There is no argument that Jews argue a lot; the question is whether we argue Jewishly. Most of the time, we do not. This is sad – the power of the Jewish intellect is its ability to argue in order to get to the truth, which has served us well in the academy, in the laboratory, and in the judiciary, to name only a few places. But today we are faced with disputations that never reach a constructive resolution and indeed often fail to rise to a meaningful encounter.

We find ourselves in the situation of the five stellar students of Rabbi Akiva (2nd Century CE, Eretz Yisrael)—R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Jose, R. Simeon, and R. Eleazar ben Shammua—who along with their master “restored Torah to Israel” (Yevamot 62b):

Our rabbis taught: After the demise of R. Meir [the most charismatic and erudite of all R. Akiva’s students], R. Yehudah said to his disciples, “do not allow his disciples to enter here, for they are qantranin (quarrelsome); they do not come to learn Torah, but come to overwhelm me with citations from Tradition.” Symmachus forced his way through and entered. He said to them “thus did R. Meir teach me: [and proceeded to declare sources on the issue they were debating]. . . .” R. Yehudah was wroth and said to them, “Did I not tell you not to allow the pupils of R. Meir to enter here because they are qantranin?” [And he proceeded to dismiss Symmachus’ citations.] R. Yose commented: “People will say, ‘Meir is dead, Yehudah is angry, Yose is silent; what is to become of the Torah?’” And so R. Yose explained: [and he continued to reenter the debate…] (Nazir 49b-50a).

The generation of R. Akiva’s students restored Torah in Israel through energetic debate surrounding major and minor issues. With the death of R. Meir, their ‘first amongst equals’, his students (represented by Symmachus) come into the Beit Midrash ostensibly to continue the debate. But as it happens with all ideologues – especially if they are learned and quick – they actually mean to shut it down. R. Yehudah, angry, responds by dismissing them outright. R. Yose, initially appalled, is silent/silenced by the crudeness of it all.

All this should be familiar. With the passing of the greats of yesteryear (Rav Kook, Chazzon Ish, Ben Gurion, Begin and Buber come to mind), we feel that not only is leadership gone, but also any sensible discussion. Both the Yeshiva and the Knesset abhor a vacuum, and so in flow ideologues who just want to own the debate. Other men of goodwill, and even greatness, become angry, jaundiced, and dismissive. The rest of us are silenced and leave the voices to the strident Qantranin. Will we, and how can we, be the R. Yose who overcomes his own silence and reenters the discussion?

An effective paradigm for positive argumentation can be found in the Chevrutah system of the Beit Midrash (house of study).

Paradoxically, that system itself is rooted in tragedy and persists with constant fragility. The great rabbinic system of argumentation began with the schools of the liberal Hillel and the strict constructionist Shammai, 200 years before the students of Rabbi Akiva in Eretz Yisrael. These two leaders and their followers were amazing in their brilliance and their sharp disputes, but also in their ability to respect and work with each other. Yet evidently their civility in argumentation could not hold. The Talmud describes the breakdown:

At first there was no makhloket (dispute) in Israel except for the [issue of] Laying of Hands [on a sacrifice during the holidays] alone. Then Shammai and Hillel arose and rendered them [the arguments] fourfold. And when the students of the House of Shammai and House of Hillel – who did not serve their masters adequately – increased, then makhloket increased in Israel, and they divided into sects. These would render unclean; and those would render clean. Moreover, this situation will not return to normal until [the Messiah] the son of David will arrive (Jerusalem Talmud Ḥagigah 2:2).

Faced with the disastrous potential of improper disputation, the Rabbis frequently pleaded for tolerance, but more often they took the counterintuitive approach. They promoted and modeled excessive debate, rendering the argument ever longer and obsessive. The Talmud is nothing more than makhloket on every issue, its nuances, and implications, with the commentaries and later halakhic works serving as the argument’s continuation. In the exhaustion of effort and words, resolution(s) are sometimes found. And if they are not, there often emerges a sense of mutual respect, sometimes grudging, but sometimes something more elevating:

“Happy is the man who has filled his quiver with [sharp arrows], they shall not be ashamed; when they speak with their enemies in the gate” (Ps. 127:5). What is meant by “with their enemies in the gate”? Answered R. Hiyya bar Abba: “Even father and son, master and disciple, who study together at the same gate [i.e. House of Study] become enemies of each other; yet they do not stir from there until they come to love each other.” [Wherefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14)] “Love is besufah [in the reeds]” – read not ‘besufah’, but ‘besofoh’ [in the end]” (Kedushin 30b).

The rabbis accentuated argumentation in Torah study to the extent that it became, and remains, synonymous with war: both sides must be armed with the sharpest instruments, and both are considered equal – even deference to teacher and parent is disregarded, as is showing kindness to student and child. Opposing sides are transformed into combatants, gladiators, indeed enemies. This is expected and demanded. The stakes are high and the truth is crucial. This was the ambiance in the great shiurim (classes) in the top Lithuanian yeshivot as well as in my classes with The Rav, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Undeniably, there were meaningful moments of mesorah (the handing down of anecdotes and law from past generations) as many have recounted in their recollections of what happened in his shiur, but the often jolting search for Truth was palpable, and in the end nothing else really mattered.

In situations of analysis and debate, the sharp edge is necessary to get at the ragged truth.

But then there is something else – magical – that invariably takes place in the paired study chevrutah dynamic. Both sides/participants will be vigorously demonstrating their case, even despairing of the other and his/her obtuseness in refusing to “get it”. Then the despairing participant hesitates in his repeated articulations of the “correct” position and suddenly, forcibly, says, “No, no you are right!” as he proceeds with a rush of stuttering and enthusiasm to elucidate why his partner was correct all along – and certainly didn’t even know how right he was! During this abrupt change, his “correct” partner listens happily until somewhere in the middle a cloud passes his face and he interrupts, exclaiming, “No, no, you are right!” while he proceeds to explain his sudden enlightenment. “The Big Switcheroo” (my own technical term) has been effected.

This does not happen in all situations, but it happens enough in continued study to be constructive. The entire exercise teaches forcefulness and restraint, pride and humility.

The Jerusalem Talmud (ed. c. 350 CE) is dramatic and absolute regarding the Shammai-Hillel rift and its irreconcilable nature. Indeed much later the Shulḥan Arukh (Orakh Ḥayim 580) in five Hebrew words locates the 9th of Adar as the day in which the two Houses clashed. As the Arukh HaShulḥan (R. Yechiel Michel Epstein, 1829-1908, Lithuania) briefly adds, “The matter was hard for Israel so they decreed a fast on [that day]” (Orakh Ḥayim 580:3). This fast may accord with sources who say the clash was so intense that 3,000 students lost their lives!

Clearly Rabbinic Judaism has changed. It started with a defined practice in which disputes were quickly resolved via votes in the Sanhedrin. The Hillel School became dominant, but during a certain session the votes went to Shammai on eighteen matters that remain, to this day, law. However, even as issues were resolved, differences multiplied. And with students who were faithful to their masters in every way, except incorporating the crucial skill of knowing how to compromise and get along, tolerance collapsed.

Hillel’s school nonetheless became ascendant, and in a relatively short period Shammai’s academy faded. But we still have rifts recorded afterward; witness Symmachus’ incursion into the locked study hall. The Rabbis’ solution was to counterintuitively and brilliantly encourage the makhloket, and indeed in a Kabuki-like magnification of dramatic speech, the Talmud and everything that has come from it was born.

There is joy in a true encounter. In it we discover that there is something to be gained from hearing out the other side. When we can overcome our propensity to be qantranin or just plain nudniks, we find hope that whatever it is, we can argue it out.

Sign up now for the International Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict

This 9th of Adar (February 9, 2014), join individuals and organizations around the world in (re)inventing this forgotten tragic day on the Jewish calendar as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. There are 18 different ways you can participate, recalling the 18 matters over which the conflict between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai erupted.

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