sad consequence of never settling the debate. As a philosophy major, I spent my undergraduate career studying the arguments for the sake of heaven that have endured to shape the Western world for the past 2,500 years. This, too, is what draws me to study Jewish texts, as they provide a blueprint for how to disagree deeply while still respecting the other side. The Truth can only emerge when we acknowledge that multiple opinions do contain words of the living God. Rabbi Benjamin Barer is a Jewish Chaplain at Georgetown University. This is the final installment of Interfaith Insights.

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