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The Art of Passionate Disagreement

The Art of Passionate Disagreement

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Detail from a drawing by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher
Detail from a drawing by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher

Having recently moved from Britain to Colorado in the United States, my wife and I are undergoing a culture shock. We have been disarmed by the friendliness of people and, compared to the UK, how inexpensive petrol (gas) is. We are also happy to see how many regular products have a kosher symbol on them. Another pleasant aspect of our move has been the staggering natural beauty of Colorado.

However there is one characteristic that has significantly disappointed and disturbed me. Healthy and balanced political debate does not seem to exist in the United States. Instead, both sides of the political spectrum seem to have their own media outlets where they vent their incredibly polarized and uncontested political views--often with the aim of discrediting the opinions of their ideological opponents. The problem with this is that the two sides talk at each other rather than to each other and as a result suspicion and hate festers. The situation is acute--people seem to have utter contempt for anyone with different ideological and political views.

To be sure, it is good that people are passionate about their individual political and ideological views. However if one only converses with like-minded people one will never know when one errs. The Torah says, "Man is a tree of the field" (Deuteronomy 20:19). There is a Chassidic saying that explains this verse. If a tree grows in isolation it is likely to become crooked and bent. However, trees that grow together in a forest grow straight and tall--they "keep each other straight," so to speak. Similarly, for truth to be upheld it is fundamental that human beings do not live in intellectual isolation, only hearing views that reinforce their own. Vigorous and respectful debate with the aim of reaching the truth is crucial if one is to remain intellectually healthy.

Respectful debate amongst scholars with divergent views has always been a hallmark of Judaism. The Talmud is replete with debate amongst rabbis who disagreed with one another. They were not afraid to debate because being proven wrong was not seen in a negative light; they only had one agenda--to reach the truth. And even if a consensus could not be reached, it did not mean that either side was entirely wrong.

The Talmud says that divergent views can both be seen as the words of the living G‑d (Talmud, Eruvin, 13b). There is a deep profundity in this statement. As long as we are taught to appreciate that divinity is also found within the view of people who disagree with us, then respect and dignity will be paid to intellectual opponents.

This Talmudic dictum implores us to engage with people who are in our opinion mistaken, because although their view may not be ultimately accepted, it is nonetheless legitimate. This element of respect for the views of others is a critical ingredient of a decent, harmonious, strong and healthy society.

Now more than ever, the Talmudic model of respect for intellectual rivals should be seriously heeded. Yes, we can disagree--and even passionately so. However, we must never allow ourselves to become so entrenched that we stop talking to each other--or "talk" only to belittle, defame and delegitimize the other's view.

The other and his/her views always have something to teach us, if only we are open to the lesson.

By Levi Brackman
Rabbi Levi I. Brackman is director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on issues of the day.
Image by chassidic artist Shoshannah Brombacher. To view or purchase Ms. Brombacher’s art, click here.
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Victor Heifetz East Moriches, NY September 8, 2013

If what you say is true, then why is it that belittlement of one's philosophical opponents is done mostly on the left. This is my experience. I agree with your statement that we should do away with suspicion but that will only happen in human nature when evil is rooted out. You have to wait for the coming of the Elect for that. Reply

MAC October 29, 2006

Terrific article and quite accurate. It has been sad to see conservative speakers appear at universities and be screamed at and disrupted. I was shocked. Agree or disagree with them, our universities should be places of discussion and dialog. Tolerance does not mean "my point of view only" Reply

Anonymous via jewishbrevard.com May 31, 2006

well said It is true...too many people talk at each other and not to each other....with neither changing their view/s but coming out angry, upset and hating/disliking, or not wanting much to do with that person...
The old saying "Birds of a feather flock together". In other words,,, you agree with me.. like who I like as dislike what I do we are friends/friendly-vs- emenies. This is more animal instint than reason/human..
It is like the stroy of the 3 blind men who took hold of elephant...they could not agree on what one looks like for each had touch a different part. being wrong and right. How can we expect to learn and grow when we feel we already know it all, the only way.. We learn by listening. Reply

Philip Levy Springfield, VA May 16, 2006

The American Way With all due respect, it is precisely this type of passionate, uncompromising debate that America was founded on. When Patrick Henry stood up and said, "Give me liberty or give me death!", his aim was not 'healthy and balanced' debate. He was speaking treason on pain of death. You were either for the crown or against it. And today, you have people that would like to see America survive, and those that wouldn't. Yes, it's polarized. No, it's not British. And we wouldn't have it any other way! Reply

H Felson May 12, 2006

Thank you very much for this article. I''ve been living in Jerusalem where people do not seem to know how to listen to one another or how to disagree. They love to dismiss and belittle anyone who does not agree with them. The Talmud is like the scientific method. Both are ultimately only interested in the truth, no matter what it is or from where it comes. Thanks for the reminder. Reply

S NY, NY May 10, 2006

I couldn't agree more! A close friend is on the far right side of the political spectrum. I consider myself slightly right of the middle. There are so many times when what are supposed to be political discussions turn into all out arguements! I think we might reach more compromises if we actually listened to what both sides were saying. Reply

Anonymous downingtown, pa May 10, 2006

In both Euope and the US the press is slanted, with few exceptions, to the left of center... As a Jew it is my obligation to know both sides of any issue that affects my country, Israel and the world in order to have intellegence diisagreements. Torah is black and white - it is the law, period. Talmud is written and argued by scholars. It is difficult to have a passionate discussion with anyone who exposed only to the editorializing of the media, as opposed to the facts - in matters of politics and Judaism. Reply

gwendoline lamb N.E. UK, U.K. May 10, 2006

I liked the article byi Rabbi Levi Brackman just now and wish him mazal and brocho in his new home... Reply

menachem brackman May 9, 2006

very true and related to the omer as the mistake of rabbi akiva's students Reply

Rick Stern NY, NY May 9, 2006

True... Eloquent.. but.. God Bless the USA I really love Rabbi Brackman's words of truth that are so greatly needed in this polarized, partisan world. Thank You, and I hope to pass this, and the many lessons included herein to my friends.

However, I take issue with the fact that he isolates this problem to the US over the Brits. Having lived in Britain for many years, I can attest to the fact that while they may not be as passionate over the airwaves, it is definitely not because of a higher level of respect. On the contrary, the Brits are so cold they don't even express their opinion! Although at the same time they harbor feelings of contempt and superiority to their opponent. At least with Americans you know what we think, we tell it to you, because we're all family, and, unlike with the Brits, the words you write will not fall on deaf ears.

Also, stop listening to Talk Radio, and spend some time with the people. You''ll be pleasantly surprised. God bless America! Reply

Anonymous via onetorahway.org May 7, 2006

I''m curious as to why so many articles on chabad.org leave out specifics, in their articles? For example, I would have loved to read examples of political debate that is one sided, as well as examples of talmudic sages disagreeing. Reply

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