Talmudic Debate vs. Presidential Debate


Like everything else in 2020, things do not seem to go right. Case in point: We just witnessed the first presidential debate. I think we can all agree that it was not enjoyable, informative, uplifting or helpful in the slightest. I am not faulting or pointing fingers at any one candidate as this is beyond the pale of this article, and completely beside the point. Debates should not be a slug fest, rather they should be an exchange of ideas and values in an environment of respect, while bearing an open mind to perhaps learn something from someone else.

The debate made me think of other great debates in our history. One debate that comes to mind which was so beautiful to watch was the one between Reagan and Mondale. It was shortly before the 1984 presidential election. A moderator asked Ronald Reagan whether his age–he was 73–should be an issue. Reagan answered, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The audience, as well as Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale, laughed at the playful response.

Another classy line at another debate was when Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 told freshman Senator Dan Quayle, who remarked that he had as much experience as JFK, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”


I then began to reflect on the practice of debates in the Talmud. What transpired was great Jewish scholars and their adherents debated the merits of various laws that had not yet been solidified. They sat across the table from one another and each one gave their reasoning. These debates were conducted with the utmost of respect and love for one another. Take a fascinating look at the most famous of all Talmudic debaters.


The House of Hillel and House of Shammai were among Jewish scholars’ two schools of thought during the period named after the sages Hillel and Shammai, of the last century BCE and the early 1st century CE, who founded them. These two schools had vigorous debates on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology which are the basis of Judaism as it is today.


Both schools differed in their ways of thinking. Most of the time they were at opposite ends. In general, Shammai’s positions were stricter than those of Beit Hillel. Take for example the debate on Hannukah lights. Shammai held that on the first night eight lights should be lit, and then they should decrease on each successive night, ending with one on the last night; while Beit Hillel held that one should start with one light and increase the number on each night, ending with eight.


There is a captivating discussion as to why the final law for the most part ended up to be according to the view of Hillel. It is important to point out that the final law almost always coincided with Hillel, not because his school constituted the majority. In fact, the school of Shammai had a larger number of followers.

The reason given as to why Hillel was handed the victory as the final arbiter of most of the laws (and our presidential debaters should learn a lesson or two from this reason) was because Beit Hillel studied the view of their opponents and did not just dismiss them as wrong, lunacy, dangerous or stupid. Rather, since the school of Hillel was agreeable, humble and patient, it was chosen to lead. More so, the Talmud tells us that not only did the school of Hillel teach Shammai’s teachings in addition to their own, they taught them first before their very own opinions!

No, debates do not have to be crude, insensitive, tactless and indelicate. What we learn from these two masters is that a debate should be one of mutual admiration, respect and reverence for the office sought to be held.

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About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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