According to a recent survey, 22 percent of millennials report having no friends, and 27 percent having no close friends. In response, Silicon Valley has introduced new technologies, modeled after Internet dating sites, that help potential friends find one another. Devorah Goldman, bemoaning the decline of one of the most critical bonds of human society, looks to the wisdom of C.S. Lewis for insight:
In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis distinguished between what he termed the “First Friend,” who “reveals to you that you are not alone in the world by turning out (beyond hope) to share all your most secret delights,” and the “Second Friend,” . . . “who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the anti-self. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not be your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle. . . . [Y]ou modify one another’s thought; out of this perpetual dogfight a community of mind and a deep affection emerges.”
Goldman notes that Judaism provides a rich understanding of this second type of friendship. It can be found, for instance, in the tradition of studying the Talmud in pairs, a practice “designed to be intense, boisterous, and argumentative.” Illustrative is the talmudic story of the sage Rabbi Yoḥanan, consumed by sorrow after the death of his friend, disciple, and sparring partner Reysh Lakish:
To alleviate his grief, several rabbis proposed that Rabbi Yoḥanan study with another brilliant scholar, Rabbi Elazar ben P’dat.
Rabbi Elazar might have fit the profile of Lewis’s First Friend: he not only agreed with Rabbi Yoḥanan’s every suggestion, but found creative ways to support his arguments. This, however, only exacerbated Yoḥanan’s sense of loss. “Are you comparable to [Lakish]?” he cried. “For every idea I put forward, he would raise 24 challenges, to which I would respond with 24 answers.” In this way, Rabbi Yoḥanan contended, their understanding and the law itself would expand and be clarified. He spent the remainder of his days calling out for his friend, until he lost his senses and died soon thereafter.
The story may be confusing and cryptic, but it underscores the idea that there is something significant at stake in forging a friendship, and that a friend is more than a form of entertainment. The utilitarian way in which app designers would have us pick friends off a menu reflects quite the opposite approach. Friendships are viewed as more comfortable and more disposable than . . . Lewis and the Talmud suggest they ought to be.