Commentary

Can We Agree to Disagree?

Elisa and Gehasi, by Lambrecht Jacobsz
Even in sewing, different schools of Jewish thought can clash. How big does a tallis have to be? Where should we put the tzitzit holes? Different veins of Judaism answer these questions in different ways. Does it matter that the different traditions disagree? In the most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Leon Wieseltier offers some insights into the long-standing culture of disagreement within the Jewish community:

In the Jewish tradition, disagreement is not only real, it is also ideal—at least in the unredeemed world, which is the only world we know. In its millennia of disputations, even mistaken opinions are not without legitimacy. Minority opinions are not obsolete opinions: They are preserved alongside majority opinions because their reasoning may one day be useful again. Arguments that are adjudicated practically remain alive theoretically. Indeed, both sides of a particular argument may be “the words of the living God.”…

Learning to live with disagreement, moreover, is a way of learning to live with each other. Etymologically, the term machloket refers to separation and division, but the culture of machloket is not in itself separatist and divisive. This is in part because all the parties to any particular disagreement share certain metaphysical and historical assumptions about the foundations of their identity. But beyond those general axioms, the really remarkable feature of the Jewish tradition of machloket is that it is itself a basis for community. The community of contention, the contentious community, is not as paradoxical as it may seem. The parties to a disagreement are members of the disagreement; they belong to the group that wrestles together with the same perplexity, and they wrestle together for the sake of the larger community to which they all belong, the community that needs to know how Jews should behave and live. A quarrel is evidence of coexistence. The rabbinical tradition is full of rival authorities and rival schools—it owes a lot of its excitement to those grand and even bitter altercations—but the rivalries play themselves out within the unified framework of the shared search. There is dissent without dissension, and yet things change. Intellectual discord, if it is practiced with methodological integrity, is compatible with social peace.

[Image: Elisa and Gehasi by Lambrecht Jacobsz, 1629 via Wikimedia Commons]

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