Nice, civilized people try to stay away from arguments, right? Arguing just causes hatred, so if we can’t come to a point of agreement, the civil person will say, at least we’ll agree to disagree, and end it at that.
The Talmud, fittingly, disagrees. On nearly every one of its 2,711 pages, it bears testament to the Jewish tradition’s love of the argument, the machloket. It cherishes machloket, recording differing opinions for posterity even after they have been rejected. But to love machloket is not to love strife. The Talmud makes sure to give peace the last word, ending its very last book, an esoteric tractate dealing with the laws of ritual impurity, with the statement that there is no vessel in the world more capable of containing goodness than the vessel of shalom, peace. Machloket and Shalom coexist in Talmudic eyes.
The Torah offers an even more surprising insight. Rather than argument causing hatred, the Torah suggests that it can actually be the antidote to hatred. The prohibition in the Torah not to hate is immediately followed by the command to rebuke one’s fellow. The 12th century Spanish exegete, Abraham Ibn Ezra, explains that the Torah commands us to criticize our fellow rather than maintaining false suspicions about the other which could lead us to hate them. Agreeing to disagree prevents nasty arguments, but it can also leave a person with all of their mistaken assumptions about another person’s beliefs and motivations comfortably intact. The Torah pushes us to share our opposition with another, to criticize, rebuke, disagree and argue, in order to give our opponent a chance to explain themselves, so that hatred on both sides can be prevented.
The prescription of open, honest dialogue in order to prevent hatred is a good one in theory. In practice, the sages at the time of the destruction of the second Temple report that in their generation it had ceased to be effective. Perhaps people didn’t know how to argue and criticize in a way that reflected love, respect and understanding. Perhaps people didn’t know how to hear the criticism in the spirit in which it was delivered, instead becoming defensive and attacking their critics’ motivations and sincerity. Predictably, the Rabbis disagree about this. But whomever is to blame, this breakdown of constructive criticism and honest machloket certainly contributed significantly to the baseless hatred which the Rabbis explain was the spiritual (and, indeed, in some ways the historical) cause of the Temple’s destruction.
On Tisha b’Av, we mourn that destruction and meditate on what our generation can do to fix the failures of the past. The Beit HaMikdash was a place of experiencing God’s immanent presence in this world, the Shechina. On Tisha b’Av, we search desperately for that presence. Tisha b’Av night and morning are defined by the lamentation ‘eicha’, a word whose letters can also be read as a call of ‘ayeka’- where are You, God? But in the very hours when that cry is heard, when we most intensively feel the destruction and the absence of God’s presence, Jewish law forbids us from looking in that place the Rabbis most located it- in Torah study. So how are we to find God’s presence? Ayeh mekom kevodo? Where is the place of His glory?
This is the very question we ask every week on Shabbat as we mimic the conversation of the angels in the kedusha, one of the climaxes of our prayer. The angels, it seems, also had trouble finding God’s presence, but soon after they ask, they succeed in finding it and exclaim “Blessed is his Glory from its place”. What happened? How did they succeed? Not through the learning of Torah! The text of the kedusha says that they succeed by each turning “le’umatam”- one facing the other. When they turn to face each other, they find the Divine Presence. The first cry of ‘Eicha’ in the book of Eicha (Lamentations) is the eicha of solitude- ‘eicha yashva badad’. The way we can find God’s presence in the first hours of the fast is to turn to each other, and to witness the image of God in each person. How does this image of God manifest itself? Precisely through machloket, through the tremendous multiplicity of opinions, attitudes, beliefs and commitments we find among humans.
For those who will be around Jerusalem on Tisha b’Av night, I am trying to create a space for this kind of sincere machloket, for an encounter which will allow each side to understand the other more and hate the other less. We will focus on the issue of the Women of the Wall and their opponents, an issue about which there are so many assumptions made that must be shared and discussed in order to prevent the sin of ‘hating your fellow in your heart.’ More information can be found on Facebook here. If you will be in Jerusalem only in thought and spirit on Tisha b’Av night, consider finding someone you’ve disagreed with in the past, and trying to create a moment of truly honest, respectful dialogue. Increase understanding. Decrease hate. Unless, that is, you disagree.