The bulk of the Talmud comprises records of various arguments among rabbis, and its narrative portions contain numerous examples of these sages maintaining respectful relations despite the ferocity of their disagreements—as well as tales of the dangers of taking disagreement too far. Drawing on these traditions, David Wolpe shows how they can provide an alternative model of civic discourse that stands in contrast to our current age of censoriousness, intolerance of contradictory ideas, ad-hominem attacks, and “cancellation.” Take for instance, this story about the two leading sages of the 3rd century:
When the great Rabbi Resh Lakish dies, his brother-in-law and intellectual sparring partner, Rabbi Yoḥanan, is inconsolable. The other rabbis seek to comfort Rabbi Yohanan by sending Rabbi Eliezer ben Pedat, a very fine legal mind, to engage and perhaps distract him. It does not go well. . . . “Finally, Rabbi Yohanan bursts out, ‘Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? . . . [W]hen I would state a matter, he would raise 24 difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with 24 answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified.” (Tractate Bava Metzia 84a).
One cannot really understand the truth if one does not understand the arguments and views that can be urged against it. Just as we appreciate our blessings when we feel the lack of them, we sharpen our perception of truth when we are confronted by arguments that appear to contradict it; . . . openness to others, including those with whom we might vehemently disagree, is also essential for creating a robust and living culture. Totalitarian regimes strangle dissent; they produce, in Nabokov’s memorable phrase about the Soviet Union, “poker-faced bullies and smiling slaves.” Thriving cultures cannot draw narrow bounds to speech.
And although rabbinic authority is a key element of the halakhic process, tradition also recognizes that authority is not everything:
Argument from authority, including “lived experience,” is never sufficient. Despite the reverence for teachers in the Jewish tradition, for example, there are limitations. The great Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin puts it this way: “A student must not accept his teacher’s words if he has an objection to them. Sometimes a student will be right, just as a small piece of wood can set a large one aflame.” Many teachers throughout history have refused to give their students the space to disagree, but Rabbi Ḥayyim realizes that to silence someone is not to answer him.