Disputes that Unite

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

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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.

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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.