How to Disagree – Rosh Hashanah 5777

Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan were the best of friends.  Their lives were intertwined from the Study Hall, to the home, and to their graves.  (BT Bava Metzia 84a)

Before they meet, Resh Lakish is an outlaw.  One day, as he is walking next to the Jordan River, he sees what he thinks is a beautiful woman in the water.  He enthusiastically removes his weapons and armor and jumps into the water.  To his surprise, the bathing beauty turns out, upon closer inspection, to be none other than Rabbi Yohanan.

“You are too pretty to be a man,” Resh Lakish declares.  “This beauty is wasted on you.  You should be a woman.”

With a sly look at the highwayman, Rabbi Yohanan responds, “But I have a sister.  And she is even more beautiful than I.  If you will repent of your wicked past, you can marry her.”

Reish Lakish eagerly agrees.  So Rabbi Yohanan brings him into the Beit Midrash and teaches him Torah and Mishnah, and transforms Resh Lakish into a great scholar.

They become brothers-in-law, study partners, and best friends.

One day, they are arguing a point of law in the study hall, and things get a little out of hand.   In a moment of frustration, Rabbi Yohanan brings up Resh Lakish’s past as a brigand.  The insults fly back and forth, and before they know it, they are refusing to speak with one another.  Rabbi Yohanan’s anger and hurt swirls about, invoking the spiritual realm.  As sometimes happens with holy men in Talmudic stories, this causes Resh Lakish to fall gravely ill.

Resh Lakish’s wife, Rabbi Yohanan’s sister, visits her brother in desperation, hoping his spiritual intervention might save her spouse.  “Please, my brother, pray for my husband, if only for the sake of his children, your nephews.”

Yohanan refuses.  “Your children can become orphans.  God will provide for them.”

“If not for the children’s sake, then, save him for my sake.  Don’t allow me to become a widow!”

“God takes care of widows,” he stubbornly insists.

Resh Lakish, without his friend to intercede on his behalf, dies.

Rabbi Yohanan, bereft of his friend, falls into a deep depression.  The Rabbis from the Study Hall are so concerned that they send Rabbi Elazar, a mild-mannered scholar, to console him.

Elazar sits by Yohanan’s bedside, and they begin to study together.  Every time Yohanan makes a statement, Elazar nods enthusiastically in agreement, and offers additional arguments to support him.

Yohanan is exasperated.  “Whenever I used to make a statement to Resh Lakish, he would have twenty four objections to me, to which I would have twenty four responses.  That is how we would deepen our knowledge of the law.  And you tell me, ‘Oh, here is something that supports you.’  I don’t need you to tell me that.  I already know that I am right!”

In despair, Rabbi Yohanan rends his garments in mourning and is overcome with weeping.  “Where are you, O son of Lakish?  Where are you?”  He cannot be consoled.

Seeing that there is no remedy for his heartbreak, the Rabbis of the Study Hall pray to God for mercy, and Yohanan dies.

This rich and tragic Talmudic story conveys so well, with deep emotion, Jewish values of machloket, disagreement.

We, as individuals and as a society, are in deep need of guidance when it comes to dealing with those who think differently than us.  Rosh Hashanah offers us an opportunity for taking stock of how we interact with one another in our homes and in our society.  With an election looming, it is an especially important time for us seek productive ways to address disagreement.  Perhaps our tradition can be a source of wisdom.

Let us be careful not to play the revisionist game and claim that there was a glorious time when human beings used to speak to each other with respect and honored opponents who held differing opinions.  And let us not be so naive as to suggest that Jewish culture, in contrast to all other traditions, has always tolerated other ideas.  It is simply not true.

But there is a well-developed idea within our intellectual history that portrays how human beings ought to treat those with whom we disagree.

The goal is not just the intellectual pursuit of Truth, but also the practical implementation of rules for society.  How can we live together when we disagree so fundamentally about how we should live?

The pursuit of truth and peace is best achieved through a blend of vigorous disagreement and mutual respect.  For us Jews, these are deeply held values that are the products of our own unique history.

For 2,000 years, we exercised our minds.  We perfected the art of seeking theoretical analyses of Biblical passages.  We debated the interpretations of the interpretations of the interpretations.  In great depth, we studied laws that had not been implemented for hundreds of years, and for which there was no hope of actual implementation.

As a result, we Jews got really good at reading texts and arguing about ideas.  Perhaps this was the result of our being an exiled people.  Without political autonomy, and no ability to exercise power beyond the confines of our small communities, we turned inward.  We expressed our power on the page and in the study hall.

If we could not fully implement our vision of what life ought to be in the world, we were at least free to develop a vision of the ideal in our minds.  In so doing, we held on to four primary principles of machloket, argument.

1.  Passionate argument is a good thing.  It makes us sharper, and it brings us closer to the truth.

2.  We must respect our opponents, even when we disagree with them.

3.  We can only claim to be in pursuit of truth if we are willing to be convinced by our adversaries’ arguments.

4.  Even when we cannot agree, we still need to find a way to live together.

If we could introduce these four principles into our current relationships, we would have a far more cohesive society.

The tragic story of Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish introduces the issues with great humanity.  The situation begins to decline in the Study Hall.  In a moment of weakness, Rabbi Yohanan takes what, until that moment had been an intellectual disagreement, to heart.  Instead of offering a logical counterargument or accepting defeat, he insults his friend.  He knows exactly where to strike so that it will hurt the most.  He drags up Resh Lakish’s sordid past.

Never mind that Resh Lakish has done teshuvah, that he has left that world long behind.  In bringing it up, Rabbi Yohanan makes a power move, as if to say, “I may have lost this argument, but I am still more pious, holy, and wise than you.”

How often have we heard that?!  Resorting to name calling?  Dredging up personal attacks to avoid engaging with ideas?

Rabbi Yochanan holds the grudge, refusing to intervene to save his friend.  Even his sister cannot break through his stubbornness.

Only when it is too late does Rabbi Yochanan discover what he has done.  He realizes the value of argument.  With Resh Lakish as his intellectual jousting partner, Yochanan was sharpened.  He gained a deeper understanding of truth.

It is remarkable how relevant this ancient story is to our time.

At the extreme are ISIS and their ilk, who seek to create a world in which all who do not share their vision are killed or enslaved.

But there are plenty of other ways, permeating every layer of our civilization, in which we are becoming more polarized.  Our openness to even hearing the opinions of those who disagree with us seems to be waning.  This is a disturbing and dangerous trend.

The current presidential election campaign has been the most in-your-face example of this.  But then again, isn’t every election ugly?  This year is perhaps not an aberration, but a culmination of the building polarization of the past couple of decades.

We might point to the rise of certain consumer technology tools that have fed the flames of this divide.  The popularity of Twitter, with its short, truncated format, lends itself to oversimplification and name-calling.  The extreme ease of passing along internet memes through various forms of social media enables the ugliest characterizations and rumors to circumnavigate world with lightning-fast speed.

I do not mean to sound like a luddite, but there is a terribly harmful side to the miracle of instant communication.

Quite disturbing has been the trend over the past few years to suppress speech at, of all places, college campuses.  There have been numerous efforts to disinvite speakers – many of which have won.  Lecturers have been spat upon.  Speakers have been shouted down to such a degree that they could not continue.  Campus newspapers have been defunded.  Universities have drafted speech codes, the violation of which can result in professors losing jobs or students being expelled.

The evidence reveals that it is perpetrated by both the left and the right, sometimes in response to one another.  Students and professors have reported feeling that they have to self-suppress out of fear of repercussions.

These trends are creating pockets of like-minded thinkers who never have to face ideas that challenge them.  In the tragic story, it is the replacement of the feisty Resh Lakish by the “yes man,” Rabbi Elazar, that – quite literally – kills Rabbi Yochanan.  We should read it as a warning.

When we do permit ourselves to hear other perspectives, do we truly listen with open minds?

The next story is about the famous schools of Hillel and Shammai (BT Eruvin 13b).  It teaches us about the importance of respecting our opponents.

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel once got into an impassioned argument over a matter of Jewish law.  One school says, “The law is in agreement with our view,” while the other claims, with equal certainty, “The law is in agreement with our view.”

Three years pass without any progress.  One day, a Heavenly Voice suddenly booms across the study hall: Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim hen.  “These and these are the words of the living God.”  V’halakhah k’veit Hillel.  “But the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”

“But how can this be?” the Talmud asks.  If “both are the words of the living God,” what entitles Beit Hillel to determine the law?

The Talmud answers, “Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai and were even so humble as to mention the opinions of Beit Shammai before their own.”

We draw two lessons from this remarkable story.  The first, elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayim.  “These and these are the words of the living God.”  Strangely, the Talmud does not ask how it is possible that both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai could be correct.  It is a given.

This should remind us that, as sure as we might be of our rightness, someone else is just as sure of theirs.  It’s not to say that there is no such thing as truth and everything is whatever a person says it is.  But indeed, there is often more than one solution to a problem.

I learned this lesson from my tenth grade Algebra 3/Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Evanson.  One would think that in a field like math, there is a right and a wrong answer.  But Mr. Evanson was much more concerned with how we solved a problem than in the answer we came up with.  What excited him was seeing different ways of approaching the challenge.  I learned that, even in math, there is often more than one way to arrive at the truth.

So what made the difference?  Not superior logic or better proofs.  It was intellectual openness and respect for difference.  That is why we follow Beit Hillel.  Hillel taught his students to learn from and honor their adversaries.  If I have to state my opponent’s arguments before my own, it means that I have to pay close attention and have an open mind.

Beit Hillel teaches us another lesson: we should always be willing to be proven wrong.  A Mishnah begins Elu d’varim she’chazru Beit Hillel l’horot k’divrei Beit Shammai.  “These are the matters about which Beit Hillel changed their minds and taught according to Beit Shammai.”  And then the Mishnah goes on to list a number of laws.  (Mishnah Eduyot 1:12)

The Mishnah does not need to tell us this.  It could just state the outcome.  Indeed, the Mishnah usually states the majority opinion, along with significant minority opinions.  But to cite opinions that are later abandoned is unusual.

Maimonides explains that it is to be lesson for us.  “For when these honored, pious, generous, and distinguished scholars of the School of Hillel saw that the view of those who disagreed with them was to be preferred to their own, and that others’ deliberations were more correct – they agreed with the others and retracted their view.  How much more should other people, when they see that the truth lies with their opponent, incline to the truth and not be stubborn…”

And he goes on to say that “even if you are able to use proofs to buttress your position, but if you know your friend’s position is correct and that your proofs to the contrary are only due to his weakness in argument, or because you are able to pervert the truth, accept his version and forsake further argument.”

Maimonides nails it.  How often is it that we hang on to a position out of stubbornness and ego?

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to occasionally hear a politician say, “My opponent is right.  After considering all the facts and the arguments, I have concluded that my earlier position is wrong.  And now I think differently.”  A candidate who had the humility and the courage to say that would probably earn my vote.

But what about when there is no resolution – when two sides are firmly entrenched in their positions about how society should function?

A Mishnah tells how Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree about several areas of personal status law.  While it might not seem so today, in the ancient world, this was a huge deal.  It could mean the difference between a child being legitimate or illegitimate, which could have life-long implications affecting marriage and social acceptance.

The two schools disagree with one another.  Nevertheless, the Mishnah concludes, “even though the one invalidated and the other validated, Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hilllel, and Beit Hillel did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai.”  (Mishnah Eduyot 4:8)

As much as each side “knew” that it was correct, they shared a higher value.  “We are one people.  Even if we can’t come to an agreement, we will still find a way to live together.”

This is such a lovely example.  Because the way the Mishnah finds to express their shared value is in the most intimate way possible.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai joined their houses together.  They intermarried with one another.

This would be like the Montague’s and the Capulet’s getting together to throw an engagement party for Romeo and Juliet.

While we may not be able to change the polarization that plagues our world, in this new year, we can begin to take small but significant steps in our own lives, drawing upon the ancient wisdom of our tradition.

Judaism treasures machloket.  Vigorous questioning and challenging of each other offers us the surest path to truth.

In doing so, however, we must always maintain the dignity of our opponents, honoring them even when we disagree.

We also have to be open to being convinced.  If we are not willing to change our minds, than we cannot claim to be seeking truth.

And finally, we have got to remain sincerely committed to living together in peace, despite our differences.

In this new year, may we have the courage and humility to argue, listen, and respect one another with open minds and open hearts.

Shanah Tovah.

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