Debate: The Lifeblood of Judaism, a “Holy Act”
Ever since reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in my undergrad days, I’ve often considered the world through the lens of Hegel’s dialectic. Plus, I always thought (and still think, if my sermon yesterday is an indication) it sounded really cool to talk about the “Hegelian dialectic” at work in the world. Yes, a little pretentious, too.
Dialecticophile that I am, I resonate with Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz’s idea that in Judaism, debate (thesis/antithesis) is “more than a valued intellectual exercise…. it is a holy act.”
What a refreshing outlook for anyone who grew up in religious settings that discouraged asking questions!
Schwartz’s Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl (Jewish Publication Society, 2012) considers 10 debates in Judaism. He splits the book into three sections: Biblical Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, and Modern Judaism. The 10 debates he considers are far-ranging: theological, ethical, legal, spiritual, and sociopolitical.
Here’s the publisher’s description of the book:
Ever since Abraham’s famous argument with God, Judaism has been full of debate. Moses and Korah, David and Nathan, Hillel and Shammai, the Vilna Gaon and the Ba’al Shem Tov, Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis . . . the list goes on. Jews debate justice, authority, inclusion, spirituality, resistance, evolution, Zionism, and more. No wonder that Judaism cherishes the expression machloket l’shem shamayim, “an argument for the sake of heaven.”
Each of the 10 debates comes to a head with a question that Schwartz considers. For example, the conflict between David and Nathan in chapter 4 considers the question, “Does Might Make Right? The Debate over Accountability and Morality.”
Schwartz helps the debates come alive by blending direct quotes from the Hebrew Bible or other primary source (in italics) with his own “added dialogue” (in regular print). As reluctant as a Bible-lover like myself might be to see words added to a biblical story, Schwartz does this with great reverence and care, in a way that really draws out the characters.
David, in Schwartz’s rendition of Nathan’s calling him out in 2 Samuel 11-12, for example, says, “What are you talking about? I am the king!”
That same chapter refers to prophets as those who “speak truth to power.” Schwartz puts it well:
The prophets were equal-opportunity gadflies; they clashed with kings and countrymen alike.
Issues for modern-day Judaism are included here, too–whether full inclusion of women (as in the Reform movement) or whether holiness is individually ascribed or somehow taken on by osmosis as member of a community. Each debate includes coverage of its original context (“the basic historical backdrop”), content (with emphasis on primary sources), and continuity (“how they echo throughout Jewish history”).
Judaism’s Great Debates would be great for a class or small group setting. Its reflection and discussion questions on p. 99 and following are thought-provoking and much better-written than most discussion questions at the back of a short book like this. (Any Palestinian Jews or Christians reading this book will probably be put off by what come across as pointed questions like, “Are civilians who aid terrorists innocent and deserving of noncombatant immunity?” and, “Should Israel negotiate with sworn terrorist organizations?”)
One other drawback (and the drawbacks are few) is the appearance of typos and some errant punctuation marks every few pages or so. This does not detract, though, from the overall high quality of the writing.
Anyone who wants to know more about Judaism–or anyone with a religious background of any type–will appreciate Schwartz’s boldness, even if it’s alarming:
Abraham’s bold challenge of God for the sake of justice was the first Jewish debate. Generations would look back at the founder of the Jewish people and follow his example. If Abraham argued, so should we. If Abraham had the courage to challenge God, so should we. If Abraham stood up for justice, so should we.
I would love to hear Rabbi Schwartz treat how we hold that reality in tension with the story of Job, whom God does not seem to appreciate being challenged by. That would be an interesting debate to have!
Here‘s an excerpt from the book. I found myself making a lot of pencil notes in the margins, which is a good sign of a book’s ability to engage its readers! It’s a book well worth reading and thinking through.
Thanks to the Jewish Publication Society for the review copy of the book! You can find Judaism’s Great Debates here at the publisher’s page or here at Amazon. See also my book note on the JPS Torah Commentary volume on Genesis, and my review of the JPS Commentary on Jonah.