On a holiday when many Jewish communities focus on unity, one community event this past Tisha B’Av sought to emphasize the need for more debate. “Machloket Matters” was the title of a Beltway Vaad-sponsored learning program, featuring rabbis and educators who taught texts highlighting the important role of healthy machloket (disagreement or debate) in Jewish life.
Held at Kehilat Pardes - The Rock Creek Synagogue, in Rockville, Maryland, the program built on an annual event that has drawn over 200 people each year from a variety of communities, and scores of others via a Facebook Live feed. Clergy members presented seven back-to-back talks in under 80 minutes, each referencing a robust text packet that was provided to all participants. Following the main program, over 40 people remained for a Tisha B’Av-themed kumzitz (spiritual singing session), as well as a screening of several intense Israeli short films with talkbacks that allowed participants to put into practice some of the lessons learned on engaging in productive debate.
This year, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington signed on as a co-sponsor, and Jennifer Raskas, director of JCRC’s Israel Action Center, spoke movingly about the first ever debate in Jewish tradition. Quoting a midrash (parallel or story), she described a legendary heavenly argument between Justice, Peace, Kindness, and Truth, about whether humanity should be created at all. The debate ultimately focused on the role of Truth in our world, which G-d had cast from heaven to the ground. Raskas suggested from the text that, “G-d sought to send Truth closer to Man, both to make Man more truthful, but also so that Truth itself would become more nuanced by its exposure to Man.”
This text, which Raskas taught alongside Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “The Place Where We Are Right,” was emblematic of a variety of biblical and rabbinic sources, as well as modern Israeli poetry, offered throughout the program as instruction toward achieving healthy, holy disagreement. As Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, stressed, “All our disagreements should be guided by three core values: empathy, dignity, and authenticity.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue, in Washington, D.C., spoke about the Talmud as the paradigmatic example of the open Jewish approach to disagreement. “Machloket is on every page of the Talmud,” said Rabbi Herzfeld, who is also the producer of the “5 Minute Daf” podcast on the ancient text. “As a tradition, we are not embarrassed that we disagree — in fact, we embrace it and preserve difference as a matter of principle.”
Certainly, not all debate in Jewish history has been fruitful, and Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, offered a sobering reminder of one tragic encounter between the first-century students of Shammai and Hillel, in which swords were drawn, and blood may have been shed. Rabbi Haim Ovadia pointed toward current issues in Israel, and cautioned against rabbinic consensus rulings that make “everyone” comfortable — an approach, he argued, which only serves to make those who hold the most extreme religious positions comfortable. Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation added a further reminder that, “Solutions in our debates often arrive at the expense, or perceived expense, of the other side. And we must be sensitive to reading the whole story.”
True to the event’s theme, during his talk, Rabbi Ovadia quipped, “I’m going to have to disagree with my colleagues now!” Though he said that mostly in jest, he was really underscoring the central message of the program — that machloket is a welcomed part of Jewish discourse.
Rabbi Uri Topolosky
Rabbi Uri Topolosky is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Pardes - The Rock Creek Synagogue, and the Rav HaKehillah of the Berman Hebrew Academy.