Valuing Debate and Conversation

Jewish tradition, informed by the precedent of the Talmud, prefers to promote discussion rather than correctness.

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From the first part of the Gemara, we learned that the rabbis had ordained that shofar blowing was to be forbidden on Shabbat outside of the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, is every place to be considered “outside,” or could there be an exception? Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s approach was to make a substitution; instead of a fixed Holy Place in Jerusalem, Judaism would find a new center in the study of Jewish texts—“any place where the rabbinic court” was would be the new center. Rather than abrogating the earlier rabbinic decree, Yohanan ben Zakkai applied it in a new way.

But what happened to the process? When the cautious B’nei Beteira urge discussing the radical move, Yohanan tricks them. Once the shofar has been blown, the crucial precedent has been set, and there is no more place for discussion. Yohanan ben Zakkai understood that Judaism needed a new way; B’nei Beteira may not have had that insight. But why were B’nei Beteira’s concerns not “given a voice” like the Talmud later gave voice to Hama bar Hanina?

Or is our understanding of the “meta-message” of the Talmud incorrect. After all, once the Temple was destroyed, what did it matter why they were allowed to blow the shofar on Shabbat? The Gemara’s question is academic. Is discussion and risk-taking only tolerated when dealing with abstract, intellectual issues? Should we silence those who dissent when they just “don’t understand” the flow of history as we do?

No. When one looks at the Talmud, and at Jewish civilization as a whole, it is clear that the process—open discussion—is central, and that this story of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is the exception. Indeed, the Mishnah’s bland language--“Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established…”--may be a way of covering up the embarrassing breach of the rabbinic commitment to a life of dialogue. But what the Mishnah disguises, the Talmud reveals; the editors of the Talmud were aware, apparently, that the heritage of a Judaism centered on Torah study, which Yohanan ben Zakkai worked to create, is not diminished by acknowledging the precipitous actions which the great sage took in order to establish it. But for us to imitate Yohanan’s treatment of B’nei Beteira, would indeed diminish our heritage.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.