TWO JEWS, THREE OPINIONS
You might’ve heard the saying “two Jews, three opinions.” While this saying might be rooted in the stereotype that Jews are infamously argumentative, the truth is that debate, disagreement, and dispute have long been Jewish values. The Jewish tradition of argument and disagreement dates all the way back to the days of the Torah.
Pirkei Avot distinguishes between legitimate arguments — those that are “for the sake of heaven” — and illegitimate arguments, which do not pursue this purpose. Arguments entered in good faith are encouraged, whereas arguments entered in bad faith (for example, to antagonize) are discouraged.
IN THE TORAH
Argument not only exists in the Torah, but it is actually central to the Torah. Disputes are found everywhere. For example, Moses and Aaron argue. Most importantly, however, not only did our forefathers and foremothers argue with each other, but they argued with G-d Himself.
And G-d doesn’t always win (for example: Abraham argues with Him over Sodom of Gomorrah, and Abraham wins).
As stated in Torat Kohanim: “Two Torah teachings may contradict one another. But then, a third teaching comes along that resolves them both.”
Halacha (Jewish rabbinic law) dictates that values are relative, and as such, Jewish morality is situational. In other words, Jewish law is not absolute instead of black (e.g. yes) and white (e.g. no). This means that Jewish law will always be up to interpretation. Considering there are around 15.2 million Jews in the world today, we arguably can have 15.2 million different interpretations of Jewish law.
A perfect example of the relativity of Jewish law is the notion of pikuach nefesh, or the principle that the preservation of life overrides all other religious rules. While this sounds like a set rule in itself, the truth is that what does or does not constitute saving a life can be left up to interpretation. Does a preemptive military strike, for instance, constitute pikuach nefesh? If so, where is the line drawn between self-defense and military aggression? Take the Six Day War, for example. While Israel struck first, it did so in response of months’ worth of Egyptian military incitement and threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” Depending on which Jew you ask, they might share a different interpretation of the morality of the strike (please don’t argue about this in the comments. It’s just an example).
The Talmud is the central text of rabbinic Judaism and the main source of Halacha (rabbinic law) and Jewish theology. Almost the entirety of the Babylonian Talmud consists of debate between Jewish scholars through the centuries.
Of course, with so many different opinions, it seems surprising that some Jewish customs and rules, for example, are pretty much set in stone, such as the fact that we observe Shabbat on Saturdays or the fact that pork is not kosher (then again, like everything else, these rules are situational: many concentration camp survivors were only offered pork by the Red Cross, and most Jews would likely agree that it was not only okay — but necessary — for them to eat it). That’s because when Jews disagree, it’s the consensus that will take precedence. This comes directly from the Torah: Moses asked G-d what he was supposed to do with 98 different opinions, and G-d responded, “Majority rule.”
WHO IS A JEW? 1
One of the longest debates in Jewish history is that of what exactly constitutes Jewish identity. In other words: who is a Jew?
As a tribe, nation, and ethnoreligious group, Jewish identity is much more complicated than that of members of other religious groups. For instance, Christians are people who believe in the religion of Christianity. Meanwhile, 22% of American Jews self-identify as atheists, meaning that they do not believe in Judaism. And yet they are still Jews.
Because of the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity, the question of “who is a Jew” can be answered in a variety of different ways. It’s important to note that historically, it hasn’t always been Jews who’ve gotten to define Jewish identity. Non-Jews — usually antisemites — have defined our identity for us (e.g. the Nazis persecuted people with just one Jewish grandparent, as well as ethnic Jews that converted to a different religion).
WHO IS A JEW? 2
The overwhelming Jewish consensus is that Jewishness is a matter of ancestry and culture, rather than religious belief. Different Jewish sub-ethnic groups interpret Jewish identity differently. While most sub-ethnic groups traditionally practice matrilineal descent, groups such as the Beta Israel and Karaite Jews have traditionally practiced patrilineal descent. Before Roman times, patrilineal descent was the norm. Some Jewish movements, like the Reform movement, also accept patrilineal descent. While Judaism considers converts to Judaism (Jews by Choice) just as Jewish as those born Jewish, different movements have different requirements for conversion. Orthodox Judaism, for instance, does not accept Reform conversions.
With modern DNA science and new discoveries about human health, Jewish identity has taken a new dimension. While the amount of “Jewish DNA” does not define one’s Jewishness, a doctor might ask a patient whether they have (for example) Ashkenazi ancestry, which carries a higher risk of various genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, IBD, or breast cancer (for more, read my post FINE, LET’S TALK JEWISH DNA).
The long tradition of Jewish debate is not limited to Biblical figures or ancient sages. During the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), for example, the Jews in Europe were split into two main camps: those who sought assimilation into general European society by reducing their Jewishness to a religious identity, and those who believed it was more important to hold on to tradition.
Another example has been the argument over political Zionism. As long as modern political Zionism has existed, arguments have existed against it (e.g. the Jewish Bund). Not only that, but even Zionists themselves have different interpretations of Zionism. There is religious Zionism, secular Zionism, labor Zionism, green Zionism, post-Zionism, and more.
The Israeli Knesset (parliament) is known for its passionate debates — not only among Jewish politicians but among Arab parties, too.
HOW TO ARGUE
Debate is a Jewish value. Cruelty is not. Debate and argument are encouraged so long as it is done “for the sake of heaven” (Pirkei Avot 5:17). To do this, there are some Jewish principles to keep in mind:
(1) anavah (humility): when we argue, we should remain humble. A way to do this is by using “I believe” or “I think” statements, without presuming other people’s opinions or that your opinion is the only valid one.
(2) kavod (honor): even if we disagree, we should honor the other person.
(3) kedusha (holiness): Judaism teaches that everyone has a spark of holiness in them. It’s important to remember that the other person has a spark of holiness in them, too.
(4) shalom (peace): when we argue, we should do so for the sake of peace, rather than for the sake of antagonizing or hurting the other party. We are trying to find a solution, not argue for the sake of arguing. This also means that sometimes we must learn to pick our battles (e.g. I choose not to engage with people who refuse to learn because I know that will get us nowhere).