To Know Us, Study Our Arguments

Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl
by Barry L. Schwartz
Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, 2012

Right now, especially in New York, Los Angeles, and Israel, tens of thousands of Jews are arguing, sometimes at the top of their voices, about ethics and justice—and only a small percentage is in the yeshivot. Jews have done this from the beginning, arguing even with God. This should come as no surprise for, as David Frank points out: “The God of the Hebrew Bible is, by nature, argumentative. Humans, made in God’s image are argumentative … and ‘thick-necked.’” But the most interesting arguments, historically, have been between and among Jews themselves: for example, Moses versus Korach (on the issue of aristocratic privilege) or Ben Zakkai versus the Zealots (on the efficacy of armed resistance).

Barry Schwartz’s Judaism’s Great Debates emerges from this rich and cacophonous tradition. A deceptively simple little book, it identifies ten crisis points in the history of Judaism and conceptualizes them as debates between two powerful persons or perspectives.

Schwartz’s template permits contemporary students to stage or conduct the debates inherent in the discussions: to establish the burden of proof, to examine unexpressed warrants, and perform the basic tasks required of debaters and legal advocates. Although each unit is called a debate, they are better described as conflicts or disputes. Abraham’s conversation with God about saving the “good” people in Sodom is more a negotiation than a debate. Further, when the prophet Nathan berates King David for his adultery (and murder?), David does not even argue back, even though inherent in this conversation is a profound debate: empire versus republic; man versus law; unitary presidency versus checks-and-balances. There is also a tributary debate about the ethics of punishing children for their parents’ transgressions.

Each chapter not only provides insights into the meaning of the period in which they occurred, but also illustrates that nearly all these arguments are relevant today. (The Sodom controversy, for example, is about proportionality of response; Hillel versus Shammai is about strict construction of laws.)

Each of the ten units is startlingly short; Spinoza gets scarcely 300 words to lay out his theology! While my first thought (as a student of Spinoza) is that this is an unacceptably thin presentation, I now realize that it is better described as elliptical, in the tradition of Torah and Mishna. That is, it offers just enough to stimulate discourse and guide productive inquiry. For the book to achieve its full usefulness, the instructor or leader who uses it as a text must also know how to design and moderate debates, lest the confrontation between Moses and Korach, for example, devolve into a Purim Spiel.

There is also an innovative thesis in this work. Schwartz suggests that an especially useful way to study Jewish history is to study Jewish intellectual history. In this view, the most important thing to learn about the Jews is their ideas, particularly their clashing and opposing ideas. Out of each great conflict comes innovative thinking, ethical progress, social mechanisms that protect the Jews from their enemies, methods for adapting to modernity, and principles that move the Jewish people and the world at large closer to tzedek (justice). To know the Jewish people, then, one studies their arguments.

Rationales and Rationalizations

The arguments at the heart of Judaism are not mere shouting matches or power plays. Judaism as a culture has preferred reason to force and argument to intimidation.

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