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.

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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.