Agreeing to Disagree

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I was startled yesterday morning when coming inside, after finishing up a Zoom meeting in my backyard, to hear my 11 year old son–who was himself on a phone conference call for his Gemara (Talmud) class– passionately debating a classmate about a particular issue brought up in the Talmud. I thought they were on a personal call, but I later found out the class was simply on a break, and he and a classmate stayed on to debate a specific point. His voice was raised, but I sensed no trace of anger–only passion and a pristine unadulterated desire for truth. I was inspired and proud.

And I wished with every fiber of my being that the millions of people bickering on Facebook could hear this conversation that I was blessed to hear.

The Talmud records a fascinating incident in Tractate Bava Metzia 84a that I believe is as relevant today as ever before. There were two tremendous rabbis who were chavrusas, (study partners) named Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan. When Reish Lakish died, his study partner, Rabbi Yochanan was despondent. The other rabbis tried to think of ways to cheer him up, so they decided to send him a new study partner, an up and coming brilliant rabbi named Rabbi Elazar ben Pedas. Rabbi Yochanan gave it a try, and before long, the two rabbis were off and running. For every comment that Rabbi Yochanan made, the sharp young rabbi gave him a proof that what he said was correct.

To my 21st century slightly millennial mind, this sounds like a nice partnership. I would love more people in my life who just verify and prove what I say is correct. However, Rebbe Yochanan’s response teaches a profound lesson that we should all take to heart. He described how his old chavrusa Reish Lakish would not confirm what Rebbe Yochanan said, but to the contrary, he would bring 24 questions and refutations to what he said, to which Rebbe Yochanan in turn gave 24 answers. This in turn greatly sharpened his own understanding of the issue at hand. He then started yelling, asking where his old study partner was, the great Reish Lakish.

Rebbe Yochanan, the brilliant, righteous Rebbe Yochanan of the Talmud, was not interested in a yes-man. He did not want to be in an echo-chamber in which everywhere he looked he would see people agreeing with him, nodding their heads, and giving “likes” on the Babylonian version of Facebook. He wanted to be challenged. He wanted to be presented with other ways to look at the issues. And by being challenged, he was able to come to a more informed decision. Without being challenged to think, Rebbe Yochanan became utterly despondent and depressed, desperately missing his old friend and debate partner, Reish Lakish.

I am not here to weigh in on the heinous crime committed against George Floyd, or the struggle the Black community has experienced over the last few centuries.

I am here, however, to express a profound wish that as we are in an election year, we can somehow manage to tolerate opinions that are different than our own. The very first definition that came up when I typed, “intolerance” in my Safari internet browser was, “unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one’s own.”

Rather than engage in polemics, and label people with whom we disagree with cruel names and adjectives, let us have the guts to have a conversation, and to hear the other sides of the array of issues out there. Let us valiantly defend our position, and earnestly challenge the way we, and others think. And let us do so with respect.

I learned a new term this week, “to cancel.” Wikipedia describes cancelling as, “a form of boycott in which an individual (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or controversial opinion, or has had behavior in their past that is perceived to be offensive recorded on social media, is “canceled”; they are ostracized and shunned by former friends, followers and supporters alike, leading to declines in any careers and fanbase the individual may have at any given time.[4][5]

So basically, cancelling is to ruin someone’s life for a position that he/she took in a public sphere.

This to me, represents so much of what has gone awry in our society today.

The Talmud tells in Kiddushin 30a that when two study partners engage in a debate they become enemies. They passionately debate, and adamantly defend their positions. But then the Talmud tells us something amazing. “They don’t leave their debate until they love each other.” They argue, sometimes fiercely. But their only objective is to reach the truth. And once they do, they love and admire one another.

A different passage in the Talmud, in Chullin 63 teaches a profound lesson that I believe is so relevant for today. The Talmud mentions that there is a specific bird listed in the Torah that is not kosher. It is called the chasida, or stork, which is literally translated as, “the pious one,” or, “the one who bestows kindness.” The Talmud mentions that the reason it is called the chasida is because it performs acts of kindness for its fellow chasidas, providing those birds with food.

I saw an article in a Jewish magazine that alluded to this passage in the Talmud. It’s author, Eytan Kobre quoted an amazing question from a Chassidic Rabbi. If, in fact, the chasida is this bird that bestows kindness to others, why is it not kosher? Kosher birds tend to not be predatory carnivores, so one would expect this kind chasida to have been a friendly, non-carnivores kosher bird. Why was it excluded from the friendly family of kosher birds?

He explains that the kindness of the chasida is limited to its own circle of friends and fellow storks– but to no one else. This, says the rabbi, is far from the Torah ideal of chesed (kindness) and unity. In Rabbi Kobre’s words, it is in fact, “a perversion of both.”

We need to be kind and compassionate to everyone. Not just people who look like us and think like us.

As we approach the 3 Weeks, a period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple, which was destroyed because of baseless hatred, this is indeed such a timely and powerful lesson.

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