Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Political debate in our country has become extremely disturbing.  The level and nature of attacks on our leaders has become, to my thinking, an embarrassment.  I cringe from the shrill sound bytes emanating from supposedly sober sources of information, media commentaries and elected officials, themselves.  Probably this kind of over heated rhetoric always existed, but the speeches that survive from bygone eras often showed a deep respect for the opponent even when the philosophic differences were profound.  No issue divided America more than slavery, but when Daniel Webster addressed this issue when it was about to tear our beloved nation apart (January 26, 1830) in ways that make the health care debate look like playground quarrels, he treated his opponents with esteem and respect.  He didn't question their loyalty and patriotism.  He knew that they loved America as much as he.  So, he said to Sen. Robert Hayne:  Sir, let me recur to pleasing recollections; let me indulge in refreshing remembrance of the past; let me remind you that, in early times, no States cherished greater harmony, both of principle and feeling, than Massachusetts and South Carolina. Would to God that harmony might again return! When will we relearn how to disagree with dignity?  This terrible scourge of personal attack in place of reasoned argument features prominently in this week's Torah reading.

            Korach has gathered a large group of disgruntled Israelites, and attacks Moshe and his leadership.  This was doing America's not so loyal opposition one better.  The party out of office questions the legitimacy of the duly elected officials; Korach questioned the authenticity of God's appointed leader.  The chutzpa is astounding.  Korach says, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly (Numbers 16:3)?"  Where is a reasoned argument?  Where is a legitimate complaint?  Others came before Moshe with realistic claims and often were rewarded by having their case upheld, the daughters of Zelophchad being the most prominent.  By and large this great assembly had grievances over the allocation of power in the nation.  Many came from the tribe of Reuvain who as the oldest had been bypassed in the distribution of authority.  Others, like Korach, came from Levi and wanted a greater role in the Mishkan.  Many of these grievances may have been ironed out, if they had been represented in a reasonable manner. 

            We Jews love to argue and debate.  Our Rabbinic literature is replete with sharp exchanges between our Sages.  We haven't stopped ever since.  However, it was pointed out 1800 years ago that there are two kinds of arguments:  Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is destined to perish (Pirkei Avot 5:17).  How do we know when the disputants are acting for the sake of Heaven or not?  Since we can't read their thoughts, we must describe the behavior which characterizes the pure debate from the poisoned.   I believe that there are two criteria, one during the debate and one after.  During the debate, the arguments must be to the point, not aimed at the other person, and after the debate there must be mutual respect.  

            How can I maintain respect for the other, when we disagree so profoundly?  The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) explains on the Mishneh that just like everyone's face (Hey, they didn't know about finger prints yet.) is different, so, too, our opinions are diverse.  His grandfather, the Chidushi Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1798-1866), furthered explained that this is right and appropriate, because everyone is here to do a job and all these assignments are different.  So, it makes sense that we see things from different vantage points because we have divergent roles to play.  But since every role is necessary for the destiny of the world, we must respect the point of view of the other, and listen sympathetically while it is stated.

            Concerning the second point, that we must have renewed affection for the opponent when the issued has been decided, there is an enigmatic verse, which our Sages apply to this concept.  The verse says:  Concerning this it is told in the account of the Wars of the Lord, "What He gave at the Sea of Reeds and the streams of Arnon (21:14)."  This poetic expression is hard to translate and explain, so the Rabbis arrived at a novel approach.  The wars of God are the battles between scholars in the study halls.  The next phrase in Hebrew reads:  vaheiv b'sufa.  In the Midrash, these two words are translated as 'in the end, one loves.'  In other words, after the intellectual struggle has been concluded, there comes not only resignation and compromise, but true admiration and even affection. 

                Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK, explains the difference between arguments for heaven and the sordid fights between those with only their own agenda.  He says that in an argument for heaven each is willing, if refuted, to say, "I was wrong." There is no triumphalism in victory, no anger or anguish in defeat.  That's because the Sages are drawing a fundamental distinction between two kinds of conflict: argument for the sake of truth, and argument for the sake of victory.  When the argument is for the sake of heaven, if I win, I win. But if I lose I also win, because being defeated by the truth is the only form of defeat that is also a victory. 

During the vast nineteenth century debates over slavery, two of the greatest protagonists were John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay.  They fought tooth and nail in a debate whose stakes couldn't be higher, but Calhoun intuited the message of our Sages.  He said:  "I don't like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God, I love him!"  It's okay to be passionate for a cause, but with respect and even love for the opponent, because when the argument is for the sake of heaven, we're all on the same side.  

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