Divre Harav – Summer, 2021

The Talmud consists of 38 volumes of disputes. As such, it has much to teach us about how to engage in discussion and, even more important, how to disagree agreeably. What happens after a group reaches a non-unanimous decision? 

In one tragic model, Rabbi Eliezer was the sole voice in a decision that was decided against him. He took the disagreement personally and kept arguing long after the vote was over. The sages took his intransigence personally and excommunicated him. Rabbi Akiva tried to soften the blow, but Rabbi Eliezer was distraught. Tears and waves of anger, as described in the Talmud, threatened to destroy the world. His wife, Imma Shalom, wouldn’t let him say certain prayers lest his fury do more damage. She left him alone for a few moments, however, and his unsupervised prayer led to the death of her brother Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the Sages who had voted for his excommunication.

Ill feelings might not literally destroy the world, but when we are unwilling or unable to let go of anger and resentment when something doesn’t go our way, a disagreement can become a rift that seriously damages a community. The losing side needs to know when it is time to stop fighting and start adjusting to the new reality. The winning side should behave with sensitivity and not gloat over its victory, understanding that the other side had good reasons for their passionate arguments. 

The better model is that of Hillel and Shammai, who fundamentally disagreed about the nature of Jewish Law. Yet even though they disagreed about fundamentals of marriage and divorce in ways that might cast doubt on the validity of the children’s status, their respective students continued to marry each other’s children. The respect that each side had for the other’s position prevented the dispute from fracturing the Jewish people into two different religions.

Our United Jewish School model includes language in our governance documents that asks us to work towards consensus decision-making. Neither congregation can take action alone – significant decisions require a majority from each side. Virtually every decision we’ve made in the past 15 years has been consensus. But this is an unusual situation. More often, our decision making bodies do occasionally reach a point where a principled disagreement requires a vote. Organizations cannot allow an inability to reach consensus to paralyze them into inaction. At those times, we turn to the Talmudic model, reaching for “disagreement for the sake of heaven” in which both sides listen deeply to what the other is saying, discuss ideas rather than attack ad hominem, argue with reason rather than fear, and strive to reach for truth rather than for victory.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mahloket – disagreement
  • Vikuah – debate
  • Ta’anah – argument
  • Riv – dispute
  • Sikhsukh – feud

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