Judaism’s Antidote to Cancel Culture

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.

Read more at Sapir

More about: Cancel culture, Hayyim of Volozhin, Judaism, Talmud

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad