Disputes that Unite

A lesson from the Talmud for today's Jewish community.

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Kraemer points out that the willingness of the rabbis to tolerate significant areas of dispute and dissension came from a profound interpersonal respect, common experience, and a common sense of purpose. He realistically acknowledges that those shared values do not currently exist in Jewish society and asserts that a return to such mutual respect requires a "leap of commitment" to rejoin other Jews as covenantal partners. Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma, December 12, 1997.

Common stereotypes portray Jews as an uncommonly contentious people, and insiders (that is, Jews among Jews) know that the phrase "two Jews" is completed with the words "three opinions." That there is some truth to these characterizations is unarguable. Something in the nature of traditional Jewish discourse allows (or, perhaps more accurately, encourages) us to disagree passionately with one another, sometimes so passionately that the fabric of our community appears in danger of unraveling.

But the Jewish tradition of dispute, originating in the Talmud, declares that the benefit of "a dispute for the sake of Heaven" far outweighs any imagined dangers. How could different rabbinic voices, differing so vigorously, find a peaceful home side by side? Why, in rabbinic culture, did dispute draw the disputants together, while in our day it seems destined to tear us apart?

Entering The Dispute

To answer these questions, let us take a specific talmudic example and see if we can understand what made such respectful dispute possible--even desirable--in traditional Jewish culture. The mishnah in chapter 8 of tractate Hullin records the following opinions:

R. Akiba says: [The prohibition of mixing] wild animals and fowl [with dairy] is not from the Torah...R. Yosi the Galilean says: "Thou shalt not seethe a calf in its mother's milk "...excludes fowl, which has no mothers milk.

At first glance, R. Akiba and R. Yosi seem to be saying almost the same thing (at least with respect to the status of fowl) in slightly different ways. R. Akiba declares that the separation of fowl and dairy is not from the Torah, while R. Yosi provides the specific Torah-source for the exclusion of fowl from this prohibition. But according to the Talmud's interpretation of their teachings (found at Hullin 116a), they do dispute, and the dispute is not insignificant.

Framing The Dispute

As the Talmud understands him, when R. Akiba says that the prohibition pertaining to fowl "is not from the Torah," he means to suggest that it is from the Rabbis. Whatever the source, he agrees that chicken parmesan (for example) would not be kosher. But R. Yosi believes that fowl is completely excluded from this prohibition so, as the Talmud reports, "in the locale of R. Yosi the Galilean they would eat the flesh of fowl with milk." The Talmud follows this report with another showing that this practice was not limited to R. Yosi's generation. Others later followed his position and their alternate practice was respected.

In the world of Jewish observance, such a difference of opinion and practice has potentially serious consequences. If I belong to a group of Jews who categorize poultry flesh as meat, I will probably not be able to eat at the home of my neighbor who views chicken as parve (neither meat nor dairy and permissible to eat with either). If we have difficulty eating together, we will have a difficult time maintaining our common bond and we will grow apart socially. I may begin to claim that my more lenient neighbor is wrong, that he misinterprets the Torah, that he has little regard for Jewish unity. If I gain control of the community's kashrut-granting apparatus, I might refuse to certify his restaurant. Less significant differences might perhaps be tolerated, but kashrut is a central marker of Jewish observance and identity. How can we accept such differences when the stakes are so high?

Common Commitment As Common Bond

The probable explanations of the tolerant rabbinic attitude toward disputes range from the mundane to the profound. At first glance, it seems obvious that the fact that R. Akiba (presumably) and R. Yosi (explicitly) could both offer proofs of their positions (in this and other matters) based upon close readings of the Torah meant that they had to be taken seriously. Their source was the recognized, authoritative source of Jewish practice, so the foundation of their teachings was strong. But in reality, this would have made little difference if they were not respected voices in the rabbinic community, for it is possible that a particular reading of Torah could he declared "wrong." So the question must be, why did the rabbinic community respect these and other voices, even when they were in serious disagreement?

To answer this question, again the example of R. Akiba and R. Yosi is instructive. Whatever their interpretation of the Torah in this or any other case, it is beyond question that they were profoundly committed to the Torah, its God, and its people. This common commitment allowed for respectful dispute where lesser commitment would not. These rabbis, who lived in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, shared a common history, an ancient history that included the revelation of Torah at Sinai and, as important, a more recent history of struggle against an insensitive, sometimes tyrannical imperial force. By virtue of this common history, they also shared a common sense of purpose: the need to uphold (and therefore transform) the covenant in the face of radical upheaval. And they understood the challenge and the risk. Simply put, if they could not work together to forge an inclusive vision of Judaism after destruction, the Jewish community at large, leaderless and directionless, might disappear.

Overcoming Our Differences

There is another factor that we might easily overlook. At the beginning, in the decades following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis were a small movement, living, for the most part, in close proximity, composed of masters and their disciples. And even when the rabbinic movement grew in number and spread, it remained a relatively small proportion of the Jewish population as a whole. Let us not forget, we preserve the disputes of rabbis, not of rabbis and common Jews. Moreover, the rabbis and their disciples instituted rituals of gathering and study (the kallot) that assured that they would be together, study together, live and express their common commitment and faith. In such settings, among loved and trusted companions, they could disagree even forcefully without risking a serious rift. Needless to say, the same disagreements they could allow in the company of rabbis they would not share with outsiders.

All of which demands that we evaluate contemporary Jewish disputes with considerable sobriety. I have argued that the rabbis could tolerate and respect dispute because of their common sense of history, purpose, and fate, and because of the lives they shared. If we are honest, it will be difficult to claim that the same can be said of large segments of the Jewish community today. Our size and diversity make it difficult for us to share our Jewish experiences in any immediate sense. The size of the world we live in allows us to live separated lives--Israelis from American Jews, Orthodox from liberal Jews, dati (religiously observant) Jerusalemites from secular residents of Tel Aviv. With different experiences, we will interpret our covenantal commitments differently (or not at all), we will develop different opinions regarding the purpose of Jewish existence and the fate of Jews and Judaism in the next century.

Leap Of Commitment

Our only hope is a "leap of commitment." Given the diversity of the contemporary Jewish community, we must commit to one another not merely because it is pragmaticallv necessary, but as an act of faith. The problem with the purely pragmatic approach is that, though many of us would agree that we need the cooperation and support of Jews unlike ourselves, selected Jewish groups might conclude that they can survive without other Jews: Haredi without secular, Israeli without American. Pragmatism is a cold, uncaring calculation. But if we believe that we are all children of Abraham and Sarah, all receivers of the Torah of Moses, all fellow survivors of the massacres of Hadrian and Hitler, then we will be less quick to dismiss others who interpret their covenantal commitment differently. Of course, belief is not enough. If we do not act with covenantal commitment, we should be dismissed by those who have taken up the yoke of the covenant. But if we act on this faith, struggling seriously with the responsibilities of Jewishness, we will be compelled to respect our differences. We will disagree, but as covenantal partners.

I am aware that this is an idealistic vision, a dream that many will dismiss as beyond reach. It is for this reason that I offer it with sober hesitation. Still, the "realistic" alternative is too awful to speak.

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Dr. David Kraemer

Dr. David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Senior CLAL Associate at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.