D'var Torah in Honor of Yitzhak Rabin
2005We live in a period of great political stratification. We are divided into red states and blue states, progressive and conservative, where even supposed unbiased media adheres to a political dogma, despite claiming to be "fair and balanced." Because of these divisions, now is a time where we need to stop and ask ourselves, how can we build relationships based on respecting the mutual humanity that exists between people who hold the most conflicting opinions and outlooks? The answer is crucial, as Jewish history shows us this week.
Arguing for the Sake of Heaven
This week we mark the English date of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which took place on Nov. 4, 1995. Prior to this tragic event, there existed great turmoil in Israel over what steps should be taken to pursue peace with the Palestinians. Rather than just argue against the position of Rabin and his supporters regarding the peace process, many opponents set out to malign and denigrate the prime minister by calling him a Nazi and accused of being someone who deliberately sought to damage the people and land of Israel. This poisoned atmosphere created a situation where assassin Yigal Amir saw no other choice but to murder Rabin. What could have been done to create a condition where passionate debate could be aired, but without dehumanizing one's adversary? We will try to seek out some answers in the following paragraphs.
What constitutes a Jewish way of arguing? Is there really such a thing? Our tradition teaches us that an argument about serious topics must be "for the sake of heaven," that is, it must serve the higher good of obtaining truth about a matter.
However, one may ask: How does one argue for a higher good without denigrating or dehumanizing one's opponent? How can mutual respect be maintained even when arguing about important matters of life and death, to go to an extreme?
Fortunately, we have some guideposts and examples from Jewish history to help us answer these questions. Our Jewish tradition of dispute, originating in the Talmud, declares that the benefit of "a dispute for the sake of heaven" far outweighs any imagined dangers. Different rabbinic personalities, despite disputing so vigorously, manage to behave peacefully and respectfully with one another.
Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, the former that asserting the halachah (Jewish law) is in agreement with its views, and the latter contending that the halachah is in agreement with its views. Then a bat kol (voice from heaven) issued announcing, [the utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of the school of Hillel. Since, however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the school of Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with its rulings? Because it was kindly and modest, it studied its own rulings and those of the school of Shammai, and was even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the school of Shammai before its own. (Talmud, Eruvin 13b)
The Talmud reports that no matter how deep the rift that separated the two schools of thought, their adherents were always allowed to marry each other. That is, they did not write each other out of the covenant of the Jewish people; their individual and collective contributions to the Jewish people were respected by the other.
What were the inherent components of rabbinic society that allowed disputants to draw together, despite very fierce and engaged disagreements between them, while today, in our Jewish communities, serious argument seems certain to cause pain and anger? Oftentimes, it goes beyond pain and anger and disagreements are used as justification, in some cases, for some Jews to question the Jewish identity of other Jews and even to justify Jews murdering other Jews! Some disagreements have even caused us to turn our backs to one another.
The rabbis following Hillel and Shammai were engaged in strident disputes that challenged the very basis of Jewish belief and practice, yet they, too, did not argue for its own sake. Instead, they sought to "argue for the sake of heaven" with the sole purpose to reach a deeper understanding of the respective arguments and to open lines of communication that facilitated a venue for respect and understanding. How did they achieve this?
The rabbis recognized not only the inherent humanity of those opposing their arguments, but also that their Jewish identity was authentic. Their opponents "experienced" the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, as well as the ongoing struggle with the imperial authorities. The recognition of common experience and history allowed the rabbis to argue from a sense of respect and dignity.
How does this affect us as moderns? How do we insure that contemporary Jewish disputes are conducted with greater compassion and respect? The rabbis could tolerate and esteem and still encourage argument among themselves not only due to their common sense of history, purpose and fate, but because they lived fairly intertwined lives. They viewed intellectually stimulating arguments as challenges enabling them to dig deeper and to search for proofs and meaning in Jewish teachings, rather than a means to satisfy their individual egos.
The same cannot be said for the majority of the Jewish community today. The nature and diversity of our communities make it nearly impossible to comprehend the Jewish experiences of our fellows in any meaningful sense. It is too easy to live estranged lives from one another - our different experiences not only give us the means to understand our collective history and obligations in a completely different way from one another. They also allow us to opt out of the interpretation of Jewish experience entirely. The raison d'etre of the Jewish community differs according to who answers the question.
How then to overcome the growing differences between and within Jewish communities? Perhaps the answer lies with the idea of seriousness - are you a serious Jew? One who takes the history and collective experience of the Jewish people seriously? Does one engage in things Jewish and allow that there are multiple Jewish voices and experiences? How do we act to ensure that there is a strong Jewish community, a community that can embrace multiple voices and understandings? What repercussions are there from denying one another, from turning our backs to our fellow Jews? If we answer that there is something affirmative that ties the Jewish people together, such as a shared history that dates back centuries, perhaps then we can begin to argue with each other for the sake of heaven.
Prepared by Jonathan Willis, senior associate, Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning