David Wolpe tells the story of advice given to a student beginning advanced study Talmud. (The Talmud is a series of discussions by the leading rabbinic sages between 100-500 C.E.) If you happen to fall asleep during class and are called upon by the teacher to explain the lesson, he said, you can always rely on one answer: “The rabbis disagree.”
The Talmud is full of disagreements. Many are resolved. Some are left standing. All reflect a culture in which we use every part of the intellect to understand God’s word.
Doubt Strengthens Faith
In Judaism argument is holy. But it is not argument for the sake of argument. It is argument for the sake of truth. It is argument for the sake of figuring out what God requires of us. It is argument for the sake of realizing Paul Tillich’s insight that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a core element of faith.”
The value of sacred argument distinguishes Judaism in several ways. These ways can enrich seekers of all faith. They include
- Democracy: No one person or group has a monopoly on defining the truth. In other words, there is no Jewish Pope. Anyone with the appropriate knowledge and commitment can arrive at a new understanding of a text or law.
- Flexibility: Reasonable people can arrive at different conclusions. To remain viable, Jewish thought and practice had to make room for those different conclusions without dividing into irreparable tribes. It did so by remaining moslty unified on core issues of practice like how and when to observe holidays, while permitting great divergence on matters of belief and interpretation. In other words, unity in deed with diversity in creed.
- Civility: The sages learned early how to disagree without being disagreeable. The Book of Proverbs captures some of their thinking in its teaching: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger…. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” What a powerful verse! The aim of argument is not to hurt your opponent. It is to find understanding and truth.
- Responsibility: We draw wisdom and inspiration from the past. Yet, we cannot rely on another person to tell us how to live. Each of us is born with a responsibility to think and to respond to God’s call with our own skills and insights. As the book of rabbinical wisdom, Ethics of the Sages puts it, “It is not your duty to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it.”