Judaism’s Great Debates, a Review

From Abraham to Herzl, debating has always been part of Jewish tradition.

Debating is not considered an Olympic sport, yet the concept of expressing opposing viewpoints and opinions has been an ongoing sport of the human race since ancient times. In fact, the first great debates were those conducted in the Bible, as our forefathers sought to forge the boundaries and principles of their religion in the earnest discussions they held with each other, and with their creator.

According to Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, author of Judaism’s Great Debates (Jewish Publication Society, 2012), one could argue that debate is central to Jewish religious expression.

“Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism,” Schwartz writes in the introduction to his review of ten of Judaism’s most important debates. To understand this, we consider the well-known passage about a debate between the students of Beit Hillel and the students of Beit Shammai, with both houses asserting that the law is in agreement with their views.

“Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei elohim hayim (both are the words of the living God)… but the law is in agreement with the ruling of Beit Hillel.”

This argument between the two schools of thought is considered arguing for the sake of heaven, and as such the debate, itself, is more important than the actual points being considered.

According to Schwartz, director of The Jewish Publication Society and spiritual leader of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, two important points emerge from this passage in the Talmud. The first is the deep respect given for differing opinions in the case of a debate. The second is the courage to act, to voice one’s opinion even if it loses the argument. “The debate was fair and the decision-making process honorable,” Schwartz writes.

This thin volume is a review of Judaism’s great debates, from the times of the patriarchs to the modern era. In each, one of the sides wins the debate, yet the debate is ongoing in that it raises questions which we continue to confront today. When we consider Abraham’s argument to save Sodom and Gomorrah if innocent people can be found among their citizens, we face the contemporary question of whether collective punishment is morally acceptable. When we learn of the efforts in the 1800s of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, one of the founders of American Reform Judaism, against the idea of building a Jewish State in the ancestral homeland, we realize we are also questioning whether Jews living outside Israel have a right to criticize Israel’s democratically elected government.

As Schwartz notes, “nearly all the great Jewish debates, regardless of when they took place, are still being argued.” The book therefore, is a very brief introduction to “an intellectual history of Judaism conveyed through the art of argumentation.” A volume easily read, Judaism’s Great Debates whets the reader’s appetite with a desire to dig deeper into where we’ve been as a way of understanding some of the most important issues facing us today.

Debate, Schwartz concludes, is Judaism’s secret strength. You may not agree with all of the author’s conclusions, but as evidenced in the history of the Jewish People, you, too, are entitled to an opinion.

About the Author
Ellis Shuman made aliya to Jerusalem as a teenager, served in the IDF, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives on Moshav Neve Ilan. Ellis is the author of ‘The Burgas Affair’ – a crime thriller set in Israel and Bulgaria; ‘Valley of Thracians’ - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria; and 'The Virtual Kibbutz' - a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Insider, and on a wide range of Internet websites. Ellis lived with his wife for two years in Bulgaria, and blogs regularly about Israel, Bulgaria, books, and writing.