Monday, October 25th | 20 Heshvan 5782

January 4, 2018 12:57 pm

God Loves Those Who Argue

avatar by Jonathan Sacks


A Torah scroll. Photo:

I have become increasingly concerned about the assault on free speech taking place throughout the West, particularly on university campuses. This is being done in the name of “safe spaces” — that is, a space in which you are protected against hearing views that might cause you distress, “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions” (i.e., any remark that someone might find offensive, even if no offense is meant).

So far this year, students at an Oxford College banned the presence of a representative of the Christian Union — on the grounds that some might find their presence alienating and offensive. Increasingly, speakers with controversial views are being disinvited: the number of such incidents on American college campuses rose from 6 in 2000, to 44 in 2016.

Undoubtedly this entire movement was undertaken for the highest of motives: to protect the feelings of the vulnerable. That is a legitimate ethical concern. Jewish law goes to extremes in condemning lashon hara — hurtful or derogatory speech, and the sages were careful to use what they called lashon sagi nahor — euphemism — to avoid language that people might find offensive.

But a safe space is not one in which you silence dissenting views. To the contrary: it is one in which you give a respectful hearing to views opposed to your own, knowing that your views too will be listened to respectfully. That is academic freedom, and it is essential to a free society. As George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

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John Stuart Mill likewise wrote that one of the worst offenses against freedom is “to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” That is happening today in institutions that are supposed to be the guardians of academic freedom. We are coming perilously close to what Julian Benda called, in 1927, “the treason of the intellectuals,” in which he said that academic life had been degraded to the extent that it had allowed itself to become an arena for “the intellectual organisation of political hatreds.”

What is striking about Judaism, and we see this starkly in this week’s parsha, is that argument and the hearing of contrary views is the essence of religious life. Moses argues with God. That is one of the most striking things about him. He argues with Him on their first encounter at the burning bush. Four times, he resists God’s call to lead the Israelites to freedom, until God finally gets angry with him (Ex. 3:1–4:7). More significantly, at the end of the parsha, Moses says to God:

Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Why did You send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all. (Ex. 5:22-23).

This is extraordinary language for a human being to use to God. But Moses was not the first to do so. The first was Abraham, who said, on hearing of God’s plan to destroy the cities of the plain: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25).

Similarly, Jeremiah, posing the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people, asked: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). In the same vein, Habakkuk challenged God: “Why do You tolerate the treacherous? Why are You silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Hab. 1:13).

Job, who challenges God’s justice, is vindicated in the book that bears his name, while his friends who defended Divine justice are said not to have spoken correctly (Job 42:7-8). Heaven, in short, is not a safe space in the current meaning of the phrase. To the contrary: God loves those who argue with Him —  or so it seems from Tanakh.

Equally striking is the fact that the sages continued this tradition, and gave it a name: argument for the sake of heaven, defined as debate for the sake of truth as opposed to victory. The result is that Judaism is, perhaps uniquely, a civilization all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments. The Midrash operates on the principle that there are “seventy faces” to Torah, and thus that every verse is open to multiple interpretations. The Mishnah is full of paragraphs of the form: “Rabbi X says this, while Rabbi Y says that.” The Talmud says in the name of God himself, about the conflicting views of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, that “these and those are the words of the living God.”

A standard edition of the Mikraot Gedolot consists of the biblical text surrounded by multiple commentaries, and even commentaries on the commentaries. The standard edition of the Babylonian Talmud has the text surrounded by the often conflicting views of Rashi and the Tosafists. Moses Maimonides, writing his masterpiece of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, took the almost unprecedented step of presenting only the halakhic conclusion without the accompanying arguments. The ironic but predictable result was that the Mishneh Torah was eventually surrounded by an endless array of commentaries and arguments. In Judaism, there is something holy about argument.

Why so?

First, because only God can see the totality of truth. For us, mere mortals who can see only fragments of the truth at any one time, there is an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives. We see reality now one way, then another. The Torah provides us with a dramatic example in its first two chapters, which give us two creation accounts — both true, from different vantage points. Even within a single genre, the sages noted that, “No two prophets prophesy in the same style.” The Torah is a conversation scored for many voices.

Second, because justice presupposes the principle that — in Roman law — is called audi alteram partem: “hear the other side.” That is why God wants an Abraham, a Moses, a Jeremiah and a Job to challenge Him, sometimes to plead for mercy — or, as in the case of Moses at the end of this week’s parsha, to urge Him to act swiftly in defense of His people. Both the case for the prosecution and the defence must be heard if justice is to be done.

The pursuit of truth and justice requires the freedom to disagree. The Netziv argued that it was the prohibition of disagreement that was the sin of the builders of Babel. What we need, therefore, is not “safe spaces,” but rather, civility — that is to say, giving a respectful hearing to views with which we disagree. In one of its loveliest passages, the Talmud tells us that the views of the school of Hillel became law “because they were pleasant and did not take offense, and because they taught the views of their opponents as well as their own, indeed they taught the views of their opponents before their own.”

And where do we learn this from? From God Himself, who chose as His prophets people who were prepared to argue with Heaven for the sake of Heaven, in the name of justice and truth.

When you learn to listen to views different from your own, realizing that they are not threatening but enlarging, then you have discovered the life-changing idea of argument for the sake of heaven.

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