By Rabbi Michael Berk
Lately I have taken umbrage at President Trump’s intrusion into an aspect of Jewish culture that is not well understood outside the Jewish community, and at the same time is a key to Jewish persistence throughout history. Since Jewish survival is a mystery, and unmatched by any other people in the long, sad history of human hatred for other humans, it’s worth taking a look at this characteristic. I am referring to the Jewish love of arguing.
Some have half kiddingly speculated that God chose the Jews because God loves a good argument. Let’s face it, Jews have given God a run for His money in that regard since Abraham stood up and told God that it would be immoral of God to punish all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sins of some. When God doesn’t smite Abraham immediately for such impudence, for having the chutzpah (moral audacity) to argue with the Creator of the Universe, it is clear, to Jews at least, that God wanted Abraham to do precisely what he did: have the ethical and moral courage to challenge authority, even the Ultimate Authority. Arguing with God was not an act of disloyalty. Quite the contrary.
This love of arguing is unique, as far as I know, among monotheists. That’s because monotheism doesn’t inherently foster tolerance and respect for divergent views. It’s not great for people getting along, and for evidence I place before you the history of the world. One of my teachers, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, said one can summarize the history of the Jews in the Torah, the five books of Moses, in two sentences: “God spoke to the children of Israel and said unto them, ‘You shall do x, y, and z.’ And the children of Israel answered and said unto God, ‘No.’”
Jews love to argue. That’s the reason for the famous joke about the Jew stranded on an island who builds a whole town for himself, including two synagogues. He needs both, because he needs one to boycott. To non-Jews, it may seem that the Jewish community is dysfunctional, especially in the way we argue over Israel. And that’s how Trump enters the picture — criticizing Jews who disagree with him and his approach to Israel. It unnerves him to no end that he sees himself, forgive me, but as he recently hinted, as King of the Jews — having done so much that Jews seem to have always wanted for Israel — and yet Jews in resoundingly large numbers still oppose him.
What ingratitude! So he has decided those Jews who disagree with him are disloyal Jews. He, Donald Trump, a non-Jew, is telling me, a Jew all my life, that if I don’t vote for him and his party, I am a disloyal Jew. I’m sorry, Donald Trump is not Jewish and has no authority to tell me what makes for a loyal or disloyal Jew.
Most Jews, at least Jews who know something about Judaism, would never say: This is the way you must believe/vote, in order to be a good Jew — a loyal Jew. My God, we are the people who can’t agree on an answer to a question as basic as, “Who is a Jew?” We are far too argumentative! This may seem like dysfunction from the outside, but this testiness, this argumentativeness, this openness to yelling at those with whom you disagree, has served my people well for the last couple of thousand years.
The core value at the heart of this love of arguing is that we do not believe that any of us are the sole possessors of truth. There are nuances, subtleties, shades of gray in the world. And so, we Jews argue with one another; but we are not supposed to demonize the other. The reason the Talmud is so long is that all the arguments mustered by both sides are recorded. Jews have always understood that to criticize another is an act of love; that’s why in one chapter in Leviticus we are commanded both to “reprove” our fellow and love our neighbor. Love and criticism in Judaism go together.
As a matter of fact, our rabbis teach us that we are not only supposed to respect and tolerate those Jews with whom we disagree, we are to love them. Or at least, we are not allowed to hate another Jew. The rabbis were serious about this. As they looked at Jerusalem smoldering in the ashes of the Roman destruction, they concluded that an important reason for the destruction was that Jews hated each other. The rabbis during that time knew that too many Jews questioned the “loyalty” of other Jews, delegitimized them and demonized them. And that weakened the Jewish community more than the Roman legions and made their Temple more susceptible to destruction.
How does this openness to diverse opinions comes down to us from our ancient rabbis? The Talmud says that for three years there were disputes between the two great, competitive academies in the Jewish community: the Schools Shammai and Hillel. For three long years of arguing, each forcefully asserted that theirs were the correct views. Then, legend has it that a voice came forth from the heavens with Divine authority to decide which side was “right.” Here is what the Talmud records the voice from heaven announced: “[The utterances of] both [schools] are the words of the living God; but the halakha (the law) is in agreement with the rulings of the House of Hillel.”
If both schools represent the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the House of Hillel to have the laws decided in agreement with their rulings? Because, the Talmud tells us, the disciples of Hillel were kindly and modest, they studied their own views and those of the House of Shammai, and they were even so humble as to mention the ideas and views of the House of Shammai before their own.
Jews love and honor argument because it’s how we get as close as we can to understanding what God wants from us. Judaism is a religion of Hillels and Shammais. A religion of diverse views. “These and these” are words of the living God. When you argue with conviction and humility, with passion and love, even if you disagree with me, your argument is part of the conversation. You disagreeing with me helps us arrive at God’s will; it does not betray a lack of loyalty.
While the Talmud makes clear that the laws follow Hillel, it never says you have to follow Hillel. That voice from Heaven was not an obligatory statement defining Jewish loyalty. Once you proclaim “these and these” views are legitimate, diversity isn’t just accepted as a theory, it’s a living reality.
Disagreement and arguing is part of our story; you can follow Hillel or Shammai and still be a loyal Jew. Diversity doesn’t undermine the unity of the Jewish people. Why? Because no one owns the truth. No idea exhausts what God wants and what it means to be a Jew. So even though Hillel and Shammai disagreed, they learned how to take a step back and allow space for each other. They continued to eat with and marry each other. You can follow the laws of one or the other and stay part of the community.
We were never monolithic. Jews disagree. And fundamentally we believe in diversity and we certainly do NOT believe in loyalty tests. I don’t like a Jew telling me what I have to believe. Donald Trump is not Jewish and I’m particularly offended by his intrusion into something that is none of his business — telling Jews what they need to do or believe in order to be loyal Jews.
Michael Berk is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, the largest congregation in San Diego and the oldest in Southern California.
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