Why the great Talmudists valued contrary opinions – San Diego Jewish World

Posted By on July 9, 2020

By Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California The Talmud has always been a champion of free speech. It is a unique document of human history where rabbis engage philosophers, wise women, emperors, Roman centurions, and a host of other people as they debate the meaning of life and the message of Judaism.

Rabbinical discourse is dialectical. It presents a no-hold-bars approach to virtually any topic, from war and peace to the laws governing sexual relations. But be forewarned: the Talmud is not for the faint of heart.

When we study the Talmud, there is seldom unanimity on any given topic. In fact, you could say unanimity is something undesirable for the students of the Talmud. Unanimity tends to diminish the dialectical tension of a text; subsequently, the reader is prevented from experiencing the exhilaration and energy that originally sparked these kinds of discussions. The pursuit and process of questioning for the sake of veracity and relevance is not only desirable but necessary. Disputations, raucous debates, and the polyvalence of interpretation have animated Jewish and Christian discussions since the days of Late Antiquity.

One 16th-century rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, exhibited integrity transcending the parochial world he inhabited, and called upon his readers to show an independence of thought that challenged the theological correctness of his era. His prescription for honesty and intellectual truthfulness can certainly apply to our own generation as well:

In R. Ashkenazis opinion, one may surmise that the truth can always stand up to scrutiny. All the various approaches concerning the origin and redaction of the Pentateuch have much value and wisdom to impart. Early rabbinic exegetes deserve considerable credit for pointing out many textual anomalies that require clarification. Granted, many of the Midrashic answers given may not be grounded in a realistic understanding of the text, but the questions they raise regarding the texts meaning are important. Conflicting interpretationsespecially in a dialogical settingfrequently draw attention to nuances and ideas that one participant or interpreter may have overlooked or failed to take adequately into account. Conflicting interpretations also expand the text and force each participant to re-articulate earlier stated ideas that take into account the criticisms of the other side. In the midst of a discussion, one party may see the truth in an oppositional point of view.

The need to occasionally acknowledge interpretive fallibility is an essential feature if one is to arrive at a truth. The absence of consensus is not a negative thing per sein fact, quite the opposite. Contrary to Aristotles law of non-contradiction;[2] namely, a thing and its opposite cannot both be true,[3] rabbinic wisdom believes that truth is best served when contrarian interpretations challenge one another.[4]

Truth is frequently discovered through a process of adversity and contradiction. Regardless of how a person interprets a classical text like the Bibleor for that matter any great work of literaturethere will always be somebody else who will interpret it differently. Disagreement is something that is not only endemicit is inevitable. Whenever a new idea or approach is introduced, attention is drawn to aspects of a text that one might have overlooked or failed to take adequately into account. Argumentswhether they happen to be contrarian or supportiveforce a person to modify an earlier stance. By the same token, one persons ideas may have an equally powerful influence on someone else. While interpretation typically refines the next interpretation, controversy remains our constant companion.

How should one respond to this conundrum? If unanimity is really the goal, what incentive would there be for new interpretive ideas? Conversely, dissent is not necessarily indicative of a communications breakdown. Oftentimes a consensus of a people may be predicated upon an error (e.g., Ptolemys geo-centric view of the universe is but one obvious example). The desire to create a stable consensus can threaten to immobilize a person(s) or a society in error.

Dissent can be beneficial, and often leads to new discoveries and ideas. Moreover, dissent ensures that there will be some sort of accountability on the part of the originator. This would explain why peer review is a necessary process whenever new articles on any subject are introduced. A community of readers and interpreters create a network that produces alternative viewpoints worthy of reflective consideration. Differences of insight do not necessarily mean disagreement on the core issues of a story or discussion. Throughout Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions rarely have there been a stable consensus. If this was the case in ancient times, why should it be any different today? The focus of scholarly dissent may change over time, but the fact of disagreement does not go away; indeed, it is a necessary part of the learning process.

Critical reading demands that questions ought to serve as the focal point of a discussion. Socrates was a master in stimulating dialogue and challenging his students to define their positions on any given subject. In the academic setting, the pursuit of truth and wisdom cannot be mediated through a monologue, but only through a dialogical relationship. In light of this, we can boldly say that questioning the great thinkers of the past need not undermine faith; on the contrary, it has the potential of strengthening it. Whether in a religious or in a secular context, the fear of new ideas in many ways undermines wisdom. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the Socratic and Talmudic milieu to the Western world is the need to question everything that is believed to be the truth. The fluid nature of Judaic theology demonstrates a historical resiliency that has the innate ability to maintain its structural and spiritual integrity against any wave of modernity or textual criticism.

The reason, why I wrote this article, is to bring to your attention that there are many young people who find the principle of free speech threatening to their world-view. Ben Shapiro, as many of you know, is an Orthodox political commentator. While some of you may not agree with what he has to say, he was brutally attacked when he went to speak at U.C. Berkeley. This has happened to other thinkers. We have seen this with other conservative thinkers who have been treated similarly.

Harper Magazine posted an excellent article A Letter on Open Justice and Debate. In it, prominent intellectuals call out what they believe is a societal shift toward intolerance and ideological conformity. If the letter is to be believed, we are, as a society, sliding away from the ideal of a marketplace of ideas and toward what the letter refers to as the consensus. [5]

The voices of this article are mostly liberal professorsthey are not conservative in their thinking. Yet, even the professors are fearful of the new intolerant climate in media and advocated for the possibility of good-faith disagreement without fear of professional retribution. The letter was signed by left-wing figures such as Noam Chomsky, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, and The Handmaids Tale author Margaret Atwood. The main point of the letter was to support the free exchange of ideas and push back on retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. The articles best point reads:

What is disturbing here is the fear of new ideas threatens to unravel one of our countrys most important rightsthe right to have an opinion. We see this today among the Antifa demonstrators who are methodically trying to destroy the historical monuments of our national history. Not even Frederick Douglas, black Americas greatest 19th-centurycivil-rights leader was immune. The legions of Antifa and BLM demonstrators toppled Douglas monument, as they have with the other great abolitionists of American history.

This should come as no surprise since the leaders of these movements consider themselves trained Marxists. [6]

Young people in their intellectual zealotry are promoting an authoritarian ethic that does not bode well for the future of our country.

It is ironic that all this is happening during the Three Weeks leading to TishabAv, aholiday that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temple. In the case of the Second Temple, the Talmud makes it abundantly clear that the zealots prevented a possible peaceful accord between the Romans and the Jews.

God protect us from the Zealots of our time.



[1] Cited from Alan Dershowitzs The Genesis of Justice (New York: Time Warner, 2000), 18-19.

[2] See, e.g., Aristotle, On Interpretation c.12: But since it is impossible that contradictory propositions should both be true of the same subject, it follows that it may not be is not the contradictory of it may be. For it is a logical consequence of what we have said, either that the same predicate can be both applicable and inapplicable to one and the same subject at the same time, or that it is not by the addition of the verbs be and not be, respectively, that positive and negative propositions are formed . . . (The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon ed. [New York: Modern Library Philosophy, 2001], 55).

[3] Aristotle actually derives this idea in Platos Republic, speaking through the character Socrates, who observes: Its plain that the same thing wont be willing at the same time to do or suffer opposites with respect to the same part and in relation to the same thing (The Republic 436b).

[4] R. Baruch Epstein makes this exact point in his Torah Temimah Commentary on Numbers 11:11:

Many of wondered how the Sages could have said, This point of view and that point of view are the words of the Living God! How is it possible for both to be right when one says something is permitted while the other argues that it is forbidden? As mentioned elsewhere (cf. Torah Temimah on Song of Songs 2, note 54) contrasting opinions serve to clarify the truth. Without contradiction, the truth would never truly be understood. Hence, each perspective constitutes the words of the Living God. The Divine will creates dialectical tension that is necessary whenever people attempt to clarify the truth.

[5] https://freebeacon.com/media/open-letter-endorsing-free-speech-sparks-civil-war-at-vox/

[6]https://nypost.com/2020/06/25/blm-co-founder-describes-herself-as-trained-marxist/ See also:https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/16181/black-lives-matter

*Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel is an author of books on Philo and Maimonides and is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista. He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishorld.com


Why the great Talmudists valued contrary opinions - San Diego Jewish World

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