June 22, 2023

How to Argue (A Torah Perspective)

Rabbi Haber
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening

Originally published on the Times of Israel at:

June 22, 2023

Over the past few months here in Israel, “argument” has been in the air.  Everyone seems to be talking about the huge arguments ostensibly plaguing our nation (usually these comments are focused on the controversy regarding the judicial reform plan, but that’s really just a symptom of the larger tensions beneath the surface). 

But here’s the thing – we aren’t really arguing. Of course, there is disagreement, but actually, I haven’t heard much argument lately at all. 

An argument is when people share conflicting perspectives, each hoping to convince the other of his or her position.  But that isn’t what usually happens around here – listen to the discussions on the radio, for example.  Most of the time, you don’t hear people sharing their perspectives and trying to convince each other; what you hear is people shouting over each other, using extreme hyperbole, and delegitimizing opposing positions by portraying the other side as if anyone who associates with that opinion or expresses any approval – even in the most general way – is equivalent to the most extreme adherents of that position.

Of course, this problem is not unique to Israel.  Anyone following the pace of cultural and political discourse in the United States, for example, knows that the situation isn’t any better over there, and is possibly worse.  It’s been a long time since anything like a substantive debate or discussion has been heard there either.

And this analysis applies not only to public statements by politicians, speeches at demonstrations, and pronouncements in the media. These days, I am seeing the same approach applied more and more frequently even in private, personal conversations. 

A number of months ago, I was speaking with a young woman who is a successful teacher in an Orthodox high school in the United States.  As fellow educators, we were discussing the challenge of trying to impart Jewish values to students who are growing up immersed in a general culture that is at odds with Jewish tradition on many things.  I suggested to her that one way of connecting with her students might be to find aspects of their beliefs that she – as a Torah teacher – could agree with and even quote Torah sources to support them.  I suggested that after endorsing at least some of their positions and building this common ground, they might be more open to hearing ideas challenging other positions they hold.

The teacher, however, strongly resisted that suggestion. Even if there might perhaps be places where she could find common ground with her students, she insisted that she must not let that on.  “Once you acknowledge that they are right about anything”, she insisted, “you‘ve lost the battle! They’ll latch on to that victory and it will just reinforce their misguided beliefs.”  According to this kind of thinking, any debate at all becomes a kind of intellectual fight to the death.

I saw similar attitudes this week on a WhatsApp group I’m part of. In a conversation about how to react to people with ideological, religious, or political beliefs different from our own, a number of the participants characterized such beliefs as “evil” and strongly advocated against any attempt at “legitimizing” dialog. The only correct response, according to these people, is harsh denunciations and ridicule.

Is there another way?  I think there is, and an ancient Jewish source can perhaps help show the way. A fairly well-known Talmudic passage addresses this issue (but only one line is well-known; to understand the important nuances it’s important to see the entire passage):

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years [the competing academies] Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those [Elu Va-Elu] are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why does the halakha follow the opinion of Beit Hillel? Because they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. And furthermore, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai. (Eiruvin 13b)

Two crucial lessons emerge from this marvelous text.  The first is the idea that opinions diametrically opposed to our own, even in direct contradiction to our own beliefs, might also be true. In this story, Beit Hillel “won” the debate; their position was accepted and the law was enforced the way they believed it should be. Consequently, Beit Shammai also “lost” the debate for the same reasons. And yet, we are told that a Divine Voice declared that Beit Shammai’s position is no less true than Beit Hillel’s. Their position has been rejected in practice, but not only may they not be demonized ad hominem for their beliefs – their [rejected] opinion is itself endorsed as true. Indeed, close to 2000 years later, Beit Shammai’s opinions are still discussed and debated by Talmudic scholars around the world.

Of course, not every argument is like those between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Not always are “these and those the words of the living God.” Sometimes, one of the opinions is completely wrong, even immoral. But here’s the thing: at the beginning of the argument, each side almost always believes the other is completely wrong, with no redeeming points whatsoever. The only way we can know for sure if that is true is if we really listen to the other side.

The second crucial lesson is the reason that Beit Hillel won the debate. Their winning strategy was in fact their debating style: “They were agreeable and forbearing…and furthermore…they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements.” Beit Hillel succeeded in establishing public policy according to their vision precisely by validating and acknowledging the legitimacy of their opponents’ views!

In this case, Beit Hillel “won” the debate. But sometimes there can be a greater benefit to their approach – something even better than having one’s opinions accepted. Sometimes, when you listen respectfully and honestly to the other side, it helps you see your own shortcomings. You may in fact realize that you aren’t always 100% correct – you could be wrong about this one, or maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Indeed, further down on that same Talmudic page, we are told of a different argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. That one lasted only two and a half years, and it ended differently. Rather than a victory of one side over the other, that second argument ended in a compromise position that they all accepted. Through their willingness to forgo the opportunity to “defeat” their opponents, they all gained the opportunity to unite with them in a conclusion that was better than either of the initial positions.

And so, I humbly suggest that this timeless wisdom would serve us well today as well. It’s not easy to listen to the other side, especially when it touches on things about which we care very deeply. I’m as guilty as anyone else of sometimes jumping to conclusions, and of sometimes dismissing other views too quickly or too sweepingly. These reactions are natural and hard to fight, but we must try.

So, please: oppose the judicial reform, support it, or advocate for something else entirely. And also form opinions on the many other issues we face. Advocate forcefully and passionately for what you believe in – and look for opportunities to interact with members of the opposite camp. Don’t run away from arguments – embrace them! Just engage in them fairly and honestly. Try to really listen to your opponents, and try your best to be open-minded enough to be convinced, if you hear a strong and persuasive argument you hadn’t thought of. 

As I told that young teacher, if you do this you will probably be surprised by how receptive your interlocutors become to hearing your ideas. You may even convince them! Or they may convince you. Or perhaps a compromise can be found. But no matter what the outcome, we’ll all be much better off for it.

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