Is honest disagreement and debate still a Jewish virtue?
It is no secret that Jews like a good debate. It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture. I once heard Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz say that as much as the Talmud (a repository of disagreements and debates) is a product of Jewish culture, it has as much of an influence in shaping Jewish culture. We call an honest debate in Judaism a machloket l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. In other words, we don’t have to agree with someone’s opposing viewpoint, but we do have to respect the person.
Matt Abelson, a JTS rabbinical student, recently completed his year of study in Jerusalem. Perhaps one of the most challenging years in rabbinical school for a whole host of reasons, it is nearly impossible to return from the experience unchanged. Abelson wrote a post in which he slams the Encounter program for encouraging students to disengage from traditional Zionist ideology when it comes to their relationship with Israel. This is a “problem” that has been gaining increased attention in the last few years. It is a tense subject for many. As I have mentioned at other times on this blog, there were figures who sought to end my own career before it even began because, despite not even knowing me in real life, they decided I was anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. I responded to Rabbi Daniel Gordis here when he brought up the issue last year.
I do not have a problem with the fact that Matt Abelson has a problem with Encounter. I do have a problem with how he misrepresents their program. I won’t go into those details here, because I already responded to his blog post there (I included my comment below the fold). I also have a problem with the notion of shirking the responsibility for responsible debate because an issue elicits strong emotion. However, I do want to pose the question, is it an acceptable response to “opt out” of a difficult discussion because it makes you uncomfortable? Go and check out his post and come back here to comment.
What I said in response to Matt Abelson’s blog post:
Your understanding of the Encounter program is fundamentally flawed, and you seem to be unwilling to remedy that problem by your refusal to ever participate. Encounter does not demand silence – structured in throughout the program is plenty of dialog among participants and speakers. There is a communication agreement in practice that enforces the nature of that dialog, yet when I participated on Encounter a woman flat out told that mayor of Bethlehem that she found his opinions offensive and his language to be counterproductive to his stated goals. I would hope that as a future rabbi you would live by the teachings of our Sages: Who is wise? One who learns from all people (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Encounter encourages participants to listen more than speak so that participants can hear the perspective of the Palestinians, not to indoctrinate. The listening agreement encourages people to voice their opinions in their own words and not make general statements, but conversation is absolutely encouraged and in every session across all of the days we were given the opportunity for dialog. One thing that I want to strongly encourage you to consider, Matt, as a fellow rabbi, that it is VERY VERY VERY important to be able to engage with people with whom you may vociferously disagree about contentious issues without “blowing up” or needing to opt out – as a rabbi you will not have that option.