The gift of the gab first entered my lexicon when watching Chariots of Fire. Towards the beginning of the movie Abrahams achieves something that no-one had done in seven centuries-completing the ‘quad run’ before the clock stopped chiming. The two don’s in their mahogany paneled study are intrigued (and just slightly disappointed) that a Hebrew can run so well. When one informs the other that in fact Abrahams is reading law, the second is not surprised because ‘that nation has the gift of the gab’. Never a truer word.
Jews have been gabbing for millennia. The Talmud, as opposed to other systems of law and wisdom is not a monologue sprouting forth wisdom, or a dry collection of laws, it is discussion and debate. So much so, that Rabbi Hiya tells us in the Talmud, Kiddushin 30b that the father and son, the Rabbi and student, are constantly enveloped in a dialectic and confrontational relationship which is necessary. He says that “When they speak … they become enemies, yet”, he continues, “They do not leave until they become cherished companions.” Is this not alarming: When they argue they argue as enemies! They enter into battle with one another- they lunge they block they attack and defend. This is not for the faint hearted, a battle is not about nuances in thought, it is around significant questions. But…. remarkably, they leave as cherished companions. What happened to the truth, what happened to the battle? I suggest that it is the process of debate and dialogue that has value in and of itself. Debate and dialogue is not only about proving correctness it is about developing and sharpening one’s own ideas. And for that, one owes gratitude to the other. It allows one to leave the space as beloved companions. The battle is not only about winning, it is also about maturation of thinking. Man has been endowed with an impressive intellect. We are beings who are calculating, assessing and judging, we are also beings who more often than not disagree. Debate is a necessary function of human development starting with the four year old asking “why” 122 times a day according to research (and frustrating experience).
What is interesting in the Talmudic piece above is that Rabbi Hiya explains the debate here is parent with child and teacher with student, not colleagues. The examples he gives are ones where love and reverence are a basic component. This Talmudic piece does not explain that they become companions because they ultimately agree but rather that when there is love and reverence there can be tough, genuine debate eventually ending in cherished companionship with or without agreement. The converse of this is illustrated in a tragic Talmudic story that can be found in Baba Metzia 84a. During a debate, Rabbi Yochanan alluded to Reish Lakish’s (his learning partner) life as a bandit. Reish Lakish responded by denying supposedly any benefit he had received from Rabbi Yochanan who retorted angrily that he had in fact brought Reish Lakish under the wings of the Divine presence. The Talmud relates that due to Rabbi Yochanan becoming so upset, Reish Lakish became ill and died prematurely. We learn in this jarring story that when there is a perception of judgmental conditional love, to transition from ‘enemies’ at the height of battle to intimates cannot take place and the results devastating.
Forming identity in our current times is complex. The reflexivity of modernity extends into the core of who we are. We are bombarded by ideas, sound bites, information and commentary. Identity formation is a permanently running personal project leading Kenneth Gergen a social constructivist, to opine that ‘the post-modern being is a restless nomad’. So how do we develop identity? I would propose that identity is a construction of discourse. We shape our identity in dialogue, by sharpening our understanding against the whetstone of opposing understandings. The ideas of ‘the other’ allow us to hone our own identity and find our place in the world. Never forgetting that if one disputant doesn’t agree with our point of view, according to the Talmud, the relationship of love is still essential. Forcing another, destroys not only their authenticity but our own essence as well- it is unG-dly. Avraham prays for the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah and Hashem yields. Avraham doesn’t promise to go and teach them The Truth- he just prays for the vitality and worthiness of Humanity.
Having been in Cape Town, South Africa for a number of years I have witnessed and participated in a number of spaces where attempts are made at dialogue. It seems though that too often either personal, indiscriminate attacks are made on entire groups; the ‘rabbinic establishment is judgmental’ or, ‘the secular have no sense of tradition’. Alternatively the discussion becomes so politically correct the arguments are superficial and puerile.
The Talmud is advising how to conduct a debate- at the time of engagement there needs to be a battle for truth. The positions and proofs, arguments and assertions need to be hard hitting and launched as sharply as the tip of an arrow, however, when the debate is over….. there needs to be the ability to leave as cherished companions. Without this we will neither have compelling productive dialogue nor identity construction as a unified community.
As way of illustration, when Zionists are able to show gratitude to those that do not identify as Zionists perhaps for challenging and thereby refining Zionist thought, and Zionists are appreciated for unquestioningly supporting the endeavor that has returned our people to its homeland; when the traditional community can appreciate the breadth of vision of the non-traditional community and conversely the traditional community appreciated for anchoring Jewish culture in ancient heritage, only then will real debate take place. There will be a way of being to allow the adversaries to leave as cherished companions and the gift of the gab will become The Gift of the Gab.