Chukkat: Not for the Sake of Argument

It’s a cliché about Jews with which we can’t argue: we argue.

But that doesn’t mean we’re good at it.  That when arguing we are either fair or persuasive.  It’s ironic, because we should be good at it – not primarily through constant practice but because there is definitely a Jewish way to argue.  That Moses failed to properly “argue” G-d’s case in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, when he struck a rock in anger and frustration to bring forth water, apparently cost him his opportunity to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  

I was reminded of the Jewish way to argue by an article in last week’s Jerusalem Post. In it, Rabbi Joshua Gerstein, a former Haredi (i.e., “ultra-Orthodox”) soldier defends his and other Haredi military service, which many in his community vehemently oppose.  What struck me was not so much his arguments but the way he made them.   (Although not necessary, you might, before continuing this post, wish to read, or skim, the article by clicking on the highlighted link).

Rabbi Gerstein did these things:

1.  He began by expressing sincere respect and even love for those who hold the position he is challenging. 

2.  He clearly articulated their position and the reasons supporting them.  In this case, he acknowledged Jewish law.  That is, he said, in effect: “I understand what you are saying and why you are saying it, and I acknowledge and respect your arguments (even though I disagree with them).  You are being neither unethical nor disingenuous in making them.

3.  He used the same basis of reference (Jewish law) as his opponents to support his contention that they are incorrect (albeit not foolish, shortsighted, misled, or evil).       

These are three of the elements necessary to make an ethical and, hopefully, persuasive argument.  A fourth element would be to suggest to his opponents why adopting his view would be in their greater interests than their current position.   (Perhaps he assumed that stating this was unnecessary since, in a world in which correct observance of Jewish law is the highest value, they would see it as in their best interest to change once shown a more legally correct interpretation.)

It’s very difficult to accept a counter-argument from one whom we regard as disrespectful and/or as our personal adversary.  Our defenses are too high, we assume improper motives, and we are likely to discount even correct arguments by rationalizing, “The devil also quotes scripture.”

But the Jewish way to argue is “for the sake of heaven.”  The schools of Hillel and Shamai constantly disagreed about halachah, but they socialized together and let their children marry each other.   I do not know whether R. Gerstein’s article will change a single mind about Haredi military service.  But even if not, I suspect that even his opponents will, perhaps grudgingly, respect both his approach and his respect for them and for their position, even though he disagrees with it.  If so, he will have laid the groundwork to be heard next time with more receptive ears. 

From my Hebrew University dormitory window atop Mt. Scopus, I can see the sight upon which the two Temples stood. They were destroyed, our tradition says, not due to Babylonian and Roman military might but rather our own lack of respect for those of our people holding contrary opinions. 

May we remember our history and endeavor to argue not only with conviction, but also with compassion. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb