Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community, that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate.
Some will tell you that we need less denominational division in the community, again for the sake of Jewish unity. Such was the view of certain individuals at a major forum in Philadelphia in early May when leaders of the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist movements met in dialogue. I say we need more diversity, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of diversity, the kind that respects pluralism and affirms the truth that what unites us is greater than what divides us.
Debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Heroes of every era of our history — Abraham, Moses, Yochanan Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Abraham Geiger, Theodor Herzl — engaged in great debates.
Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God, that is). In actuality, it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: "For three years, there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v'eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God." Deep respect is given to both schools because both are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi and commentator, wrote that although in practice one viewpoint usually prevails (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), both views "will have permanent value" because they "shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed." They shall be remembered as "advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth."
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, making space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints.
When we speak about the denominations of modern Judaism, it is important to remember that their very origins emerged in part from a significant debate in mid-19th century in Germany, the birthplace of modern Judaism as we know it.
The debate unfolded over a 10-year period (1836-1846) among three giants of modern Judaism who actually knew and liked each other.
Rabbi Abraham Geiger,, arguing that Judaism has always evolved with the times, called for critical study of Torah, the elimination of outdated prayers and the equal treatment of men and women.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while acknowledging the need to engage in secular learning in the new age, contended that Judaism's truths and law were eternal and not subject to evolution.
Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, an advocate of "moderate reform," famously stormed out of an 1845 Reform conference in Frankfurt over the elimination of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.
Geiger, Hirsch and Frankel became known, respectfully, as the "fathers" of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. While the central locale of the debate soon shifted to America, it was these three who set the stage.
Regrettably, the debate put serious strains on their friendship, which was unfortunate because their honest debate affirms what British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls "the dignity of difference" and has enriched the Jewish world.
What your mother taught you is true: You can disagree without being disagreeable. A true debater must respectfully listen to the opposing viewpoint in order to articulate a response. If only we could remember that despite our differences, we are actually on the same team, that because of our differences we will emerge more enlightened. Our arguments are, as the Talmud teaches, "for the sake of heaven," and that in the act of debate we are echoing the divine.
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, director of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia, is author of Judaism's Great Debates, newly published in an adult (JPS) and youth edition (Behrman House).