Ke’Ish Echad be’Lev Echad – Changing the Culture of Rabbinic Disputes

A new elected rabbi came to his new shul for the first time, filled with excitement.  His first rabbinical challenge occurred during Kriyat Shema. Half the congregants stood up to recite the Shema and the other half remained sitting. Then, the sitting folks started yelling at those standing to sit down, and the ones standing up yelled at those sitting down to stand up. The confused new rabbi called an urgent meeting with his board but soon realized that his board was also divided on the issue. One of the board members suggested consulting Chaim, one of the founders of the shul now living in a nursing home. The rabbi hoped the old man would be able to shed light on the original minhag of the community and he went with representatives of each party to visit Chaim.

The congregants who stand during Shema asked Chaim, “Is the tradition to stand during Shema?” The old man replied, “No, that is not the minhag.” The other group then asked, “So then the tradition is to sit?” Chaim answered, “No, that is not our minhag.” The rabbi, totally confused and desperate asked Chaim with a choked voice: “But in that case, the congregants will continue to fight and yell at each!” Chaim responded with a smiling face, “Well, that is our minhag!”

This old joke is actually the reality of thousands of years of dispute between Jews about laws and tradition. Perhaps the last time in history we were fully united was when we approached Mount Sinai, as expressed in Rashi’s well-known commentary: “And there Israel encamped ke’ish echad be’lev echad  -as one man and with one mind – but all their other encampments were made with grumbling and dissension”. The explanation for this is quite simple: Once the Torah was given, a journey of endless disputes had begun. 

Every day, at the end of morning prayers, we recite the statement of Rav Chanina that ”Torah scholars increase peace in the world”, and we are often left wondering: is this statement meant to be sarcastic? There are many compliments that can rightfully be given to Torah scholars – they may increase Torah, knowledge, and holiness. But peace? That would seem to be the farthest thing from the world of the Torah scholars, where arguments constantly rage regarding Halakhah, Aggadah, philosophy, etc. The entire Gemara is essentially a collection of numerous, complex Rabbinic arguments.

In my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, I deal at length with the concept of dispute and peace in rabbinic tradition. One of the dilemmas I try to address is why machloket plays such a prominent part in the Jewish tradition.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook addressed this question in one of his famous homilies, on the blessing “Blessed is He Who discerns secrets” which is recited when seeing a gathering of 600,000 Jews. The Sages said:

One who sees a crowd of Jews says, ‘Blessed is He Who discerns secrets,’ for their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other.” (Berakhot 58b)

Rav Kook explains that people have different attributes and opinions, a diversity which is the result of both their inborn nature and the influence their environment. These traits also affect a person’s outward appearance and their face. Every person contains the secret of their creation – their role and mission in the world. G-d, the “Knower of Secrets”, has a divine purpose for all of the various opinions and disputes that circulate the world. On account of the differences between people, everyone will ultimately unite toward one goal and create a single, harmonious picture together, by every individual contributing his own unique gifts and talents. The remarkable constitution of humankind requires the existence of machloket, for without it, no one would be able to discover their unique qualities, and thus no one would fulfill their unique mission, as Rav Kook argues:

“And if people would know of their inner congruence, each person would pull toward their [specific] group with exceeding zealousness and individuality would disappear, and then there would be no material to build the community.”

If people thought they were the same, machloket would not be created, because individuals would not struggle to prove their uniqueness, and thus the world would not develop as it ought to. Machloket creates a dynamic that catalyzes the world’s progress, as the Talmudic Sages said: “Rabbis’ jealousy increases wisdom.” (Bava Batra 21a). When everyone is forced to think in the same way, when individuality is erased, ambition is squashed, progress ceases, and society stagnates. Machloket demands of every individual to define for himself who he is and how he is different from his fellow. In Rav Kook’s words:

“That is why G-d built into nature that each individual can only relate to the world from his own perspective and be convinced by this [perspective], for in this way he perfects what is proper for him. Sometimes, he thinks that the wishes of his fellow are unnecessary for the world. But if his opinions were as close to the understandings of his fellow as he feels close to himself, his attachment to his own uniqueness would weaken, causing the perfection of his own uniqueness to be deficient, which would result in a deficiency of the entire community.”

A homogenous society will shrivel up, as we have seen with most of the Communist regimes that failed. Only a multiplicity of opinions leads to healthy competition and mutual enrichment. If striving for tolerance and peace between individuals is achieved by erasing differences, we will damage humanity’s composition and the world’s progress. Dispute is one of the foundation stones of the world’s construction and must not be demolished.

The concept of machloket is even more significant in the context of the world of Torah and Jewish law. Without it, the Torah would stagnate and ossify, as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin explained:

“Torah study is called ‘war,’ for it is written ‘the war of Torah’; if this is so, Torah scholars must be called ‘warriors.’ As our Sages taught, ‘even a father and his son, a teacher and his student, who are engaged in a debate over a matter of Torah, become enemies . . .’ (Kiddushin 30b). A student is forbidden from accepting his teacher’s words when he has questions about them. And sometimes, the truth will lie with the student, just as a small tree (a match) can ignite a large one.” (Ru’ach Chayim 1:4)

When debating, if a student prematurely concedes to his teacher, or a child to his parent, their Torah learning will be lacking. Torah can only develop through lively, vibrant dispute, so every student is encouraged to fight the “war of Torah”.

Not only does the preponderance of disputes in the world of Halakhah not detract, but it allows Halakhah to be heard more clearly and harmoniously, like an orchestra of many instruments whose music we hear as one harmonious symphony. As the Arukh HaShulchan writes in his introduction:

“When you wonder about the many opinions and their disputes about the law’s details, know that you do not ask this wisely . . . On the contrary, this is the splendor of our holy and pure Torah. All of the Torah is called a song; the splendor of a song is when there are different voices in it, and this is the main source of its pleasantness. One who explores the sea of Talmud will see the pleasantness of all of the different voices within it.”

Although machloket is the very foundation of Jewish tradition, it can become a destructive tool if we abuse it and replace respect with contempt. Too many times in Jewish history, rabbis have endangered Halakhah by the nature of their discourse, when it was not for the sake of Heaven. In our times, we often see Jewish news  headlines claiming that one rabbi has attacked another over the latter’s views or psak; we saw this recently regarding the controversy about using Zoom on Leil HaSeder. One accuses the other of extremism, and the latter responds with accusations of liberalism and reformation.

At times, it seems difficult to find examples of real listening and authentic discourse. Rabbis often respond in a Pavlovian way to other rabbis, simply because of their identity, without any real attempt to listen to what they said or why. For many years, I also fought in these battlefields, from which I now try to stay as far away as possible.

At several points in my book, I mention the Chatam Sofer’s great-grandson, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, the Dor Revi’i. The introduction to his book should be read by the contemporary rabbinic world as a warning sign:

“The land has filled with flattery, and thinking is quashed by powerful individuals who speak loftily, but are ready at any moment to strike down anyone who opposes their opinion, and whoever is more violent prevails. For naught will a person attempt to fight with the weapons of truth, intellect, and logic, because instead of contradicting his words with clear proofs, answering one teaching with another, and one thought with an opposing one, they will oppose him brazenly with bad-mouthing, slander, lashon hara, and other lowly means of people lacking any sense of ethics or real knowledge.”

Rabbi Glasner describes a reality where rabbis are violently silenced simply because others disagree with their ideas. I would argue that there does not need to be agreement on every issue, but rabbinic disputes must be conducted respectfully.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Rav Chanina’s teaching that Torah scholars increase peace in the world. Since by definition it is essential to have disputes between rabbis, it is their primary responsibility to regulate the way they argue with one another. We can and must disagree with one another, but it must be done respectfully. One must not speak disparagingly of his opponent, and one must not reject what is said simply because of who said it. One should argue with the claim itself and not with the claimant.

During the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced unprecedented acts of solidarity and unity in the Jewish community across all sectors and denominations. I hope and pray that this spirit of unity will make a significant impact on our rabbinical leadership, inspiring them to serve the Jewish community ‘ke’ish echad be’lev echad’ , and with a tremendous amount of mutual respect, despite the endless disputes that will always continue to exist between us.

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